Michigan Cup event was 'just another race' (not really) for Breanna O'Leary
Breanna O'Leary kept reminding herself that the Michigan NASCAR Cup event was just another race. That wasn't the case, however.
The June 10 FireKeepers Casino 400 in Brooklyn, Michigan, was the first time the Amarillo, Texas, native had ever gone over the wall as the rear tire changer on a NASCAR Cup car.
"It was exciting," O'Leary said. "I didn't think too much about how it was going to be because I was more focused on not messing up. I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be ... but I did have to tell myself that entire day that it was just another race."
O'Leary's performance on B.J. McLeod's Chevrolet at Michigan made her the fifth female from the NASCAR Rev Racing Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Program to have pitted a Cup car. She joins Nicole Addison, Stephanie Russo, Pyper Braly and Shannon Sands, according to Phil Horton, the diversity program's athletic performance director.
O'Leary's journey to becoming a professional tire changer began in September 2016 when the former Alcorn State softball player entered the diversity program in Concord, North Carolina. She trained there for several months before moving to the Xcalibur Pit School in Mooresville.
Xcalibur, which provides crew members to teams requesting the company's services, assigned O'Leary to a Cup crew for one race at Dover, Delaware, last year. She never got a chance to go over the wall because the car exited the race before the first pit stop. That wasn't the case at Michigan International Speedway. When it came time to pit the car, she followed her normal procedure.
"When I get on the wall [waiting for the car to arrive] I count to five over and over again," O'Leary said. "I have a rhythm in my head.
"For the most part, everything went right that day. I was pleased with how I did; I didn't leave the track disappointed."
O'Leary doesn't have a Cup assignment for Sunday's race at Sonoma, California. Instead, she is scheduled to change rear tires for Jordan Anderson in Saturday's NASCAR Truck race and Toni Breidinger in Friday's ARCA event, both at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois.
O'Leary became a regular rear tire changer for Venturini Motorsports after team co-owner Cathy Venturini saw her in February during the ARCA season opener at Daytona. Venturini was impressed and told the Xcalibur representative to make sure she was on one of her cars throughout the season.
"She does a great job. I am so proud of her. She has determination and drive," said Venturini, the crew chief and front tire changer on her husband Bill's ARCA entry from 1985 through 1987 when the team had an all-female crew and won the 1987 ARCA championship.
"She has a lot of odds against her because of her size [5-foot-2], but you don't have to be big to change a tire. She has hand-eye coordination; she has gun [air wrench] speed, so there is no reason for her not to be doing what she's doing.
"The hardest part is getting up, transitioning from your knees to running. I worked with her and gave her some of the stuff that I did. It's the way you position yourself on the ground [that makes the difference]."
In ARCA, O'Leary is assigned to one of the Venturini Motorsports Toyotas driven by Natalie Decker, Leilani Munter or Breidinger.
"We're trying to bring more to all of the females. We think that is a plus," Venturini said.
Venturini knows there are men who don't want women on their over-the-wall crews.
"Today, there's no reason why women can't do it," Venturini said. "Women are much more physically fit now than they were 30 years ago when we were all doing this. Women are perfectionists and they're precise, so that's why I've always said women could do this. They have a different focus point than the guys. That's not taking anything away from the guys."
When O'Leary began her pit crew training nearly two years ago, she realized she needed more upper body strength. She's in the gym by no later than 6 a.m. during the week and she has pit crew practice every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. She also works at a Nike store in Concord, North Carolina, during the week.
Last year, O'Leary didn't receive much track time, but she's been assigned to a team almost every weekend this season. While she was frustrated at times a year ago, she's happy with her progress.
"I just want to be good at everything right away," O'Leary said. "I think that comes from my competitive nature. But I was never going to give up. I realized I had an awesome opportunity. I didn't move all the way out here [to North Carolina] just to try it for six months or a year and give up."
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.