It’s a warm, sun-drenched day at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And as the drivers are being introduced, their teams are making last minute calculations to their vehicles.
On this particular Sunday, the stakes are higher for four teams, those involved in the Chase – a knockout-style playoff format that began with 16 drivers in Chicagoland – which will decide the next NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion.
Throughout the season, races are decided by mere seconds. Drivers look for any advantage that can shave precious seconds off of their time, anything that can put them in Victory Lane. But perhaps the most valuable seconds can be spared in pit row – where most drivers say races are won or lost.
In the past, there wasn’t nearly as much emphasis placed on the pit crew. Over the course of a race, drivers stop to change tires and refuel just a handful of times and a good stop will take under 12 seconds. So, how much time can pit stops actually save a team over the course of a 300-mile, approximately four hour race – with the proper crew members, a lot more than you might think.
More than a decade ago, NASCAR teams saw there was room for vast improvement when it came to lengthy pit times in both the Xfinity Cup and Sprint Cup Series and one team elected to look for a solution.
Thinking outside of the box, Chip Ganassi Racing decided to experiment, plucking several Division 1 football standouts as the next potential crop of pit crew members.
While a pit stop is lightning fast, it does require a certain amount of stamina and strength – skills also important on the gridiron. One of the first involved with the experiment was Atlanta native Dion “Rocko” Williams.
Dion “Rocko” Williams, the rear-tire carrier for Hendrick Motorsports, is one of just a handful of African Americans working today in NASCAR’s pit crews. (Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Williams is a massive force, one who casual bystanders couldn’t help but notice, often even attempting to compare biceps with a quick flex. Williams was a successful linebacker at Wake Forest in the early 2000s – earning a Communications degree in the process – before making the transition to the National Football League in 2004 with the Minnesota Vikings. After suffering several concussions on his way to becoming a professional, Williams experienced his seventh concussion just three games into the preseason, which ultimately put an end to his football dreams.
Knowing little other than football, Williams was unsure what lay ahead in his career. But Williams’ agent could see the passion for athletics still remained, so he reached out to NASCAR in the hopes of bringing a new sense of purpose into the ex-Vikings’ life.
Soon after, William met with Phil Horton, one of the head pit crew specialists at Chip Ganassi Racing, who immediately gave him a shot – a combine similar to that of the NFL to test his strength, speed and endurance. Once the team had seen his ability, Williams had to learn the finer points of a NASCAR pit stop and what it entails, earning $200 a day to practice alongside athletes from other colleges, before being thrown into action.
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
“They threw me on a shitty car, it had no chance of winning but it still was the Daytona 500, and basically, what they saw was the adaptation to handle the spotlight,” Williams admits. “There were guys in our group that were used to being in pressure situations, used to competing and thriving on that and using that to motivate them. We did really well – half of us made it and half of us didn’t.”
Fast forward more than a decade later and the 35-year-old is the front tire carrier of Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series. Williams has spent the last 10 seasons with the Hendrick team, making the transition with Elliott from the Xfinity Series. Williams’ success, along with several others, led to an influx of college athletes making the transition to NASCAR and, within no time, the pit crew became arguably the most important job on race day.
“[Racing teams] started to see the importance of picking up spots in the pits as opposed to the track because these cars are so similar, so you’ll be running second and third all day and you can’t pass a car all damn day but when you come into the pits, you can go from fifth to first and that car will never pass you again on the track,” Williams explained. “[Racing teams] saw the worth of that.”
Hendrick’s pit crew department is now made up of about 50 or 60 people, according to Williams. To put in your dues and make it to a significant team varies per team as well as position but typically takes an ex-athlete a year and a half to three years. It’s even become a massive production, so much so that the team has its own indoor/outdoor facility, which rivals that of most Division 1 football programs – and they’re sponsored with Under Armour. There’s no denying their worth, and passion, on Sunday.
Regan Smith, 7, had to enter his pit box at an angle, making it harder for Chase Elliott, 24, to get out past his crew during the competition caution early in the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. (David Kent/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
“You have to see the potential and the growth that you can have and use that as motivation,” Williams said. “It was hard to transition for me coming in here my first year. There was two black men out here. But I was the first black man ever to wear a Jeff Gordon uniform.”
It’s those types of accomplishments that Williams is proud of achieving, though he admits he knew very little about the sport and had never seen it before his first tryout all those years ago.
“It was all stick and ball to me,” Williams said. “I never watched NASCAR. I lived 25 minutes from the track in Atlanta – didn’t even know it existed. My family got mad at me when I told them I worked for NASCAR like, ‘what the hell are you doing, get a job?!’”
Williams has managed to turn his opportunity into a lengthy career, however, as with all professional sports, there’s the chance of being dumped within the blink of an eye. With little job security, he’s careful not to do anything that could potentially jeopardize his career, admitting that even looking at the crew chief the wrong way on a bad day could lead to a dismissal. But even more so than eye contact, it’s the danger that comes with their respective positions that can prove to be hazardous.
With cars speeding into pit row at about 55 mph, crew members need to make certain they get their job done in a safe and timely manner. Williams admits he’s never suffered a serious injury doing it – just a couple of bumps and bruises here and there – and says it’s pretty manageable if the crew is alert.
“You have to be cognizant of your surroundings – that comes with being a veteran,” he added. “Be aware, that’s like your awareness meter in your stats on Madden. You’ll go out there, stupid if you want, but be aware of who is coming around you, what’s happening – do you have an opening coming in and out? But sometimes it’s unavoidable, it’s driver error.”
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
According to Williams, about 80 percent of NASCAR pit crews consist of former Division 1 football players, with offensive lineman typically on the jack, thanks to their long arms, and linebackers and running backs on tire duty, given their short, strong stature and good hand-eye coordination – not to mention a low center of gravity. Football is not the only college sport represented in this group, however, with a small percentage coming from D1 basketball, wrestling and hockey programs.
But as Williams has seen so often, raw talent and ability doesn’t always necessarily translate.
“Doing pit stops on a car running 20th is night and day different than doing a pit stop on a car that’s running top five. That’s what weeds out the different crew members. There’s LeBron James-type crew members all day running 20th but you never see their stops on TV, they’re never scrutinized but as soon as you get in that top five, everybody sees you, behind the wall is packed – it’s totally different.”
Not everyone is a finely-tuned, Division 1 athlete these days, however. While the program NASCAR has implemented to scoop up former college athletes has been successful, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t look the part – but make for excellent NASCAR pit crew members.
“We have a guy that smokes cigarettes and [he] never played a sport in his life and [he] is probably the fastest tire changer ever,” Williams said with a smile.
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