NASCAR has traditionally been recognized as a sport dominated by white males, with a Southern audience that rarely includes people of color. You certainly don’t consider the traditional pit crew members as bonafide athletes. These days, NASCAR is incorporating supreme athleticism and people from all walks of life as it moves into the future.
NASCARs Drive for Diversity (D4D) program is a development system that began in 2004 as the legendary faces of the sport started nearing retirement and revenue began to decline. The goal of the program is to make more money and attract a more diverse audience to the sport by including more people of color and women, not just as drivers, but as pit crew members, owners and sponsors
There are over 35 graduates of the D4D Crew Member Development Program currently working in NASCAR. The members we spoke to on Saturday at the Xfinity Series race which sets the stage for the 60th Daytona 500 are all trying to find the success that former Appalachian State football players and national champions Kevin Richardson and Richie Williams have found. Shortly after completing the program Richardson and Williams, both African-American, celebrated in Victory Lane as members of Chris Buescher’s pit crew after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver won his first premier series race at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 1 of 2016.
As the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series jumps off today with the Daytona 500, The Shadow League spoke with a number of D4D participants at Saturdays Xfinity Series who are now doing big things as pit crew members for various levels of NASCAR racing.
Michael Hayden had an interest in car racing prior to his NFL career with the Chiefs and Chargers. When that ended, he returned to motorsports through the D4D program. He works various pit crews for the Cup, Xfinity and Truck series.
The most notable of the D4D NASCAR pit crew graduates is Brehanna Daniels. The former basketball star at Norfolk State University is a back tire changer and the first African-American woman to work a NASCAR pit crew. Shes truly a barrier breaker.
Tedarian Johnson played football at Kansas and completed the D4D program in 2016 and has been a free lance pit crew guy ever since.
Trevon Byron was a four-year member of the Virginia State football team which won two CIAA championships. He was a part of the 2016 and 2017 D4D local combine and in 2017 he got invited to the National Combine in North Carolina, where he got selected to be a NASCAR pit crew member.
Bryce Bradley attended Virginia State as well.
“I was a four-year starter at free safety,” Bradley told TSL. “I came to the D4D program through Phil Horton who invited me to the combine. Then he invited me back to the National Combine in Charlotte where we were tested again and were selected for the program, so we have been doing this since September. Im a rear tire changer and Trevon is a front tire changer.
The car that Bradley was supposed to be a pit crew member on, the No, 45 car, didnt qualify, so he got transferred over to Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet car for the Xfinity series as a pit crew support crew member.
“Its competitive and that is what really what drew me to it,” Bradley said. “At first I was kind of unsure about it because I never watched a NASCAR race in my life, but the competitiveness is what caught my attention. When you get down and start comparing those times and youre racing the car behind you, trying to jump spots in that race, it gets competitive and thats what sold me on it. Eventually I realized the similarities between the sports, especially for me.”
Hand speed, hand-eye coordination, Bradley told The Shadow League. As a safety I had to do a lot of jamming and pressing at the line of scrimmage. Definitely with that (pit) gun youve got to hit with some force to get the (lug) nuts off.
As a defensive back, you have to have good hips so you can turn and run. That also lends itself to the pit where you get down in there and if your hips arent flexible, youre not going to be able to get low enough.
Said Trevon Byron: : I love the competition, but its really about focusing in and locking in on your selected job. When you’re doing a pit stop, theres 72 total movements that a team must do together. So at that time it’s about locking in, working in unison with your team members, being precise and being smooth without rushing and making mistakes. So I enjoy the experience.
Marshall McFadden is a recently retired NFL player from South Carolina who played middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and the LA Rams.
After I told my agent and a mutual friend about my transition out of football, they told me to come out and check out the NASCAR deal,” McFadden told TSL. I went out to Chip Ganassi Racing and they welcomed me with open arms and gave me an opportunity. Just being a professional athlete, I went in seeking better opportunities in my post-playing career and it brought me here.
Joining NASCAR satisfied the hunger for high level competition that McFadden faced as a pro football player. Yes, 100 percent,” he told TSL. “You come to find out that the two disciplines have many similarities. Being pit crew member, in the trenches, is just like a sport. Youre watching film. Youre training every day. Youre with a group of people from different places and you have a short amount of time to develop chemistry with them. It all ties in together and that’s why the transition was so easy for me because I’ve already been a part of that with football.
Jonathan Willard played inside linebacker for Clemson University from 2009-2012 and then in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans for two years and with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders before joining NASCARs D4D program. Now, hes also with Chip Ganassi Racing.
I was a driver for the NASCAR Racing Experience and went to a racing school and started there, just talking to people and networking.” Willard said.”I ended up hearing about the pit crew program. I gave it a try and it ended up being pretty decent at it and I’ve been running ever since, man.”
Under the direction of Rev Racing pit crew coach Phil Horton and his team of coaches including some current NASCAR crewmen — athletes are recruited from schools all across the United States and participate in a two-day combine to see who has the goods.
How fast they pick up handling the tools, handling the tires, the gas can, Horton said. Once you learn the basic eight fundamentals of how to do a pit stop, its a mental thing. Its how you are able to do that under pressure; thats the most important thing. Theyre going to be fast, but were going to do have to slow them down, were going to have to get them under control. Theyre going to have to learn those fundamentals to see if they can do that when it counts the most.
For those who were under the impression that NASCAR is a sport for unathletic white guys, its clear to see that NASCAR has made a concerted effort to not only diversify its product, but now serves as a competitive and worthy post retirement goal for NFL players and former elite college athletes. With the participation of these talented women and men of color, NASCAR has made itself more legit as far as being considered a sport that requires true athleticism beyond navigating a car.