Photo: Dustin Long

In the drivers seat: A look at one of the coolest jobs in NASCAR

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Some moments they are Joey Logano. Other times they are Jimmie Johnson. Or Kevin Harvick. Or some other driver.

This isn’t a video game or make-believe. This is role-playing in the real world: They pilot a Cup car. Crew members leap from the wall. Air guns whine. Lug nuts fly.

Cup drivers rarely have time to take part in pit practice. So someone has to drive the car. That perk typically goes to an entry-level employee whose duties often include gluing lug nuts to wheels, stacking tires and monitoring air tanks.

Mark Morrison said he’ll never forget the first time he drove the car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports.

That was 17 years ago.

One of the sport’s coolest jobs is more than a joy ride. Teams rely on these drivers to place the car in the right position so pit crews can hone their skills. With track position critical and tenths of a second the difference between winning and losing, what happens in pit practice can make a difference in a race.

It all begins with who is driving the car.

THE FRATERNITY OF PIT CAR DRIVERS

Marcus Horton is 30 but looks young enough to get carded. His father, Phil, is the pit coach for the Drive for Diversity program but Marcus Horton didn’t plan to be a pit crew member.

He has a business degree from Marshall University but admits: “For me, I wouldn’t want to be in an office all day. I like getting my hands dirty. I probably should have took up something different in college than business. I like art, I like photographs, but I’m not sure how well that was going to translate into the real world. I thought maybe I should do something that would benefit me in the long run.”

A couple of years after graduating, Horton asked his dad if he would coach him to be a pit crew member. The younger Horton was in the Drive for Diversity program for three years and served as a pit crew member for Carl Long’s Xfinity team last year. Horton joined Stewart-Haas Racing in December as a developmental pit crew member.

Erick Harps drove the car during pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports until a recent promotion to the engine shop. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Erick Harps, 22, was recently promoted to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, ending his tenure driving the pit car. He trained at Universal Technical Institute in California. Harps moved to North Carolina two years ago to work in the sport. About six months after he arrived, he got a job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Chris Tomberlin, 22, joined Team Penske on Jan. 2 as a developmental pit crew member. He will graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was a receiver on the football team.

“I’ve always been a fan of racing,” Tomberlin said. “The (job) opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t not accept it.”

That was before he found out he would be driving a stock car.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CAR

When Harps told his parents he drove a car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports, his mother screamed in excitement.

But that wasn’t the first time he had been in a car. He had to undergo training — as any Hendrick pit car driver does — before taking part in live pit stops.

“You can’t step into one of them and think you’re going to drive it,” Harps said.

Hendrick Motorsports’ car has a race engine, providing more horsepower than a standard passenger car. The Hendrick car has a manual transmission, not automatic like many passenger cars, so if you can’t drive a stick, you wouldn’t be able to drive these cars.

Hendrick Motorsports also sets the car for each track. With the series heading to Talladega Superspeedway, that means the car will have a smaller brake package. 

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they have three different pit cars, so Horton has to know each of them. Each steering wheel is different. One is tight, another turns more freely and the other one rates between the two. The brakes also are different in each car. They’re touchy on one car, less so on the others.

“Every day it’s a like a new day for me trying to figure out where the car is going to stop and how I’m going to handle it,” Horton said.

That’s why each driver makes test runs before pit crews jump in front of the car.

“SILVER DOLLAR EYES”

One of the biggest adjustments for any pit car driver is seeing people run in front of the car during practice.

“The craziest thing is just from driving normally out on the roads, your instinct is to avoid a person” said Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports and a former pit car driver.

Having people run in front of the car is jarring for new pit car drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“But when you are driving a pit practice car, you have to just focus on your mark because there are guys jumping all around you and you can’t veer from your path or then they will be in danger. So you have to literally put the blinders on and just expect that they’re going to get out of your way.”

Chris Krieg, pit crew coach at Stewart-Haas Racing, says when pit car drivers first do live stops, they all have the same condition. He calls it “silver dollar eyes” for how their eyes widen.

Horton admits when the pit crews started jumping in front of him, it altered how he entered the pit stall.

“I was stopping earlier and slowing down a lot sooner,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on our team. It was definitely a hard time because they would be like ‘You can bring it in hotter,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually I can’t because I think I’m going to hit you guys if I do that.’”

DO YOUR JOB

If the car stops beyond where the crew is positioned, they have to adjust and it slows the stop. Same for when the car stops too short.

There are times when a pit coach will tell the driver to purposely stop short or long or close to the pit wall to test the pit crew and prepare them for possible race situations. Other times, it’s more important to hit the right spots so the pit crew can get their reps.

“The more you practice during the week with the guy who knows exactly how to put the car where he needs to put it, the better you feel for the race track on Sunday,” said Landon Walker, fueler for William Byron’s team.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ll have Horton or whoever else is driving the car to try to imitate each of the drivers for the pit crews. Each driver has their own nuance on how they enter the stall, something you likely can’t tell unless you saw them pit time after time. There are those who will lock their brakes to stop or roll the car in or stop short consistently. 

“The (pit car) driver is critical,” Krieg said. “If we waste a bunch of practice because they’re not hitting the marks where we need them to, they’re wasting time and reps and beating and banging on the crews’ body. Every rep is valuable and those guys have to be spot on.”

A PART OF THE ACTION

It’s a ride of a lifetime even if one is only traveling about 50 yards to the pit stall.

“It’s got a lot of power behind it,” Harps said. “The clutch is not an easy thing to overcome just because it’s stronger than a regular clutch. You have to have a lot of leg power. It’s very hard to get going without spinning the tire.”

Once the car stops in the stall, there’s still more for the driver to do. Keep the wheel straight for the tire changers. Don’t stall the car.

“It’s cool to actually be able to feel the changers hit their lugs and feel the jackman make his first punch on the car, feel the carriers slamming that tire on the car,” Tomberlin said. “It’s rare to be able to experience it.”

It’s an experience only a few get. It’s quite a ride.

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NASCAR America presents the Motorsports Hour, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents the Motorsports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider, Danielle Trotta, Parker Kligerman and Steve Letarte will discuss multiple auto racing disciplines, including NASCAR and IndyCar.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. throws perfect strike for Red Sox

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With the Boston Red Sox nearly 10 games behind their No. 1 rivals, the American League East-leading New York Yankees, they could use some additional pitching help.

A good southpaw would be a big help.

They got some help on Wednesday – for one pitch at least, that is – as Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. threw out the first pitch prior to the game vs. the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

Scouts likely had a few raised eyebrows when Stenhouse threw a perfect strike.

 

I’ve thrown out first pitches at some minor league games, but Fenway Park puts it at a whole ‘nother level,” Stenhouse told NESN.com.

But Stenhouse, wearing a No. 17 jersey, delivered when it was his turn atop the mound. In a sense, it was a home game for Stenhouse, as Red Sox owner John Henry is a part-owner of Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse and teammate Ryan Newman, who was also in uniform for the game, were in Boston on their way to this weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stenhouse is currently 19th in the standings and with seven races left to make the playoffs, he knows how significant this weekend will be for him.

It’s very important,” Stenhouse told NESN. “New Hampshire could be one of those turning points. We’re 19th in points and need to get to 16th. Or we could win and just lock ourselves in that way, too.

Hopefully, we’ll have a fast enough car and play the right strategy to put ourselves in a position to win. These next few races are definitely critical to us to make sure we do our part. We’ll need somebody else to falter a little bit, but we’re going to go out and do our job and see how things play out.”

And if Stenhouse doesn’t make the playoffs, he might want to keep that pitching arm warm and loose, just in case the Red Sox really need him.

 

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Ryan Vargas set for Xfinity debut at Iowa Speedway

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Ryan Vargas, a member of the 2018-19 NASCAR Next class and 2019 Drive for Diversity program, is set to make his Xfinity Series debut next weekend at Iowa Speedway.

JD Motorsports announced Wednesday Vargas will drive its No. 15 Chevrolet in the July 27 U.S. Cellular 250, which will air on NBCSN.

Vargas, 18, competed full-time in the K&N Pro Series East last year for Rev Racing. Vargas was let go by Rev Racing in December and has spent this season racing late models and competing for the Irwindale Speedway track championship.

The race at Iowa will mark Vargas’ national NASCAR series debut. Vargas said making his Xfinity debut at Iowa “just makes sense” given his seventh-place finish there last year in the K&N Series.

“Last year, I felt that I was able to run my best race all year at the speedway, and to have the chance to drive for a well-respected team owner in Johnny Davis really adds to the excitement heading into the weekend,” Vargas said in a press release. “I think if we can keep all the fenders on my No. 15 Chevrolet and run as many laps as possible, the weekend will be a success. At this point in my career, I want to learn as much as I can so I can keep moving up the NASCAR ladder, so I am not necessarily worried about what the results show.”

Vargas will be sponsored by Cranio Care Bears, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of Craniosynostosis, a condition that causes problems with a child’s brain and skull growth. Vargas underwent surgery when he was 11 months old to correct issues from it.

“It means a lot to me to be able to help bring awareness to this great charity in Cranio Care Bears through the sport that I love so much,” Vargas said. “I know that I will have a lot of little supporters cheering me on that look up to me as a role model in the Cranio community, and I want to show them that anything is possible, even with the condition.”

 

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Updated entry lists for NASCAR at New Hampshire

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The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will be in action this weekend at the 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off until July 27 at Pocono Raceway.

Here are the entry lists for the Cup and Xfinity races at New Hampshire:

Cup – Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 37 cars entered.

Quin Houff will be back in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.

Andy Seuss is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford and will make his Cup debut. Austin Theriault will also make his Cup debut in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 Chevrolet.

Click here for the full entry list.

Xfinity — Roxor 200 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 41 cars entered.

Cup regular Paul Menard will be driving the No. 12 Team Penske Ford Mustang.

Ryan Truex will be making his third Xfinity start of the season in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Tyler Matthews will make his third Xfinity start of 2019 in the No. 15 JD Motorsports Chevrolet.

Harrison Burton makes his third start of the season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Kaz Grala is entered in his fourth race of the year in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Canadian driver Alex Labbe makes his third start of 2019 in the No. 90 DGM Racing Chevrolet.

CJ McLaughlin will make his Xfinity Series debut, driving the No. 93 RSS Racing Chevrolet.

Click here for the full entry list.