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Why athletes make the best pit crews in racing

The idea of a football play transformed the dynamics of the team — the seconds prove it.

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Is car racing a real sport? What many people might not know is that the pit crews that change tires and refuel the cars are typically made up of former athletes. That’s because these five-person pit crews require the athleticism of a football team, the coordination of a symphony, and the grace under pressure of a surgical team.

A newbie to car racing saw the pit stop as a sports play, and changed racing forever.

Matthew T. Thacker, NKP

Before the 1990s, pit crews were typically made up of mechanics. But when Andy Papathanassiou, a former Stanford football player, joined a racing team in 1992, he changed the game forever. “I stumbled into NASCAR, and when I saw my first live pit stop it looked like a football play to me,” he said. That’s when Papathanassiou argued that the pit crew should be modeled after an athletic team.

For more than 25 years, he’s brought on athletes — from baseball, basketball, wrestling, even lacrosse — and offered them a way to continue their careers in a different sport. And the rest of the racing community took note.

At NASCAR races, the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew includes members who used to compete in soccer, football, and motocross. “I’ll say we’re one of the few sports where we’re asked to be perfect, if not near perfect, each and every time we do it,” describes Brian Dheel, gas man for the Joe Gibbs team and former professional soccer player.

These athletes can get through a pit stop in just a quarter of a minute.

Matthew T. Thacker, NKP

The people who jump over the wall on pit road and service race cars train like athletes, because perfect muscle memory, high performance, and flawless teamwork are essential to success. Pit crews jack up a 3,500-pound race car, change all four tires, and refuel within 12 to 15 seconds. That’s often faster than taking just two deep breaths. “It’s that innate ability to react,” explains Kevin Harris, tire carrier for the Joe Gibbs team and former college football player. “When they throw you a football, you have a job to do, and in racing, it’s no different.”

And pit stops don’t just happen once. Depending on the length of the race, drivers head to pit road anywhere between four and 12 times per race. Wearing flame-retardant suits in temperatures that can reach 140°F, pit crew members have to work in sync. The car can’t leave pit road until every crew member has finished their job. One fast team member might not make a difference, while one slow member could lose the race.

Pit crews train at least three times each week to improve their speed, precision, and strength. They also use physical therapy to prevent injuries; in one of the longest sporting seasons — 36 weeks — repetitive movements create strain on the body. And in 2018, pit crews have been cut from six people to only five, making the work that much more intense. See how the Joe Gibbs Racing team shapes up in the video above.

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