When a NASCAR pit crew swarms a car, it may look like they’ve been servicing cars all their lives. But many of them are actually athletes trained to do a mechanic’s job, and as Jalopnik found after reaching out to NASCAR’s top race teams, most never expected to find themselves there in the first place.

A couple of decades ago, race teams used to try to turn mechanics into crew members, as NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit-crew coach Phil Horton told Jalopnik over the phone. That meant teaching mechanics the physical side of pitting a car, since they already knew the rest.

These days, most crew training is the other way around.

“Even after we took them through the physical process, [the mechanics] were not performers,” Horton said. “That’s another reason we got the athletes. They knew how to perform, and they knew what was expected of them when they performed or if they didn’t perform.”

At its heart, working a pit crew is an athletic job. At NASCAR’s highest levels, crews send five people per team to jump over the pit wall to service a car. Two are tire changers, who run to one side of the car and take a wheel’s five lug nuts off before putting a new wheel on. Those changers have people carrying the tires to and from the car, and one carrier also jacks the car up on each side. The fifth person, the fueler, puts up to two 90-pound cans of gas in the car.

Before NASCAR moved to mandated pit equipment this season, which slowed teams down by a second or two, a top-level Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team could get everything done in all of 11 seconds.

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A clip of Jimmie Johnson’s crew pitting his car back when six members went over the wall. NASCAR changed regulations for 2018, downsizing over-the-wall crews to five.
GIF: NASCAR (YouTube)

Even still, it takes years to be able to pit a car in that kind of time. Horton told Jalopnik that athletes take about three to four years to move into the Cup Series if they’re going to make it at all.

The Cup Series pit crew on Alex Bowman’s No. 88 car.
Photo: Brian Lawdermilk (Getty Images)

“You can work on the Cup level in your first year, but to work on the Cup level full time, it takes about three years minimum,” Horton said. “That’s for everybody.”

As a job, becoming part of a pit crew isn’t easy. It’s not easy to learn, it’s not easy on the body, and it’s a career risk if a person trains and still isn’t fast enough. That makes it surprising to see how many of NASCAR’s top crew members never thought they would come to NASCAR, and didn’t have stock-car dreams—it was all a surprise for them, too.

Less of a shock, then, is that there are recruiting programs for pit crews, both through individual race teams and through through NASCAR itself, like the Drive for Diversity one Horton coaches. Not every pit crew member comes through the pipeline that way, but as Jalopnik found in our research, most come in with some kind of athletic background.

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Jalopnik asked all of the Cup Series teams in the top 22 in the standings earlier this year for information on the backgrounds of their crew members, and heard back from about half. That gave us information on 33 crew members in all, or about a third of the people who make up those top 22 Cup Series teams.

Amongst those 33 crew members, more than half did college athletics and another 21 percent did amateur, semi-pro, Olympic or professional sports. Together, nearly three-fourths of the group came from some kind of serious sporting background outside of racing. Only 6 percent had racing backgrounds, and only 6 percent were listed with no athletic background at all.

Graphic: Alanis King (Jalopnik)

Of the group, tire changers came from the biggest mix of athletic backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean much here—sample sizes were low when broken down by crew position, with information on only five fuelers, 14 tire changers, nine jack handlers and four tire carriers sent along.

Graphic: Alanis King (Jalopnik)

(All 33 crew members whose information was sent over to Jalopnik were men. Female tire changers Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary have pitted in the Cup Series this year, but weren’t included in this chart because they’re not full-time members at any of the teams Jalopnik surveyed for it.)

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Of those 33 people—who weren’t all from sporting backgrounds, remember—more than a fifth of them were scouted or recruited into pit-crew training. That was done either by NASCAR, its diversity program or by teams. Nearly a fifth knew somebody who knew about the opportunity to be on a crew, and about 15 percent had a career goal to be in racing.

A small percentage of the crew members surveyed just happened to live in the Charlotte, North Carolina area where most NASCAR teams are based.

Graphic: Alanis King (Jalopnik)

Terry Spalding, who changes tires for Richard Childress Racing in the Cup Series on Austin Dillon’s No. 3 car, saw a race on television one Sunday in the 1990s and noticed the crews. He decided he wanted in, and headed off that very week to ask race teams for a chance. He eventually got a team to let him work for free, and quit his job to work there.

“I played football and baseball in college, but it didn’t ever go past college,” said Spalding, who accidentally agreed to work free 90-hour weeks. He did that for three months before getting a paying job there, going through his savings to the point that he wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had to go another month. “I’ve always loved sports and been competitive, and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s one sport I can still do.’

“After I got done with work and everything, I would drive down to the Charlotte area and start trying to talk to teams and get one to hire me. I went during the week and on the weekends some. I think I talked to every race team without any experience or really knowing anyone.”

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It all worked out, eventually.

Austin Dillon’s No. 3 team pitting his car during qualifying for the Cup Series’ All-Star race.
Photo: Sean Gardner (Getty Images)

A minister who worked for Richard Childress Racing and frequently watched basketball games at Derrell Edwards’ university went up to him after a game once and told him he should look into NASCAR, saying he’d be a strong leader on a crew. Edwards, who’s now a Cup Series jack handler for Richard Childress Racing on Dillon’s No. 3 team, brushed it off at first.

He warmed up to the idea when the reality of professional basketball settled in.

“Being a typical collegiate athlete, I was like ‘Nah, man, I think I’m going to go pro—at least go play overseas or something like that,’” said Edwards, who won his first Daytona 500 on a crew this year. “Come my senior year, I realized it’s pretty hard to make the NBA or go play overseas.”

Brehanna Daniels waiting behind pit wall during the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2018.
Photo: Alanis King (Jalopnik)

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Brehanna Daniels, the first black woman on an over-the-wall crew in one of NASCAR’s national touring series, was in the same boat—a college basketball player who tried another career thanks to a by-chance encounter.

Most crew members are like Spalding, Edwards and Daniels—they come into it with an athletic background, whether by recruiting ladders through NASCAR, outreach by race teams or by an athlete’s research into other sports. A lot of athletes come into racing without much experience in it, but as Horton said, “the physical side takes care of itself” with athletes. It’s about taking that athleticism and putting it toward a new task.

Like Horton, Spalding’s been in racing for years—more than 20. His approach when he first got a job on a team would have security escorting him out of a building for trespassing these days.

Cup Series pit road at Sonoma Raceway in June of 2018.
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey (Getty Images)

Spalding worked for a company that did industrial maintenance in South Carolina in the 1990s, but his trips to Charlotte to try to find a job on team didn’t go so well. Once every team he’d knocked on the doors of had turned him away, he gave one more team a shot.

That team did the same thing.

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“I kind of knew [NASCAR driver] Jimmy Spencer,” Spalding said. “I’m from Pennsylvania and he’s from up that way, so I thought I’d use that. I walked into his shop, and his niece, I think, wouldn’t even let me past the front door.

“I was driving away and behind his race shop, there’s a farm and a big field. I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to give this one last big shot before I give up.’ I parked, walked across the field, hopped over a fence and just walked in the back of his shop. I was in there for all of about 30 seconds and one of the guys came over and said, ‘Can I help you?’”

Daniels didn’t find NASCAR on her own like Spalding, and instead got recruited through the Drive for Diversity program when she was about a month away from graduating from college. An athletic advisor at her school told her about a pit-crew tryout, and her immediate response was, “What? What makes you think I like NASCAR?”

But Daniels went to the tryout, and was one of just a few people who qualified to train with Drive for Diversity after the program went to colleges around the U.S. looking for potential crew members. She trained as a tire changer from the start, when program’s coach, Horton, told her that’s what she’d be fit to do.

“Really, he just looked at my height and was like, ‘You would be a tire changer. You’re short,’” Daniels said.

The pit crew on Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Cup Series car.
Photo: Brian Lawdermilk (Getty Images)

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Daniels did the program’s standard six-month training before her first race in the ARCA Racing Series, a series that slots in a few steps under NASCAR’s third-tier Camping World Truck Series and was recently acquired by NASCAR.

After six months with the diversity program, Horton said athletes like Daniels get sent to either booking agencies to be booked out to teams, or to individual race teams. But some teams have their own development programs, like the one Edwards inadvertently started at Richard Childress Racing.

“I didn’t necessarily do a training, because RCR didn’t have a development program at the time,” said Edwards, who interned for the team before getting called to come back after graduation. “To be honest, I was the first to ever kind of ‘develop’ there, and they started reaching out to other people from then on.”

Edwards, Spalding and Daniels all got their training in different ways, with Edwards easing himself into it during the internship. He did “the nitty gritty stuff for no pay,” like cleaning tires, to show the team how much he wanted to be there, and said he practiced jacking the car up and hanging a tire “here and there” to try out every position on a crew.

“I just got good at it really quickly,” said Edwards, who just had to go through a simply agility test once the team decided to start training him officially. “I was picking it up really fast.”

Austin Dillon’s pit crew at Auto Club Speedway in March of 2018.
Photo: Jonathan Moore (Getty Images)

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Spalding did a similar thing. He said the pit crew on Spencer’s crew practiced outside in the evenings, and it took him less than a week to start staying around with them. Daniels had a more formal education on changing tires through the diversity program, but that didn’t mean it was easy.

“I [was] like, ‘Man, what if this isn’t for me? I don’t know how to do this,’” Daniels said. “I was icing my hands every night. But Coach Horton told me to be patient—this is not stick and ball, I don’t have a basketball anymore. I have an impact wrench.”

Horton said even athlete hands aren’t conditioned to change tires like Daniels and Spalding do. It takes a lot of reps, he said, in addition to just learning how to use the tools—like slamming a pit gun against a wheel to get lug nuts off.

The pit crew on Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Cup Series car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July of 2018.
Photo: Brian Lawdermilk (Getty Images)

“One of the things about hitting lug nuts is you have to hit those things hard,” Horton said. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on the hand, a lot of wear and tear on the knees, a lot of wear and tear on the back.

“You have to get used to that. Plus, when you start doing it correctly, it doesn’t hurt as badly.”

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Daniels got through that and now gets contracted out through a pit school, which puts her on various teams during a race weekend including her first top-level Cup Series start in July. Spalding finally got to pit a race when Spencer’s team decided it was just easier to have him do it than someone else.

“They didn’t have [a front tire changer] there in the shop, so they contracted someone to come from another team to change front tires for Jimmy,” Spalding said. “It took me probably seven to nine months before they said, ‘You know, instead of contracting this person, we’ll just put you on the front of the car and let you start changing tires.’”

Spalding’s done that ever since, and is still in NASCAR’s Cup Series at 50 years old. He said he’s hit lug nuts “almost every week for 23 years,” and that he’s been fortunate to stay in the sport this long.

“I’ve seen a lot of people have shoulder surgeries, knees and backs,” Spalding said. “I haven’t had to have any surgeries, I’ve never missed a race for injuries or anything.

“When I was younger, I trained pretty hard in the gym. Once I got over 40, I cut back quite a bit working out in the gym and I do a lot of sports. I almost feel like if I ever slow down and stop, that’s when my joints are going to go. But if I keep pushing them, they’ll say, ‘Well, OK, gotta keep going.’”

Ryan Blaney’s Cup Series crew at Pocono Raceway in June.
Photo: Jeff Zelevansky (Getty Images)

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Edwards said he got a chance at a second-tier Xfinity Series car in 2015, and that the person whose spot he filled ended up quitting. Richard Childress Racing put him on a Cup Series car in 2017, three years after he finished college.

“It was kind of like a blessing in disguise that he quit and recommended me to everybody,” Edwards said. “I was on Brendan Gaughan’s car for the rest of the year. It worked out perfectly. That’s how I’ve learned that timing is everything in NASCAR.”

Aside from the timing, each took a risk getting into NASCAR. Spalding left a job, Edwards and Daniels left sports they’d practiced for years—all for something they’d never done before.

“I knew it was a risk,” Edwards said. “But I thought it was a risk that was more in my favor, honestly. Being African American, I knew that it was slim. I’ve never had anybody talk about NASCAR or anything like that, so I knew that I could potentially go do something that someone has never done before.”

Daniels was thinking about playing basketball overseas or going to grad school, but that her “life took a left turn, literally,” when the tryout happened.

“Just because I wanted to try something new,” Daniels said. “That’s why you don’t put yourself in a box, you know? You have to be willing to do anything, try new things, because you never know what doors it can open up for you.”

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Photo: Robert Laberge (Getty Images)

For Edwards, Daniels and probably many more, it opened up some doors to make history.

“Four years ago, I would’ve never thought I was going to be a Daytona 500 champion, let alone the first African-American pit-crew member to do it,” Edwards said. “That was pretty special to me, and that’s why I do these things.

“Before I even got into NASCAR, I won a bunch of championships—high school, junior college and Division I—playing basketball. So, I’ve been winning, it just felt good to cap it off with RCR and with the Daytona 500.”