Embracing NASCAR’s Fitness Revolution

May 17th, 2015

Legendary NASCAR team owner Richard Childress isn’t embarrassed to say there was a time not long ago in his sport when loading and unloading the team’s trailer was about as close as his team came to an organized physical-fitness regimen.

How times have changed.

“Three decades ago, I don’t think any of us even knew what fitness meant,” said Childress, an 11-time owner champion in NASCAR’s three major series. “We spent most of our time traveling the country in trucks and vans to get from one race to the next one. We ate whatever we wanted.

“Today, there is so much focus and commitment for the crew members and the drivers to stay in shape, which is a good thing. This sport is all about duration and speed, and we keep our crews and drivers in good shape to win races.”

Childress’ commitment to on-track excellence includes a commitment to fitness back at his team’s race shop in Welcome, N.C., where he provides his Richard Childress Racing team a state-of-the-art weight-training facility. He even hired a pit-crew coach specializing in strength and conditioning to help make sure the team gets the most from those facilities.

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“We have highly trained athletes on our crews who commit just as much time working out to do their pit-stop jobs as they do on improving pit stops,” Childress said.
Ray Wright runs Richard Childress Racing’s strength-and-conditioning initiative. Wright, 36, a former college baseball player who started in right field for the 2000 NCAA Division I national championship-winning LSU team, joined RCR as a pit-crew coach eight years ago.

Wright came to RCR from nearby Forsyth Country Day School, where he was the school’s assistant baseball coach and strength coach. He worked with, among others, young NASCAR drivers Austin and Ty Dillon—Childress’ grandsons.

“There’s no book that’s written for how to train pit-crew members,” Wright said. “Some of these guys are 20 years old, and then you’ve got 37-year-old guys who have been changing tires for 15 years. It’s such a broad range of people.”

In addition to going over the wall on race day as a rear tire-changer on Paul Menard’s Sprint Cup car, Wright maps out routines for the crew members on all RCR teams. Generally, crew members work with him in the team’s gym for about 90 minutes every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during the season.

“Monday is usually a recovery day after we get back from the track,” Wright said. “Motivation levels aren’t too good on Monday. We just try to get the guys moving, get some heart rates up. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are definitely physical days, for sure. Then, they’ve got to go back on the (shop) floor and get back to work on the cars.”

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Obviously, the goal is to shave a few tenths off pit-stop times on Sundays.

“The biggest thing I’ve had to learn is that the results of my training are going to show up in the pit stops,” Wright said. “Nobody really cares that we’ve got a guy who can back-squat 400 pounds or bench- press 315.”

Jason Pulver is one of RCR’s old guard. The 37-year-old aerodynamics expert who works in the team’s research-and-development wing has been with RCR since 2000. On Sundays, he changes the front tires on Austin Dillon’s car.

“Fitness in our sport has changed a lot,” Pulver said. “When I started, basically you just worked on the cars during the week and went over the wall pitting cars on the weekend. Now, it’s evolved into having mandatory workouts, and they’re even bringing in athletes right out of college to work on the pit crews. We’ve seen college football players come into the sport to help the team get an edge.”

Pulver said he had no trouble buying into the new way of thinking about fitness among the crews.

“It’s a perk, if you ask me,” Pulver said. “You get to work out on company time. I think it’s a great deal.”

Wright said, in addition to the workouts, he addresses the importance of diet, part of the equation more difficult to police given the fast-food lifestyle and schedules of many in the sport.
“You try to provide them with knowledge and information,” Wright said. “At the end of the day, they’re … going to do what they’ve got to do to stay on the pit crew.”

What would Dale Earnhardt say about all this new-fangled health and fitness craze in NASCAR?

“He would have been impressed with what we have at RCR for a gym,” said Childress, the Intimidator’s boss for his six Cup championships. “He had a workout routine he started in the late ‘90s and even had a personal trainer who worked with him to keep in shape.

“But his greatest training and staying in shape was working on his farm and racing.”

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