CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Since NASCAR’s inception, there have been many changes within the sport. One change relates to who makes up the team’s pit crews.
Some teams have switched from using mechanics during pit-stops, to ex-college or ex-professional athletes.
“Every split second, every hundredth of a second counts. So, people who can move quickly and function under pressure, there’s a high premium for that,” Hendrick Motorsports tire-changer Andrew Bridgeforth said.
Hendrick Motorsports hosts a combine to recruit pit crew members. Bridgeforth played college football at Slippery Rock University. He was anticipating a call to the NFL but got a call from Hendrick Motorsports instead.
“I got a call from a recruiter at Hendrick Motorsports, wanting me to try out,” Bridgeforth said. “They did everything that you would do at an NFL combine, minus the 40-yard-dash because that just doesn’t translate to a pit stop.”
Out of 200 candidates, Bridgeforth was one of four guys they kept. He’s now on a developmental team working his way up to pit for a competitive Cup team.
Part of the development involves training with Hendrick Motorsports Strength and Conditioning Coach Evan Kureczka. He says pit crew members are in the weight room a mandatory three-days per week. They also have practice on the pit-pad, plus two race days throughout NASCAR’s 40-week season.
“On the pit-pad, they are moving in such a confined space,” Kureczka said. “We put them in very vulnerable situations with a lot of weight. So, we have to think about that when we are training them.”
Due to the repetition and speed of those movements during pit stops, it’s not uncommon for pit crew members to get injured.
“Pit crews and the mechanics that go with the cars are where we see the majority of our injuries,” Director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports Bill Heisel said.
Heisel worked with other professional teams like the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets. When race teams started recruiting athletes to their teams, Heisel saw an opportunity.
He started caring for race teams 15 years ago, with the help of OrthoCarolina Physical Therapist and Athletic Trainer Ken Breath. At the time, it was uncharted territory.
Now, the two of them care for Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing, Penske Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, and JTG Racing. They also care for NASCAR officials, Goodyear and United Race Parts employees.
“There are about 4,000 to 5,000 people that we have the potential of seeing at some point in time,” Heisel said.
On race days you can find them in between haulers or working their way down pit road wrapping, stretching, and caring for pit crewman injuries prior to the race.
Heisel says NASCAR keeps a database of driver injuries, but not pit crew injuries. He started his own database and now 15 years later, he can estimate what position leads to what types of injuries and when.
“Rear tire changes get right hip issues that develop after seven years,” Heisel said.
That intel has proven to be useful for race teams as they recruit, train and treat pit crewman. Heisel now attends combine day for Hendrick Motorsports to assess potential candidates.
“We can look someone and say okay they’ve been a cornerback in football and with that body type they could be a tire changer,” Heisel said. “Do we need to consider what their hip range of motion is and what their horizon is for being in that position.”
Strength Coach Evan Kureczka uses the information in weight-room training to offset any potential weaknesses.
“The gun is so heavy and when they are hitting the lug nuts themselves, the vibration can put stress on the forearm,” Kurescka said. “So, we will work on wrist and forearm stretches to help combat that.”
They’ll also use the information to tweak equipment that could prevent injuries before they start.
“As we’ve collected that data, what can we do to prevent that? Can we loosen the tension on the gun a little bit?” Breath said. “We work with the glove manufacturer. Can we create a glove that has something in it to prevent it.”
Some pit crewman work through their injuries throughout the season until they can get surgery during the off season. Heisel says they will perform anywhere from 25-55 surgeries within the first two weeks of the off season. He says the surgeries are scheduled within that time frame so that the patients have time to rehab before the next season starts in February.
It’s a heavy investment, but one many teams are making to keep their teams healthy in their quest for a championship.
“The majority of the spots on race day are gained on pit road and so the quicker you get these guys out, the better they are advancing their position on the track,” Heisel said.