Finely tuned athletes replace traditional grease monkeys on NASCAR's pit road

Sitting on the pit wall at Darlington Raceway, Leonard Wood shakes his head in disbelief.

Mere minutes before the start of the Dodge Challenger 500, the legendary mechanic can't help but chuckle as he looks at all the horsepower around him. Man, he thinks to himself, what his Wood Brothers Racing team could have done with this kind of muscle back in the day.

But the 73-year-old's envy isn't directed at the race cars.

"Look at how athletic these guys are," he says in his soft southern Virginia accent, pointing to the parade of giants walking by to take their positions in the pits. "We could put together a pretty nice football team with these pit crew members."

Wood's observation was more accurate than he probably realized. In the search to shave time off the stopwatch, today's NASCAR teams no longer rely on in-house personnel to pit their cars. They are packing their pit crew rosters with genuine athletic talent, an ever-growing influx of former college and pro athletes with experience ranging from the BCS title game to WrestleMania.

"Look around here," team owner Ray Evernham says while standing in the midst of prerace chaos, with dozens of crew members running around the garage. "We've got football players, baseball players, and one of my guys played hockey. It's a far cry from how it was on pit road just 15 years ago."

The Godfathers
Evernham should know. It was his foresight that planted the seeds of today's modern over-the-wall athletes. When the then-crew chief was handed the reins of Hendrick Motorsports' new No. 24 DuPont team in 1992, the approach to pit stops had remained largely unchanged since the Wood Brothers introduced pit stop choreography in the 1960s. Evernham was given a clean slate to build his new team, so he took the Wood Brothers philosophy and went 10 layers deeper.

A lifelong Vince Lombardi devotee, he applied a football mentality to the job, slapping locker-room mottos all over the shop walls and hiring former Stanford offensive lineman Andy Papathanassiou as NASCAR's first designated team pit crew coach.

Instead of making do with the mechanics on staff, they started scouting for outside athletes, recruiting bigger, stronger, quicker bodies to replace the existing pool of grease monkeys. They even came up with a team name that was half-tribal, half-WWE: The Rainbow Warriors.

"We were staying late for pit practice," recalls crew chief Chad Knaus, a former Warrior. "We ran drills, lifted weights and watched videotape of pit stops. Even our teammates at Hendrick looked at us like we were crazy."

"Now it is the norm," Evernham says with more than a little pride. "If you don't do it our way, you're the one who is crazy."

No 'I' in 'team' (but there is in 'mentality')
Now every car comes with a pit coach, though some prefer the fancier title of human performance director. Teams also employ athletic trainers, sports psychologists and video coordinators, each leveraging their areas of expertise to find another hundredth of a second on pit road.

"It really does feel like a college athletic department," says Chris Anderson, Appalachian State linebacker-turned-jack man on Denny Hamlin's No. 11 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. "A race team is a lot like a football team. Everyone has different jobs, but in the end we're all working toward the same goal: winning."

That kind of all-for-one locker-room mentality is now a big part of what crew chiefs look for when interviewing potential crew members. They still need to know cars, but athletic ability and a sports mentality have become as important as mechanical know-how.

"When you bring in athletes, you bring in people who already buy into the team concept," says Papathanassiou. "They've already been part of a team and they're willing to put in the work to get better. If I can get you to buy into what we're doing as a team, then there's no limit to what we can do."

Pit pressures
There is also no limit to what they can endure.

"When you've been in pressure situations on the football field, the pressure of competition probably isn't going to affect you like it would someone else." These wise words come from Caleb Hurd, gas-can man for the current edition of the Rainbow Warriors. Hurd was the holder for Cincinnati Bengals place-kicker Shayne Graham in high school and also at Virginia Tech, where Hurd handled snaps against the likes of Miami, Nebraska and in the national title game versus Florida State.

"If you can handle the Sugar Bowl," says crew chief Steve Letarte, "I like your chances on nailing the last pit stop that might win or lose the race."

When Hurd goes over the wall, he does so alongside jack man Jeff Cook, who played football at Wingate University. Front tire carrier Mike "Tiny" Houston played football for Western Carolina and wrestled in the National Wrestling Alliance, while rear carrier Jeff Knight played minor league ball in the Kansas City Royals organization. Hendrick Motorsports alone sports seven crew members with NCAA Division I experience, with another three on the way through its pit development program.

"When I first came to pit road, there were only three or four college football players out here," says Britt Goodrich, a former N.C. State linebacker who is Ryan Newman's 40-year-old catch can man. On Thursday night, the No. 12 team will be defending its NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge title at Charlotte's Time-Warner Cable Arena. "Now we have three football players just on our crew. I also used to be one of the biggest guys in the garage. Now all these young guys coming up are pretty large."

Calling all athletes
They're only going to get larger ... and faster ... and stronger.

Five years ago, only the top teams had on-site gymnasiums. Now everyone does. The latest to join the workout revolution is Richard Childress Racing, which hired former LSU outfielder and professional sports trainer Ray Wright to manage RCR's new massive workout facility.

Meanwhile, schools such as PIT (Pit Instruction & Training) in Mooresville, N.C., are cranking out dozens of competition-ready athletes-turned-crewmen on a quarterly basis.

"It's the nature of professional sports," admits team owner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, who first melded the NFL with NASCAR by introducing former Carolina Panthers trainer Al Shuford to the sport. "Specialization is the norm. We have shock specialists and aerodynamic specialists, and every tiny detail of a pit stop is specialized. The people that do those jobs are constantly fine-tuning, and we are constantly fine-tuning those people."

"On one hand, it is real source of pride to see everyone adopting those 'crazy' ideas that we came up with 15 years ago," Papathanassiou says as he points toward a group of Gillett Evernham Racing teammates doing choreographed stretches, a group that includes former NFL defensive tackle Nate Bolling and minor league hockey player Jonathan Billy. "But it also keeps me awake at night wondering what we'll need to do next to stay one step ahead."

"Trying to stay one step ahead, that hasn't changed," Wood says with a smile. "But today is a long ways from me and a bunch of family members trying to figure out the best way to change four tires out behind the race shop."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.