Pit crew trainees go to the wall in hopes of going over it

Check out the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program and the women who are looking to make history in the sport.

CONCORD, N.C. -- Clinching their air impact wrenches, Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O'Leary crouch like tigers waiting to pounce. They focus on the rumbling stock car that screeches to a halt in front of them and then they're off, sprinting around the front and rear of the car.

Daniels quickly removes the five lug nuts with her wrench and jerks off the 75-pound right rear wheel and tire while O'Leary does the same with the front. The tire carrier replaces the old tires with new ones and the women quickly tighten the five lug nuts. They then dash to the car's left side and repeat their performance.

Photo courtesy of NASCAR

Brehanna Daniels could become the first African-American woman to go over the wall as part of a pit crew in a NASCAR-sanctioned event.

So goes a training session for the two women in the NASCAR Rev Racing Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Program. Until they were selected last summer to participate in the program, neither had ever held an air impact wrench, worked on a car or were even interested in NASCAR.

That changed when the student-athletes took the unconventional step to become a pit crew member. Last spring, Daniels, a native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, had just completed her senior basketball season at Norfolk State. She was interning with her school, recording and editing video footage for the university's spring sports teams. O'Leary, from Austin, Texas, was the graduate assistant for Alcorn State University's strength and conditioning coach.

Neither had finalized their future plans. Daniels, 23, was considering playing professional basketball overseas. The 25-year-old O'Leary was pursuing her master's degree in athletic administration and coaching.

One day, while dining out, Daniels' life suddenly took a turn to NASCAR. The Norfolk State women's basketball announcer walked into the restaurant and told her she should to try out for the NASCAR program. That was two days before Phil Horton, the NASCAR diversity program's athletic director, visited the university.

O'Leary was encouraged by the strength and conditioning coach to attend the tryouts at Alcorn State. They were the only women at their respective trials, which included bench presses and a timed obstacle course. Three men joined Daniels at Norfolk State while nine men participated at Alcorn State.

Photo courtesy of NASCAR

Breanna O'Leary said the footwork required to play college softball has helped her in training to become a pit crew tire changer.

Three weeks after the tryout, the two were invited to a 20-person national combine in May at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord. Ten would then be selected as the first-ever "scholarship athletes" in the program. That meant an apartment, living expenses and a stipend for six months provided by Rev Racing. Both women made the top 10.

The grueling training sessions began in September and included building upper-body strength. For the first two months, they practiced twice daily, four hours each session, three days a week. The women's hands were so sore from using the impact wrenches that they were sticking them into a sink full of ice water for relief.

Now they practice 10 hours a week, Monday through Wednesday. That includes two days with Xcalibur Pit School, which is responsible for placing participants with race teams.

"It usually takes about six months to a year to actually be a tire changer and actually perform, even in the ARCA Series," said Horton, who's in his ninth year with the program that began in 2009. "We accelerated their learning curve by almost double."

Approximately 15 women have gone through the program, Horton said, but only seven have made it to pit road. Dion "Rocko" Williams, who spent a decade at Hendrick Motorsports as a tire carrier in NASCAR's premier series and assists Horton, said he believes that number could increase to nine with the two women in this year's class.

"Training other females, I noticed something different with them," Williams said. "They didn't care that it was a very demanding position. They overlooked that, kept their head down and kept digging, and they've gotten so much better."

Facing demanding situations is status quo for the women.

Daniels began playing basketball at 7 and three years later found herself the only girl on her twin brother's recreational team. She lost her mother to breast cancer when she was in ninth grade. Daniels keeps her close by wearing her mother's two tennis bracelets on her left arm, removing them only for pit practice.

Her father, an emergency room nurse, is concerned for his daughter's safety, but knows she's having fun and enjoying it. Daniels said her brother, Brehon, a running back for Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, and 5-year-old sister Kennedy (her father remarried) are both proud of her.

"She really looks up to me and she's always telling me how she's going to play all of the sports that I play or have ever played," said Daniels, who has the opportunity to become the first African-American woman to pit a car in a national racing series.

Daniels, who earned her bachelor's degree in mass communications, works part-time handling social media videos for Xcalibur. She aspires to become an actress. 

"I make videos and post them on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram," said Daniels, who has written in a daily journal since she was 14. "I [also] make funny videos. I come up with skits involving myself, post them and everybody gets a laugh. One of my videos on YouTube had 6,000 views."

O'Leary, who played outfield for Alcorn State's softball team, is the youngest of three children and the only athlete. She says the only family member who doesn't approve of her NASCAR venture is her 81-year-old paternal grandmother.

"She said it's not that feminine," said O'Leary, who plans to complete the nine hours needed for her master's degree this year. "I said, 'Well, I'm not trying to be feminine. I'm trying something new, Grandma.' She really doesn't understand sports. My dad was the only athlete out of five kids."

While O'Leary and Daniels have had success in the program, they've also experienced frustration. For O'Leary, it's not having a specific date or place to utilize her training. The two women will attend ARCA races in hopes of landing with a team, even as a backup on a pit crew.

"We're all competing for spots so you don't know if there is going to be a race for you," O'Leary said. "My parents ask me every day if I have a job yet, if I have found a team yet."

For Daniels, it has sometimes been frustrating simply being a female in a male-dominated sport.

"I feel like we're looked down upon being in a field with a lot of men. That's always tough," Daniels said.

Still, she said she is grateful for the opportunity.

"It's OK to seize opportunities because you never know what they can bring you," Daniels said. "Be willing to do anything -- don't live inside a box. Just be willing to get out there and enjoy each and every part of life. You just never know what can happen for you. You can do anything you put your mind to."

Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990, 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.

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