Ever wondered what it's like to be on a NASCAR pit crew? Maybe you haven't... but even so, you'll be surprised by the parallels to sports and to business -- because it's all about performance.
Here's another in my series on incredibly successful people who have achieved something we all strive for: making a living by doing what we love.
This time I talked with Rowdy Harrell, a member of the No. 88 car normally driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (he's out for the rest of the season due to concussion-like symptoms) and owned by Hendrick Motorsports, the organization which has won the most NASCAR championships and leads all modern owners in series wins.
Before joining Hendrick Motorsports, Rowdy played football at Alabama, where he won three national championships. After college he tried out and was accepted into Hendrick Motorsport's pit crew development program.
Now he works on one of the premier teams in the sport as a rear tire carrier.
Think that job sounds easy? It's anything but.
Check this out.
Being on a pit crew is a high pressure job where even the tiniest mistakes matter greatly... and where you're only as good as your last pit stop.
Your job is physical but there's a huge mental aspect, especially where the ability to focus so you can execute is concerned. What goes through your mind when the car is heading down pit road? (I would be freaking out.)
I try not to think about anything but what I need to do.
That's one thing I learned to do in college. You need to have tunnel vision. I think about my task at hand and what I have to do as far as technique: what I do with my hands, my legs, my feet... I don't think about who's in the car, or what position we're in, or how we've done all day, or whether this might be the last pit stop, or about all the cars flying around us... I block all that stuff out. All I think about is what I have to do.
It's taken some time to mentally train myself to stay in the moment, and that's really important. If we're in the lead and we don't want to lose the lead, we still can't think about that. It's just a pit stop. You do the best you can every time. If you bobbled the last pit stop, you have to put it behind you and forget about it.
We focus a lot on the physical side, but it's a huge mental game, too.
Football players sometimes say all their nerves go away after they hit somebody. Doesn't that make the first pit stop really tough? You have all this adrenaline and no real release before it really matters.
Every athlete gets the pre-kickoff butterflies. And you're right: in football you run down and hit somebody as hard as you can and the nervousness is gone.
With us, you're up on the wall and you see 40 cars coming towards you, and your guy is one of them, and he's going to dip off towards you... so yes, there are nerves.
I think my release is the first right rear tire that I throw. Once I get that... if that one's clean, if I throw it hard, feel it really engage in the wheel well, that's the equivalent to running down on a kickoff and hitting somebody.
Knock that first pit stop out really quickly and you're good to go the rest of the day. When you pick him up one or two spots the first stop... that's the best feeling.
Is placing the wheel on the studs the hardest part? Tires weigh about 70 pounds, and anyone who has ever changed a tire knows there's very little tolerance for error.
There's no room for error. Where time to index (placing the wheel on the studs) is concerned, we're timing to hundredths of seconds. I need to get it in there in eight tenths of a second, counting from my first movement to the moment it stops on the back plate.
If I'm slightly off and have to do a second index, that ruins the stop.
And you really don't have a way to warm up. It's not like golf where you can go to the driving range before a round.
Until the first pit stop I stretch, I take a tire in my hand and twist it around to loosen my arm and wrist, I'll warm up my hips... but no, there's really nothing I can do until I get that first tire on the right rear.
That's why all our prep work during the week is so important. We practice pit stops three days a week, we work out, we try to get our bodies right...
So what is a typical week like?
This week we got home on Sunday and were off on Monday, although some of us came in and sat in the cold tub, iced our knees, or did some rehab work.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays we come in and lift for an hour to an hour and a half and then we practice pit stops.
Generally on Fridays I'm off unless I do a truck race. And then Saturdays we're at the track if we're doing an Xfinity Series race, and of course on most Sundays we do the (Sprint) Cup race.
If you do a truck race, is it hard to blend in with a different group? You have an individual job but there is an overall choreography.
Luckily for us, the guys I'm with in Truck or Xfinity or Cup are the same guys.
When I go to a truck team, the rear changer, myself, and the fueler are all 88 Cup car guys. The jack man and the front two guys are different, but we've worked together before because we're all Hendrick Motorsports guys.
Plus a lot of us came up through the Hendrick development program together. So we've worked together, we hang out together outside of racing... we're already a team.
Let's talk about training. Is your lifting specific to the motions you use in a pit stop?
The tire changers -- the guys hitting the lug nuts -- are carrying less weight. They're more about functionality, movement, agility, so they tend to do accessory muscle lifts rather than the heavier stuff.
The rest of us carry around pretty decent weight when we do our jobs but we can't do too much lifting because the season is so long. I work out with a fraction of the weight I was using in college because I have to stay healthy for 38 to 40 weeks each year.
Our season is really long, so maintaining your body and keeping your joints healthy is really important. Shoulders, knees, lower back... you're jumping off a wall with a tire, you're bent over with the tire...after a while, everybody's knees hurt.
That's a big transition from training for football.
Your body has to go through a really big change. My first year or so I was aching all the time. Our coaches and trainers focus on making sure we do what is best for our bodies not just so we can perform during pit stops but so we can stay healthy.
For example, I squat every Tuesday, but I don't go over a certain amount in terms of weight. If I mess around and hurt myself... we literally make our money through the functionality of our bodies.
When we're training we focus on performance, not ego.
When you practice pit stops, do you sometimes practice for what happens when something goes wrong?
Yes and no. In practice you literally just try to go as fast as you can. When you do that there will naturally be mistakes. When I'm pushing the envelope, sometimes I'll hit it, other times I'll make a mistake... you try to push it in practice knowing that if you make a mistake it's okay.
Then when you go to the track you try to make it as clean as you can.
How do you transition back from pushing the limit... to being as fast as you can while staying clean?
For me, it's not a conscious effort. That ability came with time and experience. In practice I might try to throw a tire in 4 or 5 tenths, knowing I can't do that perfectly every time. But that helps me be faster when we're doing a pit stop during a race even though I'm shooting for 7 or 8 tenths.
Pushing the envelope in practice makes us better during a race.
But there definitely is a fine line between fast and too fast. Being in control and perfect and out of control is a fine, fine line.
During a race you have more to do than just carry and throw tires.
I wear two radios, one for each ear. I hear the driver, crew chief, and spotter in one ear and the crew chief, engineers and tire specialists in the other ear.
No one else on the pit crew can hear all that, so in a way I'm like a quarterback: I take what the crew chief says he wants to do during the pit stop and communicate that to the other guys.
Sometimes we know well ahead of time what we're going to do. Other times it can change when the car is seconds away from us because the crew chief makes a last-second decision based on all the information he's sifting through.
So it's a little like football.
Kind of, but this is different because the car is going 55 mph and I have just a couple of seconds to let everybody know what's going on.
Since it's too loud for us to hear each other I use hand signals. We have signals for everything, like to tell my changer whether he's leaving first from the other side of the car or if I'm leaving first.
Why would who leaves first vary?
Say I have to to make a right side wedge adjustment: I hang the tire, come up, and use a wrench to make the adjustment while I let him go around me to get to the other side. If I have to make a wedge adjustment on both sides, then he has to know I'm leaving first to go to the other side.
Being able to communicate really fast to the guys is a tool that's hard to get right all the time... but it's what we need to do.
In terms of the physical side, do you have each step down to fine movements: this foot here, next step there, turn at this step...?
That's not really possible. You don't know exactly where the car will stop, how fast he will come in, whether he'll stop closer to the wall, or if the angle will be different, or if there's a car behind that has to come around... it's always different.
So it comes down to muscle memory. And you only get that from doing hundreds of reps.
You can't think about it. You just have to do it over and over and over again.
Because it's all happening so fast, how do you know exactly how you've done on a particular stop, both as an individual and as a team?
I go watch the film. We have cameras set up over the pit stall that record everything, and we have a monitor on the back of the pit box so after every stop we can review the stop and see what we did well and what we could do better. That way we get immediate feedback.
I really like that because if I did something wrong I can analyze why. I'll replay it and replay it. I did that in football too: Rewind, play, rewind, play.
So I'll watch and think it through: a step I missed, whether my feet were set up too close... so many things affect how you hang a tire so I'll watch over and over and over again. Sometimes I'll bring the front tire carrier over and ask him what he thinks and what he sees, and he'll do the same with me.
I'm a big time film guy. I love watching film. I love analyzing myself and other people. I love watching what everybody does differently. It's a great tool for all of us. We all work together to watch the film during the race.
Before the green flag drops after a caution I've probably watched that film at least 10 times.
If you don't like analyzing yourself, you wouldn't be as good as you are.
That's what got me to where I am now. I watched hours of video every day. I just sat by myself in the coach's office going through races from the years before I was even a starter. I watched and watched and watched and watched.
Everybody has their own way of doing it... but picking up little things from people that are really good definitely helps me.
Walk me through a typical weekend.
If we do an Xfinity race we get there about four hours before the race. We clean and glue lug nuts on the tires (the lug nuts are glued to the wheel so they don't have to be attached to the stud during the actual stop) and set up the pit box. We do that race, eat, go back to the hotel, and get to the track early Sunday for the Cup race.
Sometimes we'll get there at 7 a.m. for a 1.30 race. As soon as the garage opens we put our stuff away and head straight out to pit road to set up the pit boxes. While we're doing that one of our developmental guys is running tires to us from Goodyear.
We clean tires, get them ready to be glued, and then I put a piece of tape on my tires to show me where to hold them. There's only one spoke in a wheel that lines up perfectly with a hole, and that way I don't have to look inside to see which spoke to hold. I can just run my hand down that tape and it's right there.
Then we stay loose and wait for the race.
What is your job like on an actual pit stop?
If I have to make a wedge adjustment, I hold the wrench in two fingers and the changer's hose in my pinkie. We run around the back of the of the car and I hold the hose to keep it clear and give him a lane when he takes off for the other side.
He lands, I drop the hose behind him to give him that lane, I put the wrench in the hole... and since our jack man is a monster by this time the tire we're changing is coming off already. So without even looking at the spokes on the wheel I have to flip the tire off my hip and catch it and put it on without looking at anything. While it's the air I'm turning it so it lines up properly.
Wait. You're not looking?
If I'm making a wedge adjustment, the only glimpse of the stud pattern I get is when I drop the hose. It's like I take a mental picture of that. So then as I'm coming down with the tire I can picture where the studs are.
There's no second look.
And yeah, it takes a while to get good at. It's not something you can just jump in and do well time after time.
That means you have to be accurate but you also have to be strong enough to control it.
It takes a lot of people by surprise when they come in and watch, and then try.
I have a long way to go. I tell my coaches all the time: I'm way better than I was when I started... but I'm nowhere near where I will someday be.
I've been in the sport for three years, and as a starter for almost two. I'm still a rookie in the big picture. I know people that have been carrying tires for 20 years. That's a long time. I hope my body can do it for 20 years.
That's why they work so hard with us to keep us healthy.
You've been in two world-class organizations: University of Alabama football, Hendrick Motorsports... those are amazing leadership training grounds.
I've been very lucky. I've been part of two elite programs. I've gotten to learn a lot just by being around people like this.
Thy's why I try to bring a great attitude to work every day. Plus, working with other people is what I love to do. I'm all about trying to better myself and everybody around me to get to one goal.
That's all I've ever known. Work hard, be the best you can, win championships... I'm all about the process it takes to get there, and working with my team to get to that goal.
Others in this series:
- How Metallica's Kirk Hammett Founded a Thriving Startup
- The Perfect Way to Deal With Pressure: Greg Ives, Crew Chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
- Do What You Love: Laura Graves, U.S. Olympic Dressage Team
- From Family Farm to $8 Billion in Revenue: Rick Hendrick
- Do What You Love: NASCAR Pro Series Driver Julia Landauer
- Do What You Love: World's Best Sommelier Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin
- Do What You Love: NASCAR Xfinity Driver Ross Chastain