CONCORD, N.C. — Three times a week, a piercing shrill from an air-powered impact wrench rotating at 11,000 revolutions per minute penetrates the campus of Hendrick Motorsports here.
The ear-bleeding blast lasts less than 11 seconds. Anything longer is unacceptable.
“We expect the pit crew to be able to change four tires in less than 11 seconds,” said Doug Duchardt, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.
The six-man “over-the-wall” pit crew hops a wall on pit road during a NASCAR race as a driver veers in. The crew has seconds to jack the car, change the tires and refuel it. If they can shave off even one second in that timing, it gives a driver an edge, Duchardt said.
The job requires athleticism, strength to lift 70-pound wheels and tires, and an ability to work as a synchronized team and keep calm under pressure. To do that, the crew repeatedly practices its frenzied dance at the campus for 90 minutes three times a week on a miniature racetrack using an actual race car. The practices are videotaped and studied for ways to improve, Duchardt said. In one improvement, Hendrick Motorsports produced its own impact wrench. It has a top speed of 11,000 rpms, about 3,500 rpms faster than an impact wrench used at the average tire shop.
The crew must be in tip-top shape, so Hendrick Motorsports’ campus has a running track and a gym and holds yoga and stretching classes. The stretching is usually done the Monday after a race, Duchardt said. There are trainers on staff to make sure the crew members, like professional athletes, stay healthy and fit. Head trainer is Gene Monahan, the former head athletic trainer for the New York Yankees.
“These guys who do this are all former athletes,” Duchardt said. “We recruit them from college. They played football, hockey and baseball.”
One is Landon Walker, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound-plus mountain of a man who effortlessly hoists a 100-pound tank of gasoline onto his shoulder to refuel the car in seconds. Walker, an offensive lineman for Clemson University’s football team until 2011, was picked up by the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals until a knee injury ended his football career. He joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and is the fueler for No. 5 Chevrolet driver Kasey Kahne.
“We have a full-time recruiter who goes to college campuses, and we invite guys to try out,” said Duchardt.
Last year, 100 people tried out. Six made the cut. It’s dangerous and demanding, but a top tire changer can make $180,000 a year, Duchardt said.
Being physically fit isn’t enough, though. Pit-crew members share a mental edge, said Duchardt. “They like to compete.”