Pit crew fitness remains a top priority

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Ray Gallahan had a split second to decide what to do when the No. 22 Penske Racing Sprint Cup car came screaming into the pit stall with another car approaching fast to cut off his angle around the front end.

Option 1 was to wait for the other car to pass, which would have resulted in a lengthy stop that would have at best left his driver at the tail end of the lead lap.

Option 2 was to get taken out by the other car, which really wasn't an option unless you like ambulance rides.

Option 3 was to hurdle the front end of the 22 and hope for the best.

Gallahan took the third option, flawlessly leaping the hood carrying a 45-pound jack, never missing a beat and making a dangerously difficult move look routine.

"That's the difference between athletes that come into the sport and guys that aren't," Penske Racing pit crew coach Trent Cherry says as he runs the video from a 2011 Martinsville race. "If you watch it in fast forward you don't notice it as much, but when you slow it down it looks like one of those 'Dukes of Hazzard' shows where they stop it right before they go over the ramp.

"This isn't going to look good."

Gallahan looks like a prototypical NFL tight end or NBA small forward, which is typical in today's pit crew members. That he never played professional or college sports isn't so typical.

Pit road is fast becoming a playground for ex-athletes who knew little about NASCAR before arriving in the sport.

"I'm interested to see how far this whole deal progresses," Gallahan says. "Every year it seems I move closer to the bottom of the barrel in athletic skills."

Ten years ago, Gallahan was the strongest member of the Penske Racing pit crew, but because of the influx of ex-athletes -- as well as much-improved facilities -- he's now ninth.

It has become this way because teams discovered they can make up positions easier on pit road than on the track. Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star Race last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway because his Hendrick Motorsports pit crew moved him from fourth to second with an 11.8-second stop before the final 10-lap segment.

Kurt Busch lost the nonpoints event because a 13.5-second stop dropped him from first to fifth.

"You have a lot of guys that are still good pit crew guys that didn't play in college or the pro environment, but all the recruiting now is being shifted toward the more athletic guys," Cherry, a former quarterback at Lenoir-Rhyne University and tire-changer on the 22, says.

Yes, recruiting.

HMS first raised the level for everyone in the mid-1990s when Andy Papathanassiou, a former Stanford football player, was hired to revolutionize the assembly and training of pit crews with Jeff Gordon's famous Rainbow Warriors.

Starting in 2008, there were NFL-like combines in which athletes from across the country tried out for spots that used to be held by people who worked in the shop or friends of the organization.

A few years ago, HMS built a state-of-the-art performance training facility that includes a 75-yard Astroturf field and a six-lane, 60-yard rubberized track. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, implemented an NFL-type depth chart of crew members to make them interchangeable on a moment's notice.

Knaus made three changes before the All-Star Race, which years ago might have been disastrous because continuity was a big part of consistency.

Other organizations have responded in the same way top Division I colleges do to improve recruitment. Penske Racing hired former Carolina Panthers strength coach Shawn Powell four years ago and, a few months ago, unveiled a new 3,500-square-foot state-of-the-art workout room on par with many NFL facilities to train pit crew members for both NASCAR and IndyCar.

Crew members use tools such as the VertiMax, which for years has helped increase speed and explosiveness in college, NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA players.

Gallahan has dropped his time from leaving the wall to raising the right side of the car by about two-tenths of a second -- 3.4 overall -- since using the resistance training system.

That might not sound like much, but on the track it can amount to a position or more.

"I thought I was topped out last year," Gallahan says. "I never would have guessed the split times would come down more."

Aaron Walker, a jackman for Penske's Nationwide Series team and the No. 7 Cup team of Tommy Baldwin Racing, used the VertiMax at the NFL combine before being selected in the fifth round of the 2003 draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

"It's almost like Division I sports as far as recruiting," Walker, who began his career at HMS, says. "The better facility you have, the better chance you have to get that top athlete to come in there and train like he was used to."

Cherry scours the news looking for former available NFL players the way general managers scout the waiver wire looking for talent. When he recently heard about former New York Giants punter Matt Dodge, the goat on DeSean Jackson's 65-yard return for a touchdown with no time left in Philadelphia's amazing 38-31 victory in 2010, he immediately thought "prospect" because of his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds).

"If you look at our big board, there's probably 15 college athletes on it," Cherry says as he points to a depth chart on his office wall. "Everybody is doing it."

It's another reason the big teams are more successful. They have the money and resources to pour into such projects that smaller teams don't.

HMS's tryouts have gotten so big they're by invitation only and often held in locations such as Omaha, Neb., and Phoenix, followed by a two-day minicamp.

It's a worthy investment. Think about it this way. If you invest half a million dollars into a pit crew over the course of a season, as some organizations do, and you win the Daytona 500 or All-Star Race because of a fast pit stop, you've more than covered your cost.

That teams are willing to pay for top athletes, and top athletes like the idea of staying around the team atmosphere they're accustomed to, is another reason for the big influx.

"The big thing for me was keeping that competitive fire going," Walker says. "Being on the pit crew is a lot like the NFL atmosphere. There's a lot of camaraderie, but when it's time for business, it's time for business.

"Being a part of a team, having a good time and succeeding together -- it's just part of the evolution of the sport."

Powell was shocked by the caliber of athlete on pit crews when he arrived at Penske. He now trains a jackman like he would a tight end to get an explosive first move, a tire-changer like he would a wide receiver for hand-eye coordination.

That's why the VertiMax and other equipment he requested are on par with what he had with the Panthers.

Between Penske's two truck teams, two Nationwide teams, two Cup teams and two IndyCar teams, Powell works with about 50 pit crew members.

They've gotten so big and strong that driver Joey Logano feels humbled around them.

"Look at me; I'm pretty freaking huge," he says with a laugh. "When I first got here, I was working out at the same time as the jackmen. I'm sitting there with my 35s and 40s [weights] and they're pumping these huge numbers.

"I'm like, 'OK, I'm going to work out at a different time. I don't feel so good about myself anymore.'"

Penske built its new weight room in part because of the urging of reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who came from the atmosphere at HMS and saw the benefits it reaped.

"I thought it was important," he says.

It was important because in today's world having the best pit crew is as important as having the best crew chief and engineers. Having top athletes is crucial, particularly with more hot days ahead like the ones at Dover this past weekend.

Walker compared the heat during Saturday's Nationwide race to training camp in St. Louis in 2007.

"It's real similar to having full pads on and being in the hot sun and trying to perform at the highest level," he says.

Having ex-athletes who are used to the pressures of competition also is key.

"They're used to the last-second situations where you have to make split decisions," says Baldwin, who was a pit crew member when mechanics and floor sweepers were the norm.

Gallahan's move at Martinsville is a perfect example. A high school basketball player, he showed grace and athleticism going over the hood the way LeBron James does going for a dunk.

Had this been a pit crew member 10 or 15 years ago, Cherry says, "You're done. You're three boxes down pit road."

Gallahan laughs.

"I don't know if I could do it again," he says. "I don't know if I want to try. When you're faced with being either a hood ornament or jumping, you do things you might not think is normal."

And it takes athletes who now are the norm on pit road to do that.