Apr 1, 2015Off to the Races
There is a growing trend in NASCAR to stock pit crews with elite athletes. To keep them firing on all cylinders, the strength coaches at Hendrick Motorsports employ a detailed training regimen.
The following article appears in the March 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Mark Morrison, MS, USAW, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Hendrick Motorsports and oversees the pit crew training for the organization’s four Sprint Cup teams. Since he was hired in 2002, Hendrick Motorsports has won six season championships in NASCAR’s top series, now known as the Sprint Cup. He can be reached at: [email protected].
At the 1997 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, NASCAR star and Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon was experiencing some issues with his car. Gordon entered the race with a chance to win the Winston Million, a special $1 million bonus for any driver who won three of NASCAR’s four biggest races in one season. But Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet wasn’t handling well, forcing him to make more than a dozen pit stops during the race to fix the problem.
In most cases, such frequent visits to pit road would take a driver out of contention for the checkered flag. However, Gordon was backed by his famous “Rainbow Warriors” pit crew, who propelled him to the winner’s circle that day and helped secure the Winston Million.
The win also drove home the importance of a top-notch pit crew. The Rainbow Warriors first made a splash in NASCAR in 1993. Professionally conditioned and decked out in rainbow-striped fire suits that matched Gordon’s vibrant car, these performers stood out on pit road for their professionalism, strength, and athleticism. While most drivers at the time had crews composed of mechanics, the Rainbow Warriors were well-trained athletes who would serve as the pioneers for pit crews as we know them today.
The trailblazing leader in the pit crew movement was former Stanford University offensive lineman Andy Papathanassiou, a member of the first Rainbow Warriors squad. Papathanassiou was hired to lead and train the pit crew, and he wanted his program to mirror the NCAA Division I athletics he experienced at Stanford. The goal was to develop faster pit crews by recruiting athletes and building a specialized staff similar to that of a collegiate athletic department. He foresaw a team that included an athletic director, pit crew coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and therapy and rehab personnel.
To bring that vision to life, Hendrick began to incorporate strength and conditioning into its pit crew training. In 2002, Papathanassiou asked me to join the team to focus on developing pit crews physically. At the time, I was a young strength coach with a football background from stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Florida State University, and the University of South Florida, but I was on board from the start. From there, Papathanassiou’s vision took off.
My position has greatly evolved since joining Hendrick. Papathanassiou carefully took what I already knew from my football experience and helped mold me into what I am today. In racing, the objective of pit crew athletes is not to tackle a running back or dominate an offensive line. Rather, the goal is to perform each pit stop in a quick, fluid, and mistake-free manner. Papathanassiou has helped me understand the differences.
In the years since I joined the team, Papathanassiou has become the Director of Human Performance at Hendrick—essentially our athletic director—and the organization has become the industry leader in training pit crew members as athletes. Our emphasis on pit crew training has played an important role in our teams’ success—which includes one XFINITY Series championship and six elite Sprint Cup Series championships in my 14 years here—and has been widely adopted throughout the sport.
IN THE PIT
One of the main ways Papathanassiou revolutionized pit crew training was by recruiting individuals as much for the way they think as for their physical abilities. He coined the phrase “over-the-wall philosophy,” which focuses on the conceptual building blocks of successful athletes—namely, the importance of practice and repetition, the value of coaching, and the ability to overcome adversity.
A growing trend in NASCAR is to recruit former collegiate athletes to man pit crews. This typically is a good fit because the athletes are accustomed to the pressures of competition and the structure of a strength and conditioning regimen.
Our strength staff is set up like most college or professional programs, and since my arrival, I have played a part in the construction of a successful operation that has grown to include two full-time assistants and two interns. My two assistant coaches are Matt Skeen, USAW, CES, and Darius Dewberry, USAW. Both of these men are former Division I football athletes—Skeen at Gardner-Webb University and Dewberry at the University of Georgia. Each coach plays a pivotal role in the day-to-day operations of the weightroom and the performance training field.
Hendrick’s training facilities rival the best in collegiate and professional sports. They recently underwent renovations, and we are now the first NASCAR team to have an outdoor training center custom-made for pit crews that includes a track, field, and sand pit. We also have a state-of-the-art weightroom.
Athletes who come to work on our pit crews know they are receiving optimal training from top-notch coaches. However, while some elements of our program are familiar, athletes entering the world of auto racing from other sports have a lot to get used to. First, they must learn the different roles on a pit crew and find the one that best suits their skills.
When a car pulls into pit road, six crew members are allowed to go over the wall—a jackman, gasman, front-tire carrier, front-tire changer, rear-tire carrier, and rear-tire changer. The jackman is responsible for raising both sides of the car so the tires can be replaced, using one explosive pump from a 35-pound jack. The tire carriers hoist the 25-pound tires over the wall and assist the tire changers as they remove the lug nuts from the old tire with an air gun, take the tire off, slip a new tire on, and tighten its lug nuts. While all of this is happening, the gasman fills the car with gasoline from large steel cans that weigh upward of 90 pounds each.
Athletes new to racing are often surprised by the unique physical demands of the sport. Our crew members never reach a maximum linear speed or cover lengthy distances. All of their movements occur in the very confined space around the car as other drivers zoom in and out of surrounding pits.
However, each stop gives a team the opportunity to gain track position, so speed is crucial. A pit stop to change four tires and fill the fuel cell can be done in as little as 11 seconds, putting quickness and agility at a premium. One misstep can send a car to the back of the field.
Finally, athletes have to adjust to the taxing schedule of racing. The NASCAR season is possibly the most grueling in professional sports. Races are run almost every week from February through November, and there is little downtime once the season starts off. Plus, races are held from coast to coast, meaning near-constant travel.
TIME TO TRAIN
I believe most strength and conditioning professionals will agree that if you put 20 coaches in a room and ask them to describe their programs, you will find 20 different ideas about what is best. To me, that’s okay because we must be open to new thoughts and ideas. At the end of the day, as long as you are developing happy, healthy, strong, lean, and agile athletes, you have done your job.
In NASCAR, the objective of pit crew members is to work together to perform explosive, well-orchestrated movements around the car and finish at the same time, and we train them to become champions. Because our season is so long, being physically fit and healthy is crucial to achieving success. Therefore, each role on a pit crew requires consistent strength, agility, and endurance, and we work on all three throughout the year.
Our teams understand the importance of weight training and the vital role it plays in the development of muscular strength. We lead our athletes through strength training with an annual plan that also includes sessions focusing on core work, quick-feet drills, and agility routines. Once the athletes build their muscular strength, the program becomes a progression of increasing the muscles’ ability to apply force. If our athletes can stay strong all year, we feel it will pay off when we are in the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR’s season-ending playoff system.
When it comes to strength training, our philosophy at Hendrick is to emphasize technique by focusing on the way each repetition is executed. For example, when our athletes perform a multi-joint exercise, we want the downward movement to be slow and under control. We never sacrifice technique and control for rep speed or added weight.
Agility is important when training pit crew athletes because they are expected to be nimble and responsive. Our racecars are 6.5 feet wide, so our pit crew members cover less than 20 feet during any one stop. Since fractions of a second matter, footwork and explosiveness within this confined area are crucial, and we routinely work these elements into our training activities throughout the year. This can include band work or resisted short shuttle drills that are very specific to what our athletes do around the car. We also incorporate a takeoff power progression, which includes a variety of bounding activities and other lower-body plyometric work.
We do extra agility work during the preseason months of January and February as the athletes get into the swing of a new season. This typically consists of cone drills, ladder drills, dot drills, and line drills to increase foot quickness. The added emphasis on agility during the preseason helps the pit crew athletes prepare for our first and biggest race, the Daytona 500, in mid-February.
A race can exceed five hours, which means that endurance is important in order to sustain maximum performance on each stop. Traditionally, we start each January in a prep phase with a focus on endurance. The workouts include high reps (10 to 12) on strength exercises, and we combine most lifts with quick feet drills to keep the athletes’ heart rates up. As the weeks go on, the reps and sets change to fit the rest of our annual plan. (See “Start Off Right” below for a sample January prep phase.)
Endurance is especially important during summer races, when the temperature in the pits often surpasses 100 degrees. To help our athletes perform at their best even on the hottest days, we incorporate a heat-training program into our annual plan. This involves a circuit of six to 12 stations that is completed outdoors. We start the heat-training program in the spring and end it after the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August, which is typically one of our hottest races of the season.
While strength, agility, and endurance are crucial for our team’s success, emphasizing recovery is the key to getting our athletes through a long season. We encourage the team to get adequate sleep, and we regularly include foam rolling and massage sticks in our daily active warm-up. We’re also big proponents of soft-tissue mobilization.
Throughout the year, we periodically go through a series of progressions that include “deload” weeks. Our mesocycles last four, six, or eight weeks, and after each mesocycle, we deload. During a deload week, our crew members perform low-impact activities that focus on recovery, such as yoga and water training. We have found that deloading and active rest are beneficial because they allow our athletes to rest their joints and muscles.
We occasionally incorporate hand-to-hand combat into our deload weeks, such as Krav Maga, because it is ground-based and improves athletes’ balance and quickness. With smart and innovative training, we can successfully meet the demands necessary to compete at the highest level throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Most recently, we have begun paying much closer attention to nutrition. Each year, we spend more time with the pit crew members going over what they eat and how they should fuel their body for optimum performance. Since the athletes often do their weight training shortly before their pit crew practice, we emphasize the importance of replenishing with a combination of protein and carbohydrates between these sessions.
Hendrick Motorsports was one of the first auto racing organizations to incorporate strength and conditioning into pit crew training. But one of the reasons we’ve been so successful with it in the years since is because we are constantly evaluating our program and looking for ways to improve.
We push our athletes to be great by reviewing their progress every April and October. We evaluate their physical skills through a series of tests and take body measurements to monitor their height, weight, and percent of body fat. Then, we evaluate them on intangible traits, including leadership skills and mental toughness. The findings are compiled into a pit profile that each athlete receives. This helps us monitor them as well as keep track of their individual goals. (See a sample pit profile below.)
As a staff, we also go through a review process. At the end of the season, we spend one day off-campus replaying the events of the year. During this session, we discuss what worked in our program and what we can do better for the upcoming season. For us, success means keeping the athletes injury-free and providing a safe training environment.
Our strength and conditioning coaches share a common goal—we want our athletes to excel. We’re reminded of this objective whenever we look at our desks. Each of us owns a card with the word “pursuit” written on it. This pushes us to move forward and continue to look for ways to be great.
SIDEBAR: START OFF RIGHT
The NASCAR preseason starts in January. With the pit crew athletes, this marks the beginning of our prep phase focused on endurance. Here are a few sample weeks from this phase:
Week 1 Week 3
Dumbbell SL squat 3×12 3×8
Box jumps x4 x4
Dead lift 2×10 2×8
Lunge twist 2×10 2×8
Hammer leg curl 2×12 3×8
Physioball curl 2×10 3×8
Manual resistance leg curl 2×6 2×6
Push press 2×10 3×8
Landmine single-arm press 3×12 3×8
Trap bar shrugs 2×12 2×8
Hip complex 2×6 2×6
Energy system development and quick feet drills
Med ball explosions 3×6
Med ball single-arm throw 2×4
Med ball slams Timed
Econo bench press 2×12 3×8
Dumbbell incline 2×12 3×8
Upper push 2×12 2×8
Prone row 3×12 3×8
Lat pull 2×12 3×8
Rope pull-ups 3×12 3×8
Groin 2×6 2×6
Hip complex 2×6 2×6