SOME COLLEGE JOCKS FIND THEIR PRO CAREERS ARE IN THE NASCAR PITS

Racing Teams Recruit Athletes and Train Them Hard; The $60,000 Tire Carrier

By Neal E. Boudette, Wall Street Journal 6/16/05

After Bob Dowens finished playing college football, he turned pro. But not in the NFL-in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Once a defensive back at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the 28-year-old Mr. Dowens is now a professional tire carrier in a Nascar pit crew. At Evernham Motorsports, the stock-car racing team for which Mr. Dowens works, pit-crew members practice five days a week. A pit coach studies videos to hone their footwork and hand speed. A trainer has them lift weights and run sprints.

"This is a professional sport as far as Iím concerned," Mr. Dowens said recently, drenched in sweat after a morning workout. "Itís 95 degrees out, and today we were running an obstacle course. Last week, I was so drained, I almost couldnít eat lunch afterwards. This is as tough as any football practice."

Years ago, mechanics who worked on race cars during the week simply did double duty on Sundays in the pits. Nobody thought about athletic fitness and beer bellies were OK. The crew was too busy during the week welding and machining to practice pit stops.

Today, teams like Evernham look increasingly for college jocks whose strength and speed can save precious tenths of a second in a race. One of Mr. Dowensís teammates, jack-man Ed Watkins was a 300-pound offensive lineman at East Carolina University. The Chip Ganassi Racing teamís pit crew includes baseball players from Wake Forest University; football players from Wake, the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina; and a hockey player from Dartmouth.

Top tire-changers-the guys who air wrench lug nuts off and on-can make $100,000 a year. The average at Evernham is abut $60,000. Mr. Dowens figures heíll be a bit over that, with bonuses, this year.

Big money is what drives the demand for world-class tire changers. In the 1990s, Nascarís popularity exploded, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in television and sponsorship revenue into the sport. With more money at stake, competition intensified, and pit stops often affected the outcome of a race. Twenty years ago, pit crews were doing pretty well to change four tires in less than 30 seconds. Today, taking more than 16 seconds can be disastrous.

"These guys are serious athletes," says Evernhamís pit coach, Greg Miller, 33. A car going 200 miles per hour covers nearly 300 feet is a second, so a half-second advantage in the pit can put a driver ahead two or three spots. "In our world, two seconds is a lifetime."

A pit crew consists of seven men: A front-tire changer, another for the rear; front-and rear-tire carriers; a man who jacks the car up, and two gas men with an 110gallon can.

Every sport has key metrics-the speed of a pitcherís fastball, a running backís time in the 40-yard dash. At Evernham, Mr. Miller expects tire changers to get five lug nuts off in 1.2 seconds. The jack man should haul his 25-pound aluminum jack from the carís right side to the left in 3.8 seconds. For tire carriers like Mr. Dowens, the key is the time it takes to "index" a 60-pound tire, or get from resting on the ground to mounted on the car. Seven-tenths of a second is acceptable.

Growing up in Holmdel, N.J., Mr. Dowens had only a passing interest in auto racing. After getting a degree in sociology at Fairleigh Dickinson, in Madison, N.J., in 2001, he thought his playing days were over, and started looking for a real job. But his gridiron abilities caught the eye of Ray Evernham, a rising star among Nascar executives who had just started his own team. He is related to Mr. Dowens by marriage and had seen him in action. "Bob was the kind of guy we look for-strong, fast, mentally tough," Mr Evernham says.

That brought Mr. Dowens under the tutelage of Evernhamís coach, Mr. Miller. A former fitness trainer with a masterís degree in physiology, he thought he could combine his profession with his love of Nascar and joined a team in 1998. At Evernham, Mr. Miller keeps a thick binder with details of every practice and race-day pit stop of the three crews he coaches, with times of each manís tasks, the carís position entering and leaving the pit.

Last year, Mr. Miller got approval to add a full-time strength coach. It started badly: The first running drill left the former East Carolina lineman, Mr. Watkins, with torn tendons in both knees. Now itís paying off. At 5 feet 10 inches, Mr. Dowens weighs 190 pounds, 20 pounds less than in his football days. The 6-foot-3-inch Mr. Watkins is a buff 230. In May, an Evernham crew came in second in a Nascar pit competition. Two weeks later, a different Evernham pit crew took the title and shared $75,000 in bonus money.

One Thursday, in the tan metal building near Charlotte where Evernham is based, sparks flew from screeching grinders and welding torches as mechanics prepped a dozen Dodge Chargers for Sunday. Four large windows revealed and adjacent room where Mr. Dowens and his teammates were also doing their own body work, pumping dumbbells, riding exercise bikes, stretching.

Later, they met at the practice pit out-side. A few yards away, on a stretch of grass, stood four orange cones left out from running drills. A red Charger roared into the pit. In a flash, Mr. Watkins had the carís right wheels off the ground. Air wrenches whined as tires rolled away. The crew shifted to the left side and suddenly it was over.

The seven team members then gathered around Mr. Miller and a video screen. The time, 14.30 seconds, was OK. Mr. Miller watched the video frame by frame and then spotted something: One tire carrier had his feet too far apart, which left him using only his arms, not his legs, to index the tire. The next two attempts were better. The fourth was clocked at 13.57 seconds. "Weíre still leaving a little on the table," Mr. Miller said.

On Sunday at the race, the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, fans strolled the pit area seeking autographs and souvenir lug nuts maybe even an old set of nascar car blueprints. A young woman with blond curls and a tight T-shirt put her arm around Mr. Dowens while her mother snapped a picture.

On this day Mr. Dowens was carrying for the No. 19 car driven by Jeremy Mayfield. Early in the 600-mile race, Mr. Mayfieldís Charger screamed into the pit; 14.32 seconds later, it was gone. On the next stop, a tire changer slipped on an air hose. The time: 15.39. Mr. Miller grimaced.

As the 600-mile race wore on, the pit times edged below 14 seconds. Mr. Dowens was doing well, indexing tires at under seven-tenths of a second. With their car hanging on in a crash-filled race, Mr. Miller shouted, "Need a good one, boys." With 59 laps to go, the car pulled in for four tires and two cans of gas. It was out in 13.95 seconds, a time that helped Mr. Mayfield leap from 14th to ninth. With that momentum, he finished the race in fourth place, tying his best finish this year.

The pit crew did well, too. "We can do better, but no major problems," Mr. Miller said. "All it takes is one to screw up the race."

The history of NASCAR pit crews is only beginning to be written.

 

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