MOORESVILLE -- Seven guys are in the middle of a hard-core training session at a local gym. Among them are former minor league hockey players, college football players and a champion high school wrestler.
For the last year or so they've been coming here five days a week and working on balance and body strength under the eye of a professional strength and conditioning coach.
And on Sunday you'll be able to see them in action. But they won't be on a football field or hockey rink. Rather, they'll be working the pits for the Red Bull Racing Team (RBRT) during the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The team features drivers Brain Vickers (No. 83), and A.J. Allmendinger (No. 84).
Just as NASCAR has evolved and grown more sophisticated, so have pit crews. Gone are the days when all you needed to get on a professional team was to be handy with a jack or air gun.
As many NASCAR fans know, pit crews are a crucial part of a racing team's success. It's a demanding, pressure-filled job measured in fractions of a second. Speed, strength, and coordination are all required as crews race to sling 75-pound tires into position.
"I think that physical conditioning has become a very important aspect for pit crews," said NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. "It's becoming the norm for pit crews to have coaches and regular workout routines. A NASCAR race not only can be won or lost on the race track, but also during the valuable seconds that it takes to pull off a pit stop. It's become a very important strategy of the sport."
And this is what PIT Instruction and Training in Mooresville is all about. It's where the pit crews for the RBRT have been training exclusively for the past two racing seasons.
Helping the RBRT's pit crews maintain their competitive edge is Ben Cook, the team's strength and conditioning coordinator. Previously, Cook was strength and conditioning coach at UNC Chapel Hill, working with the football and men's basketball teams. He's also helped train some of the Carolina Panthers.
"The guys with Red Bull are every bit the athletes as the ones I've worked with in the past," said Cook.
The No. 83 Red Bull Racing team certainly proved its athletic prowess last week when it won the fourth annual NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge at Time Warner Cable Arena. The team peeled off five straight stops in less than 23 seconds and took home the first prize of more than $70,000.
Cook, along with the pit crew coach Greg Miller, puts the teams through a multifaceted training program that incorporates everything from yoga, weightlifting, cardio drills, and cross-training activities like mountain biking. "You have to keep the body guessing," Cook said.
In addition to training current NASCAR pit crews, PIT also helps prepare everyday folks hoping to one day secure an "over the wall" pit crew position via an eight-week "PIT CREW U" program.
The most promising students are invited back to participate in a program that prepares graduates for tryouts and placement with a professional team.
Jeff Hammond, a former crew chief and Charlotte native, co-founded PIT in 2004. "I've been around racing since I was 12," said Hammond, who played football for North Mecklenburg High School and East Carolina University.
His NASCAR career started in 1974 as tire changer for Walter Ballard's pit crew. He eventually switched to jackman and earned a reputation as one of the best on pit road and helped the team win several NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. He became Darrell Waltrip's crew chief in 1982 and amassed 43 wins before retiring in 2000.
Today, in addition to being co-owner at PIT, he works as a NASCAR analyst for Fox's Speed Channel and Fox Sports Television.
Hammond has seen firsthand how working in the pits has changed. "We didn't really do things like lift weights and physical conditioning back in the old days," said Hammond, 51. "Only recently have we elevated training to where it is now."
Hammond is fit and sturdy at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds. He works hard to stay in shape, but recently changed his outlook on exercise and is integrating the approach into PIT.
"I used to be more of a powerlifter," he said. "Now it's about getting lean and quick. We're moving in the same direction with our students. Resembling Godzilla is not necessarily going to get you a job on a pit crew. Everybody thinks all you gotta do is be able to bench press and squat a ton of weight. But that's not what it's about."
Instead, Hammond said it's about being balanced, flexible, agile and fast, as well as having the ability to think on your feet. "To make it as a pit crew member today you have to truly be an athlete," he said.
Aspiring pit crew members train at PIT's 24,000-square-foot facility in Mooresville, which has a quarter-mile practice track, six pit stalls, and a 120-seat theater to review race films. There's also a 2,500-square-foot fitness center, filled with state-of-the-art cardio equipment and exercise machines as well as free weights.
The right exercises
Adam Merrell is PIT's athletic performance instructor. A licensed athletic trainer, he helps design PIT's physical conditioning programs and coaches students.
Merrell puts students through a program that works the entire body, with exercises that correlate to movements on the track.
Many of the exercises are designed to create explosive speed and power, such as jumping squats. They are performed with a weighted barbell across the shoulders. You squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then push upward until your feet leave the ground. This helps crew members explode forward from a crouched position when their car pulls into pit lane.
Merrell mixes in things like agility ladder drills. Commonly associated with football, the agility ladder is typically made of hard plastic and placed flat on the ground. Students rapidly step through the ladder's rungs in various patterns to improve foot speed and coordination.
Merrell also designs drills specific to each pit crew position. For instance, for the jackman, he'll run a clothesline along the side of the car and have the student move quickly around the vehicle in a crouched position. "If they don't stay low they're going to get clipped by the clothesline," said Merrell. "This helps them maintain a low, athletic stance for power."
As students get more advanced, he'll have them perform the same clothesline drill, but with a partner pulling against them with resistance bands that are attached to the waist. "Not only are they having to stay low and avoid the clothesline, but now they're having to push through resistance with each stride. This helps create explosive power."
On the job
About 650 students have graduated from PIT's programs, Hammond said, and about 60percent have found jobs in racing, including four who are working with the Red Bull Racing Team. Rather than bothering with other shop duties, the Red Bull pit team focuses solely on training and perfecting their skills.
Aaron Schields, 26, is the front-tire carrier for RBRT driver Brian Vickers. Schields, a two-time state champion wrestler from Kansas, moved to Charlotte in 2004 "chasing after the dream" of landing a job with a NASCAR pit crew.
After going through PIT's training programs, the RBRT hired him last year. He still trains at PIT five days a week, and said the crew divides its time evenly between physical conditioning and on-the-track drills.
Unlike wrestling, which calls for sustained physical exertion, working on a pit crew is all about short bursts of action, Schields said. Nonetheless, he said he gets the same athletic thrill in NASCAR as he did as a competitive wrestler. "I like the physical conditioning of working in the pits. Since I was done with wrestling, I was missing that competition. So this is another outlet. I get that same rush."
Hammond believes that in a sport as competitive as NASCAR, where every second counts, the pit crew's intensive approach is likely to become more common.
And he expects Red Bull's dedicated approach will pay off during the Coca-Cola 600. "It's a very trying race physically and mentally," he said. "And that's where conditioning really comes into play. When it's down to the end of the race, it's all about who can ramp it up when the time comes."
GETTING IN PIT-TOP SHAPE
Changing a set of tires in 13 seconds may be far from your fitness goals. But there's still plenty to be learned from the NASCAR pit crew workout programs. Here are some tips from Ben Cook, the Red Bull Racing Team's strength and conditioning coordinator.
Develop a full-body fitness program by doing several different exercises like weightlifting, yoga and mountain biking. "The key is to keep muscle strength balanced," said Cook. "This reduces injuries and adds to overall performance." Mixing it up helps keep things fun.
Your muscles are part of an overall system. Instead of using weight machines that isolate muscles, stick with compound exercises like squats and push-ups that work multiple muscle groups and engage your body's natural anchors in the legs, back and core.
Cardiovascular fitness is crucial. Bulging muscles won't do you much good if you can't run around the block without gasping. Perform an aerobic activity at least three times a week for 20 minutes.
Balance training is important, too. Performing exercises on one leg using dumbbells increases body awareness and balance. As you become more skilled, increase the difficulty of the exercises by performing them on exercise balls.