A former Michael Waltrip Racing tire changer claims he was fired from his $160,000-a-year job in August after he demanded to have surgery for an injury suffered on pit road, while the team states he was released because he stole a specially made gun on the day he asked for permission to talk to other race teams.
Brandon Hopkins sued the team in January in North Carolina Superior Court in Charlotte, and Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) filed its response last week while also having the case moved to North Carolina Business Court.
Hopkins claims he was fired the day before shoulder surgery in August for an injury he said he suffered after being hit while pitting Clint Bowyer's car in 2013. He alleges he was told he was fired for what he characterized as unsubstantiated claims for stealing a pit-road gun, and he claims MWR retaliated against him by telling other teams that was the reason he was fired. He seeks unspecified damages.
Hopkins, who began changing tires in 2005 and joined MWR in 2012, was making $160,000 per year, according to his contract that is part of the court file. His salary comprised of a base salary as an MWR employee ($50,000), an over-the-wall crew member salary ($97,000) and a fee to participate in the team's training program ($13,000). The two-year deal, signed in September 2013, was for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
In its response to the lawsuit, MWR detailed the pit-gun incident. The pit gun, called a "clutch gun" that MWR says teams are spending hundreds of thousands and even "millions" of dollars to develop, requires MWR to have a dedicated engineer who works specifically to tailor the guns for each crew member.
MWR alleges Hopkins, angry after a bad performance at Indianapolis in 2014, demanded to have the surgery for a torn labrum a week later but wanted to work the Pocono race. Hopkins didn't use his assigned gun at Pocono but used a backup gun for one of the other pit-crew members. Pit-crew members are supposed to only use the guns assigned to them, and Hopkins wasn't authorized to use that gun, MWR states in court documents.
The team says in its response that it has footage of Hopkins taking that gun and putting it in his car, along with four or five sockets for that gun, the Monday after Pocono -- about 35 minutes after he asked for permission to waive the non-compete clause in his contract so he could seek employment elsewhere.
Later in the day, MWR alleges Hopkins printed out reports that showed the effectiveness of the guns as well as documents on pit-crew members and prospects. MWR also alleges that Hopkins' backup gun went missing earlier in the season and was never located.
In his lawsuit, Hopkins states that he was allowed to take his pit gun home and he mistakenly took the wrong gun home that night. MWR alleges he only admitted to taking the gun home once he realized the team had begun looking at shop surveillance footage. MWR also states in its filings that the two guns do not look alike and the sockets Hopkins took do not fit his gun but only the gun he took.
"At no time during any of the various meetings [about his termination] did [Hopkins] ever contend to MWR that he believed his termination had anything whatsoever to do with making a claim for worker's compensation benefits," MWR states in its response. "Rather, [he] was fully aware that he was being terminated for misappropriating MWR's property. As of that time, he had still not concocted any good faith -- or even remotely plausible -- explanation for what he had done."
MWR also questions whether Hopkins was ever injured on a pit stop, stating that he was never hit at the race he claimed he was hit -- nor the date he was claimed he was hit, which actually were not the same -- and never reported the injury to the team nor NASCAR as required.
Hopkins attorney Josh Van Kampen said Tuesday that the injury took place at Kansas in October 2013, not at Chicagoland a few weeks earlier as stated in the complaint, and the team has video of him being hit.
The sides also dispute whose decision it was to delay surgery after the injury was diagnosed in March 2014; Hopkins said he repeatedly asked to have the surgery but was encouraged to delay surgery until the team was eliminated from championship contention.
"MWR signed Brandon to three different contracts including renewing him to a two-year contract just weeks before Brandon's injury," Van Kampen said in an email. "It's ridiculous for MWR to now try to portray Brandon as a bad employee.
"They wanted him and wanted him bad, right up until he told them he wouldn't go over the wall until he had his surgery. ... Ultimately, MWR has thrown a lot of mud up against the wall to distract from what it did. We look forward to showing that none of it sticks."