CONCORD, N.C. — A former football player and track and field athlete at Stanford, Andy Papathanassiou felt a void in his athletic career upon his graduation in 1990 with an economics degree and a master’s in organizational behavior.
He tried his hand at rugby, but it was only a dalliance.
As he was recovering from back surgery a year after graduation, Papathanassiou made a list of opportunities he was interested in exploring.
“And racing was on the list,’’ he said, even though he had no background or contacts in the sport.
“I was good working with my hands and my time had freed up after finishing up with school and sports,’’ said Papathanassiou, who played offensive guard and competed in the shot put and discus for the Cardinal.
When he saw NASCAR would be staging a Sprint Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., Papathanassiou decided to see what job opportunities existed in racing.
“Not being one to just sit up in the stands and watch, I actually got up there the first day of practice and snuck in the garage area and convinced a team to let me help out for the weekend,’’ he said.
It proved a life-altering experience, as Papathanassiou spent the weekend working for the now-defunct Whitcomb Racing team and driver Derrike Cope.
“I ran tires around, swept out the pit, waxed up the car, cleaned up the car between practices, put tools back in the tool box, really, just anything,’’ he said. “Back then, even the top-level Cup teams were shorthanded.’’
Working in support of the pit crew, Papathanassiou saw his first pit stop: “It looked like a football play, a sort of coordinated group activity,’’ he said. Seeing an opportunity to apply his athleticism, Papathanassiou asked if it was possible to try out.
“What I was told was that teams didn’t practice, that they were guys who had been doing this for a long time,’’ Papathanassiou said. “They were skilled mechanics, who got together on Sunday and did pit stops.
“That’s when the light bulb kind of went off for me, because any group activity can benefit from repetition and coaching and so on. So that was the very initial stages of it.’’
It was a moment of clarity that resulted in Papathanassiou quitting his job as a contract manager with Oracle Software in 1991 and moving to NASCAR’s hub of racing in North Carolina in pursuit of a career as a pit crew coach. After he landed a low-paying job with Whitcomb Racing and later with Alan Kulwicki Racing, where he taught himself to be a jack man “and became my first pupil,’’ Papathanassiou became the first pit crew coach in NASCAR when Ray Evernham hired him at Hendrick Motorsports to train and develop Jeff Gordon’s “Rainbow Warriors.’’
“Ray was looking for someone to do what I wanted to do officially, which was coach a pit crew,’’ said Papathanassiou, 45, now the director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports, which has been an industry leader in the training and development of pit crew members and the scouting and recruiting of potential prospects at the college level.
“Ray wanted to have the shop guys and the pit crew guys separate,’’ Papathanassiou said. “He didn’t want any sort of effort in the pit area to disrupt what was going on in the shop and vice versa.
“When the shop guys needed to work extra, he wanted to make sure that the pit guys could stay on their game and do what they needed to do. So we found each other and he hired me as the first pit coach. I still had duties in the shop, but my primary responsibility was to coach the crew.
“Because I had viewed this as an athletic event from the start, instead of looking for outside mechanics to fill the requirements, we started looking for guys with athletic experience.’’
With NASCAR having placed its competitors in an ever-shrinking box in which to operate, the only way to gain any kind of advantage — and improved track position — was through execution on pit road. Which explained why Papathanassiou and Hendrick were at the forefront training athletes for their six-man crews.
“Pit crew recruiting was outside the box thinking, really,’’ said Marshall Carlson, HMS president and chief operating officer. “What do you mean we’re going to go out and recruit athletes and combine kids in college who are athletes and know nothing about racecars and have never been to a NASCAR race, but we’re going to teach them? OK, let’s try it.
“Well, it’s starting to pay dividends. But there was an investment period there for at least two years where it was not fruitful and it was incubating and developing, and now we’re starting to see the results of that.’’
Time is of the essence
That much was evident for the crew of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Quaker State 400 June 30 at Kentucky Speedway. Led by Lance Munksgard, an assistant to 48/88 pit crew coach Greg Morin, the 88 crew submitted a yeoman’s effort that resulted in Earnhardt posting a fourth-place finish.
On the team’s first stop, however, Nick Covey, a jack man from Livermore, Calif., who played four seasons as a linebacker at Nebraska, overcome a misstep when a lug nut caused him to nearly slide and fall as he rounded the front of Earnhardt’s car while lugging a 35-pound jack.
“There’s going to be lug nuts, they’re like land mines out there,’’ said Covey, a member of the first class of pit crew recruits at HMS, who is now in his first starting season as a jack man on the 88 crew. “If you see them in time, you can dodge them, but that time it caught my foot and the lug nut slid me out and somehow I kept my feet.’’
Covey made an athletic move to swing his hip in time to catch himself, wasting precious little time on an impressive 12.4-second stop when the average for four tires is 13.8 seconds. The bobble was almost undetectable to the naked eye, but further review on a video monitor enabled the team to see how Covey overcame his mistake. “Nice recovery,’’ Munksgard said.
On the next stop, Earnhardt came into the pits in sixth but left in seventh after a 15.7-second stop when a lug nut came loose from the right front tire and was not properly threaded. The crew came back to rip off another 12.4-second stop when Earnhardt pitted for four tires and fuel on Lap 200.
The work enabled Earnhardt to climb to fourth, prompting chief Steve Letarte to celebrate with his over-the-wall gang.
“With football, they talk about giving 110 percent,’’ said Kevin Harris, the front tire carrier on the No. 88 and a former running back at Wake Forest.
“Even if you’re wrong [playing football], if you go full speed you can be right,’’ Harris said. “Well, in NASCAR, especially with pit stops, you can go 110 percent and that’s fine. But if you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and it’s amplified because everyone is going to see it and the clock is ticking.
“There’s so much strategy in football for the offense to hold onto the ball, but we don’t want to hold onto the car any longer than 13 seconds.’’
Earnhardt solidified his finish when he came in for one last splash of fuel on Lap 214, putting gas man Caleb Hurd, a former special teams player at Virginia Tech, in the spotlight. Hurd, a native of Pulaski, Va, who works also as an engineer in the team’s race shop, delivered in the clutch with an 3.8-second stop.
“It wasn’t our best,’’ Hurd said of the crew’s overall performance at Kentucky. “But it wasn’t a lot of self-inflicted stuff. It was one of those bad-luck deals when the lug nut came off, but everybody bounced back and kept their head up and we ended the night solidly with three good stops and got him back up front, so it was good to bounce back from adversity like that.’’
It didn’t deter Earnhardt from lauding the work of his crew after the 400-mile race.
“They did an awesome job,’’ Earnhardt said. “We had some problems with some lug nuts falling off at the start of the race, but they did a good job of maintaining their cool and staying focused. They’ve been super fast all year, no problems whatsoever. They’ve been on it.’’
Earnhardt’s crew was back at the shop the Monday after the race at 6 a.m. for a three-hour workout that included video review of their stops, stretching exercises, specialized work in the team’s newly-renovated 5,000-square-foot gym, heat training on a $500,000 performance facility, and practice stops on a pit pad.
“This is my 11th year with the team,’’ Hurd said. “When I first came down here, it was a Universal [weight] machine, a bench, and a bike. That’s all we had. The level of preparation has definitely progressed. The time we put down here is different. It used to be we’d come in at lunch and the pit crew would work out. Now we have 3-4 hours together to practice and work out. It’s definitely changed.’’
At Hendrick Motorsports, it is in keeping with the team’s proactive approach toward its pit crew, which began with the hiring of Papathanassiou as the sport’s first pit crew coach.
“I’m like an athletic director, so I don’t coach a crew anymore,’’ Papathanassiou said. “But this athletic department that we created and that has grown from my hire, initially, that’s the department I direct.
“So we’ve got coaches and trainers and our own fitness facility and rehab and scouting and recruiting and upgrading of facilities and so on, and all those chiropractors and sports psychologists. Again, all the resources for these crews that you would think would be available at a college, that’s what we have available here.’’