Commentary

The daunting pit crew combine

Think the NFL's version in Indy is pressure-packed? Check out Hendrick's take.

Originally Published: February 9, 2011
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Phillip Toledano for ESPN The MagazineAustin Dickey, Johnny Roberts, Eric Ludwig and Kevin Harris were all former athletes prior to joining the pits.

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS hasn't won 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and five in a row by standing pat, especially when it comes to pit stop efficiency. "One or two-tenths of a ­second lost on Pit Lane can mean dozens of ­positions lost on the racetrack," says team owner Rick Hendrick. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's an advantage there."

For years Hendrick's team has accelerated that advantage by stealing pages from the NFL's handbook. Led by former Stanford offensive lineman Andy Papathanassiou (Andy Papa for short), Hendrick's pit stop program started emulating the NFL back in the 1990s by implementing workout programs and film sessions. Hendrick's crew named the department Human Performance and began sending former college athletes over the wall instead of guys plucked off the race shop floor. Once mocked, these practices are ­today commonplace in the motorsports world.

Hendrick now seeks an edge in becoming more aggressive on the recruiting trail and has hired a Nick Saban disciple to procure talent. "What I do now is no different from what I did as a college coach or as an NFL scout," says Chris Burkey, 40, Hendrick's director of scouting and recruiting. The former Wingate (N.C.) University wide receiver coached at Tennessee Tech and North Carolina before being hired by Saban's Miami Dolphins in 2005. "It's all about finding the diamond in the rough. This skill set is very specific and very athletic. I have all my buddies in the coaching world constantly on the lookout for me. Not everyone makes the cut, but those who do are usually pretty special."

Phillip Toledano for ESPN The MagazineIn the 'portable test hub' drill, you must hit all five lug nuts with a pneumatic air wrench -- just like the big boys do -- and do it as cleanly as possible over and over again.

Burkey and Papa invite prospects to try out in pit crew combines throughout the country. Crew members can make upward of six figures, plus bonuses, so there's plenty of interest. In 2009, Burkey worked out 150 athletes from such disparate sports as hockey, baseball and MMA; even a bobsledder -- Olympic gold medalist Curt Tomasevicz -- hit the pit. Tomasevicz was one of 20 athletes invited to Hendrick headquarters in Concord, N.C., but he's decided to go for one more gold, at the 2014 Games. Eight of the 20 who went to Concord survived the cut. Three of those -- Central College (Iowa) receiver Matt VerMeer, Nebraska defensive end Nick Covey and Appalachian State pitcher Calvin Teague -- have already been over the wall, pitting for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson last season. A fourth, UNC linebacker Chase Rice, was moving through the pipeline as a jackman before leaving to compete on last fall's season of Survivor.

"It is an around-the-clock training regimen," says Burkey. "But we're catching most of these guys coming straight from the practice field, so they're coming from that environment anyway. The reward is a good-paying job in a major league sport. If you survive, it's worth it. But there's a reason there's only four guys here today."

Phillip Toledano for ESPN The MagazineIn 'rear tire pulls,' a breakdown drill for each crew position, Ludwig (pictured) whips the tire away after tire-changer Roberts (not pictured) has loosened it.

This year's recruits are prepping for Daytona Speedweeks, during which they will be lent out to lower-level teams in NASCAR's Nationwide and Truck Series. Burkey will be there to keep tabs and hand out grades, but not before he jets off to Arizona to check on a tip about a couple of college baseball players.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, specializing in college football and NASCAR. Get after him on Twitter here.

Ryan McGee | email

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