Spot News/Daily & Internet
Seth Livingstone, USA Today
HIGHLY COMPETITIVE ATHLETES GO OVER THE WALL
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bryan White is the new face of NASCAR's over-the-wall gang. A former linebacker at the University of Virginia, White got a training-camp look from the New York Jets in 2006. Hours after he was cut, he received a call from Trent Cherry, pit crew coach at Penske Racing.
"I was sitting in a New York airport wondering what I was going to do with my life when the phone rang," White says. "I knew nothing about NASCAR. I can't even change my own oil — couldn't name more than three or four parts on a car."
No matter. White, at 6-2, 225, was just the athlete Cherry was looking to recruit.
After six months of training, White was going over the pit wall in NASCAR events.
Last May, White was the catch can man (responsible for catching fuel overflow and making track-bar adjustments) on Ryan Newman's pit crew that captured the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge — a team that will defend its title tonight at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. This year, White has swapped positions with jack man Britt Goodrich also a former linebacker, at the University of North Carolina.
In many cases, pit crew members perform double duty in the shop with titles such as sheet metal fabricator or tire specialist. But in today's NASCAR, where split seconds can mean megabucks, athleticism is taking priority in the pits.
"When I got here seven years ago, I said I'd like to have seven athletic guys," says Cherry, who doubles as the No. 12 team's rear tire carrier. "Being from Charlotte, I knew a lot of guys who played other sports in this area, and I started taking one or two guys every year to train. Some of them didn't even know what a race car looked like."
Tonight's competition showcases the talents, dexterity and athleticism of NASCAR's best pit crews, arguably the sport's unsung heroes.
"What they do on pit road is just as important as what I do on the track, and I'm glad that they have a competition that spotlights them," Newman says. "The over-the-wall guys are true athletes in every aspect of the word. They train each week, and what they do is about speed, agility, mental toughness and consistency."
Twenty-four teams will compete in a single-elimination tournament for the $70,000 grand prize and the right to choose its pit stall for next week's Sprint All-Star Race.
Tonight, teams must change four tires from individual stations, fill the car with 18 gallons of gas and push it 40 yards across the finish line. Last year's winning time translated to $407.25 per man, per second.
"What makes this event so hard to win is that any mistake by any of the seven guys in any round and you're done," Cherry says.
"Some pit crew guys say they don't like the format because it's not representative of an actual stop with the car sliding into the stall, but we love it. It's a competition, and whether we're playing wiffleball, kickball or pitting a car, we're going to compete to win."
Which is another reason for recruiting former athletes.
"Everyone on our pit crew is a competitive person, or we wouldn't be in this sport," White says. "I compare our jobs to being a special teams player in football. You're not getting 90 plays a game. You're getting eight or 10 reps, but you can't mess up. You might only have six or seven pit stops in a race, but you have to get every one of them just right."
Cherry knows his team (which includes tire changers Ben Brown, Scott Reiniger and Joe Piette Jr. as well as gasman George Whitley) will be considered one to beat. The team last year edged Bobby Labonte's No. 43 team from Petty Enterprises.
"Last year, the No. 1 car (Martin Truex Jr., DEI) had the big bull's eye on their back because they were defending champs," Cherry says. "This year it will be us."
No team has won the event twice. The inaugural event in 2005 went to the No. 9 Dodge Dealers team from Evernham Motorsports. Jeff Patterson, gasman for Tony Stewart's No. 20 team at Joe Gibbs Racing, is the only two-time individual winner.