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Fit for the pit

Bevins among college athletes joining NASCAR pit crews

When Collin Bevins was performing as an All-American defensive end for three NCAA Division II championship football teams at Northwest Missouri State, the Creston native harbored dreams of being a professional athlete.

In 10 days, Bevins officially becomes a professional using athletic skills, with hopes of competing on Sundays, just as the NFL does. But, there’s a twist.

In his next job, the 24-year-old former Creston High School Outstanding Male Athlete will be wearing a fire suit and a helmet designed to protect him in the controlled chaos of a race car pit box, not from collisions with other players on a football field.

Late last week, Bevins was officially hired on a five-year developmental contract by Hendrick Motorsports to train as a tire carrier in a pit crew. He and other trainees will likely get started over the next year at NASCAR Xfinity Series races, considered the minor leagues for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. That series includes stops at the Iowa Speedway.

“The developmental phase includes working the World Truck Series races on Fridays and the Xfinity Series races on Saturdays, and then helping from behind the pit wall on Sundays at the Cup Series races,” Bevins said. “There’s a good chance I’ll be working at the Iowa Speedway next year.”

Football recruits

Carrying a pair of 65-pound tires quickly to the tire changers, rolling out the old ones and grabbing a third one for another changer, all in the span of 12 to 14 seconds, requires a strength and agility combination found in competitive athletes. Hendrick does a lot of recruiting from the college football ranks.

When his NFL aspirations were extinguished after brief mini-camp appearances for the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns, Bevins started taking an earlier conversation with a Hendrick recruiter seriously. A pit crew member for a NASCAR Cup Series race team can earn in excess of $100,000 a year, traveling the country for 32 weekends a year, which beats his alternative plan of graduate school and a small stipend as a graduate assistant football coach.

“Going into my senior year at Northwest, one of their pit coaches stopped in when the series was at the Kansas Speedway,” Bevins said. “Two of us, Cass Weitl and me, were still thinking about the NFL and we didn’t give it a lot of thought. I kind of stored it away as a backup plan.”

Last spring, as Bevins was finishing his bachelor’s degree in corporate recreation with a minor in coaching, Hendrick pit coach Chris Burkey came to the Northwest campus again on a scouting mission. This time, he and Bevins sat down for a more serious conversation.

“We talked more in-depth as to where people lived in the Charlotte (North Carolina) area, how much each position makes, and stuff along the lines of the everyday life of a pit crew guy,” Bevins said.

Bevins was invited to the “combine” physical testing period in May.

Bevins played football at Northwest at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds. His agility for that size was evident in compiling 34 quarterback sacks and 58 tackles for loss during his career. In high school, he was a sprinter and hurdler in track and a heavyweight state wrestling champion. Those kind of attributes stick out to a pit coach for jobs such as tire carrier and jack man, lugging heavy equipment quickly to various sections of the car.

“For those jobs they use guys like us in the defensive line or linebackers,” Bevins said. “For jobs like tire changer, with a lot of speed and coordination, they get a lot of guys from the secondary or receivers. At our combine last spring, everyone they brought in was a college football player but one. That guy was a tennis player. I was the only D-II player there. The rest were from Division I teams.”

Physical testing

Bevins made the cut at a combine designed like an NFL combine, with a series of strength, speed and agility tests.

“They want to know if you have the strength for some of the jobs in the pit, and be able to change direction quickly,” Bevins said. “Everyone is looking for that half-second to cut from your pit time to give your driver that extra chance to move up. It’s very much teamwork. The adrenaline rush during those 15 seconds is just like lining up for fourth-and-1 and you’re up by two points. It’s intense, and I love it.”

Bevins and 15 others selected from the spring combine were brought back for a minicamp in July in the next step of the 2018 selection process. There, they performed physical training drills again, but also got more into the techniques of the jobs.

Bevins begins training as a tire carrier on Sept. 17. Starting salaries for those positions range from $45,000 to $55,000, but could more than double for those who advance to a Cup Series car.

In fact, there’s precedent of a former Northwest Missouri State football player achieving that level in the profession.

Jared Erspamer was an All-American linebacker at Northwest Missouri State and the conference defensive player of the year in 2007. He has been working for Hendrick Motorsports since the fall of 2011, and is currently on the team of the No. 9 car driven by Chase Elliott in the NASCAR Cup Series as the jack man.

Current Northwest co-offensive coordinator Joel Osborn, who was a quarterback for Harlan Community High School and the Bearcats as a teammate of Erspamer, sees the potential for Bevins to follow a similar career path.

“Collin reminds me of Jared,” Osborn said. “It will be really good for Collin that Jared is down there so he can help him as a mentor.”

“I knew Jared was with Chase Elliott when Elliott was in the Xfinity Series, and he followed him up to the Cup Series,” Bevins said. “They have that trust and confidence to do the job on Sundays. I had no idea what all went into it. I have a lot more respect for them now.”

Here’s how Bevins describes those 12 to 14 seconds of pit duty from his perspective as the tire carrier. The crew includes the tire carrier, jack man, two tire changers and a fueler.

“When we come off the wall, the jack man will be in the middle and I’ll be right beside him on his right,” Bevins said. “I’ll come out and drop off the right front tire for the jack man. After he jacks it, he gets off the jack quick, takes off the tire and puts that one on. He lets it down, comes around the car and jacks up the left side. After I drop off the right front tire, I go back to the right rear. I pick up the old tires, carrying the right rear and rolling the left one back. Then I’ll grab the left front tire off the wall and put that on the wheel well for the changer. The old left rear tire gets rolled out to the wall from the jack man right after he jacks up the left side. The goal is 13.5 seconds. Our best was 19 seconds, but nobody who came in for the minicamp was fast right away. The guys on the Cup Series, they have the same muscle memory as an NBA player shooting free throws.”

Everyone on the crew except the fueler is also trained to quickly bend and tape any portion of the fender or hood that might be damaged from a collision, to keep the aerodynamics at top racing level.

The goal is to work on one of the NASCAR Cup Series cars. Hendrick cars on the circuit now are the No. 9 car driven by Elliott, the No. 24 car driven by William Byron, NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car and Alex Bowman in the No. 88 car.

All Hendrick race cars are constructed at the 100-plus acre Hendrick Motorsports complex in Concord, North Carolina. The company founded by North Carolina car dealer Rick Hendrick in 1984 employs more than 500 people. The organization has more than 250 NASCAR Cup Series victories and has won 12 Cup Series championships.

“I feel like I’m joining the best racing team out there,” Bevins said. “It’s like a free agent in football signing with the New England Patriots.”

Typical week

The typical work week will include three to four days of physical training and pit box practice before traveling by corporate jets to that week’s race site. The head strength and conditioning coach is a former assistant football coach at Florida State.

“Every part of our training is designed to help us gain whatever tenth of a second we can,” Bevins said. “When you come around the left side of the car, there are other cars coming down pit road at 35 to 55 miles an hour six inches behind you. Everyone I talked to said it’s scary at first, but you get used to it. I went to the combine at about 265 pounds and they’ll probably want me around 250 to 255. Working in the heat with those fire suits on, that should make it pretty easy to get those 10 pounds off!”

On travel days or the day before a race, Bevins said crew members have a little free time to explore the host city.

“Football has been a big part of my life, but now I’m learning something new and still able to use my athletic ability and be part of a team competing for a championship,” Bevins said. “Being able to travel the United States and show our craft, it’s exciting.”

(A video of Bevins and other trainees performing tasks at the minicamp was uploaded to the Hendrick Motorsports Facebook page on Aug. 24.)

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