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Monday, November 11, 2013
Flying mechanic livin' the dream

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

Hendrick race crew
Chris Clayton, third from right, on his new job at Hendrick Motorsports: "Every day I wake up I'm so grateful. This isn't work. This is the dream."

Greg Morin's home office is speckled with accolades. There are plaques and trophies. There are commemorative coins and rings. Many rings. Three Sprint Cup Series championship rings. Three Brickyard 400 championship rings and the 2013 Daytona 500 championship ring.

As pit crew coach for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team, Morin has done it all at the highest level of motorsport. If it can be won in the Sprint Cup Series, he has won it. But the bling's luster pales in comparison to an item over on an adjacent shelf, resting all alone.

It is an American Flag, triangularly folded, stars-out, glass-paned and wood-framed. It points skyward.

"That flag means more to me than any of those rings," Morin said Sunday morning, seated on the pit wall at Phoenix International Raceway amid the bustle of prerace pit stall arrangements. "I had a lot of family members serve. We buried my grandfather at Arlington Cemetery. When you see that service, it drives home what the flag really is."

Morin was given the flag by Sgt. Chris Clayton, an Army CH-47 Chinook crew chief who between fall 2009 and summer 2012 served six tours in Afghanistan. The flag flew inside of Clayton's chopper during the final tour of his Army career.

It was a simple thank-you gesture, with profound residual impact.

Clayton
Chris Clayton's work as an Army CH-47 Chinook crew chief helped prepare him for his current role at Hendrick Motorsports.

"When he brought that flag in … I've never been more humbled," Morin said. "We pit race cars, man. We don't protect this country. For him to bring me that flag. ... I'm never at a loss for words. There are no words."

Sometimes the scope of a man's dream seems far too broad for rational thought to consider attainable. Then a believer walks into the man's life, and his dream's breadth is compressed into plausible reality.

And then, with noteworthy passion and work ethic from the dreamer, the believer is inspired to extend a hand. And the dream happens.

There is no Tom Brady without Bill Belichick's belief.

There is no Jimmie Johnson without Jeff Gordon's endorsement.

For Sgt. Clayton, Morin was that believer.

And with Morin's encouragement, Clayton's dream is very much a budding reality.

"I don't have words to say how grateful I am to him," said Clayton, 26. "Without him, man … For all I know, I might have reenlisted, and given up on the dream."

Clayton describes his crew chief job stateside as, basically, a flying mechanic. Maintain the aircraft, brief pilots on emergency procedures and keep detailed service and mission logbooks.

But overseas, like most service members, his role changed a bit. The CH-47 is special-operations aviation. Overseas, he explained, the crew chief mans a door gun and assists the pilot in flying the aircraft. He was part of a special-operations unit. His deployments averaged three months at a time.

"Whey they say go, you go," he explained. "It's a different world over there [in the war]. It's bizarre thinking about it. That was a crazy time. There are a lot of things I've done that I'm so grateful I got to experience and do. And there are some that are forgettable.

"You're always proud of … anytime I'd go over there, I didn't really think about my safety, especially. But you thought about your brothers you fly with, and your family back home that you're defending. We need to defend our home against our enemies abroad. The common theme out of all six tours was wanting to protect my family and my brothers.

"I wouldn't want to relive it again. But I'd trade nothing for my military experience. It was a lot of hard times, but definitely a great experience that I grew from and learned from. And without it I know I wouldn't be the man I am today."

The man he is today is partly attributable to a chance meeting.

American Flag
Chris Clayton presented the American flag in the foreground -- shown here inside the Army aircraft he used to crew in -- to Greg Morin, who gave Clayton an opportunity to realize his boyhood dream at Hendrick Motorsports.

It was June 21, 2012, and Clayton was stateside between his fifth and sixth tours. He and his wife were sent by the Army to a marriage retreat at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, N.C., just around the corner from the sprawling Hendrick campus.

A lifelong racing fanatic whose fondest memories with his father live at the racetrack in his mind, Clayton, a Hendrick man from boyhood, grabbed his wife and went to tour HMS. His grandfather and father had been racers, motorcycles mainly. As a child his father worked three jobs to keep food on the table. Go-kart racing wasn't an option.

"Oftentimes the only time we could spend together was Saturday afternoons," Clayton said. "He'd let me pick where we'd spend father-son time. And every time I said let's go to the races. I have very fond memories of the racetrack, because of what it meant to my dad and I. The family time. The guy time."

Upon arrival at Hendrick Motorsports' campus, Clayton noticed a familiar face almost immediately.

"In the military they train you to know your competition, to study who you're going to go against," Clayton explained. "So I actually knew a lot of the guys by facial recognition -- and Greg especially, because he was the coach for my favorite driver."

Nervous but cognizant of the opportunity, Clayton took a chance at the urging of his wife.

"I got 30 seconds, here, to make an impression," he recalled. "So I said, 'Hi, hi, you're Greg Morin, right?' And he looked at me funny, like, 'Yes, how do you know?' I said, 'I'm a crew chief in the military and I have a year left, and I need to know what I need to do to be on your team.'"

Morin hears that song and dance daily.

But in Clayton he saw an uncharacteristic desire.

"It was a gut feeling. It was the look in his eyes," Morin said. "It was a look that said, 'I WILL do this.' And it wouldn't have mattered if we said no. Somebody would've said yes."

Morin was intrigued, but cautious. He didn't want to fill Clayton's head with unrealistic expectations. He handed Clayton a business card.

"He gave me a generic type of answer," Clayton said. "So I told him what I'd been doing to be a member of his team. He saw that I was way more serious than what normally is involved."

Clayton had been practicing diligently and studying meticulously. While deployed, NASCAR was his release. He and his teammates used NASCAR race weekends to mark weeks deployed.

Jeff Gordon
Chris Clayton was invited to work with the No. 24 crew at Martinsville, then landed in Victory Lane after Jeff Gordon scored the win.

"When you're deployed every day is Groundhog Day," he said. "So we'd land off a mission, and if the green flag was about to drop, we'd bolt back to the rooms after finishing up our paperwork from the ride."

He introduced fellow crew members to racing. They held a weekly driver pool. Everyone gets a driver. Throw 10 bucks into the pot. Next thing you know they're all buying into Clayton's dream.

With a year remaining on his Army contract, Clayton faced a dilemma: Re-enlist or never look back. He struggled mightily with the decision, until a friend approached with a question: If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?

"He knew the answer," Clayton said. "Anybody that knows me for any length of time knows auto racing is my passion. He said, 'Well, then go do it.'"

And he did. He immediately began educating himself on the intricacies of pit crewing, and trained himself accordingly. His superiors knew of this dream, and would joke with him about his training regimen, in a "yeah, right" sort of way.

Clayton dialed up YouTube to study pit stops and the choreography and skill set of each crewman's role. Some were quite similar to his military skill set. He used Johnson's Gatorade commercials and ESPN features as motivation.

And he scoured the Internet for a blocking dummy.

"As I said, the Army trains you to know who you fight -- well, how do you do that for a pit crew position?" Clayton said. "I can't do it on my wife's Honda Civic."

So he bought a race car. On eBay.

It's a static piece. It doesn't turn. It's basically a body and wheels that once lived among Ray Evernham's Winston Cup fleet. When Clayton bought it, for $300, it had spent the previous several years adoring the gate at a golf resort in Myrtle Beach. But it provided the platform to transform dream to reality.

He hauled it home to Savannah, Ga., and started practicing. He had a jack. Morin had mentioned to Clayton that his body type was that of a tire changer. So he bought a lug gun and off he went. He set up a video camera to tape himself for future study. His wife timed him on a stopwatch, until she got bored and gave him the stink eye.

He would venture up to Hendrick Motorsports unannounced from Savannah, just to watch pit practice and make notes. He listened keenly to coaching feedback to the crewmen, minute yet vital details such as gun angle and the like.

Clayton returned from his second-to-last deployment and saw Morin, and told him he'd fly an American Flag for Hendrick overseas. It was something for Morin to remember him by. And it was a visual representation from Clayton of how much Morin's belief in the dream drove him.

When he brought that flag in & I've never been more humbled. We pit race cars, man. We don't protect this country. For him to bring me that flag. ... I'm never at a loss for words. There are no words.

-- Greg Morin on the gift
he received from Chris Clayton

Following his final deployment, he was ready. And on Martin Luther King Day 2013, he got a tryout. From there, Chris Berkee, Hendrick's head development coach, saw potential in Clayton as a tire changer.

"He's like, 'When are you out of the military?'" Clayton laughed. "I told him, 'In May I'll be available to work.' And at this point I'm trying to figure out, 'Does this mean I actually got the job?'"

Yes. It does.

"You have to pay attention to that passion and persistence -- it is impossible to ignore," Morin said. "That's what earned him the tryout. The tryout earned him the job."

Clayton started at Hendrick Motorsports on May 10. Since then he has continued to hone his skill.

"Think about it," Morin continued. "Physically conditioned: check. Mentally strong: please -- he hung out the back of a helicopter picking up operators under tremendous fire. Heart, faith, optimism: Bring it, son."

Twice Clayton has served on a pit crew for HMS, first as a rear tire changer at a CRA Super Late Model race at Winchester Speedway in Salem, Ind., and then as gas man in the All America 400 in Nashville, Tenn.

"It was a life goal accomplished, and it was a great feeling," Clayton said. "It's nice to get a different kind of adrenaline rush than what you're used to."

That's not all. Clayton was invited to Martinsville Speedway to work with Jeff Gordon's No. 24 pit crew. Gordon won the race. Clayton went to Victory Lane.

"Who gets to do that!" he howled. "I've followed Jeff Gordon my whole life! I mean, I did my seventh-grade project on this guy! What a tremendous blessing for me."

Despite his budding pit crew career, Clayton thinks often of his military brothers.

"There are days you feel like you want to be there, to go with them, and you're not there anymore," he said. "Your job in the military is done. It's surreal. You're living out your dream but you also feel the sense of wanting to help them."

Clayton, in detailing his passion for racing, noted a time he heard Hendrick pit guru Andy Papathanassiou tell a tour group that "you never had anybody play pit crew as a kid."

"I heard that, and I'm like, 'I was one of those odd ones who did play tire changer,'" he laughed. "Every day I wake up I'm so grateful. This isn't work. This is the dream."