NASCAR & Auto Racing

Don Shula’s final Dolphins draft pick still competes on Sundays — in a different sport

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, pits during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 12, 2017, in Avondale, Arizona. Former Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Nate Bolling is a jackman for Hamlin.
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, pits during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 12, 2017, in Avondale, Arizona. Former Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Nate Bolling is a jackman for Hamlin. Getty Images

Nate Bolling had a hunch, as he lined up at practice alongside Jason Taylor, Junior Seau and Tim Bowens, that his days as a Miami Dolphins defensive lineman were numbered. The call from Coach Dave Wannstedt finally came on Sept. 5, 2004. It was time to find a new profession.

Bolling found it in the most unlikely of places — on NASCAR’s pit road, where he has spent more than a decade as a jackman with Joe Gibbs Racing. He will be on the over-the-wall crew at Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway on Sunday for driver Denny Hamlin, who is racing the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finale.

As it happens, Bolling won’t be the only former Dolphin working on a pit crew on Sunday. Shannon Myers, a former wide receiver who has the distinction of being the final draft pick of Don Shula’s legendary career, is a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney, who drives the No. 21 Ford Fusion for the Wood Brothers team.

More and more, NASCAR teams recruit former college and professional athletes to work on pit crews, which makes sense for jobs where strength, speed, agility, competitiveness, teamwork and ability to perform under pressure are critical.

Long gone is the era of cigarette-smoking mechanics spending 60 hours a week turning wrenches in the garage and then pit crewing on weekends. Nowadays, tire changers, gasmen and jackmen prepare for races by running and lifting weights under the guidance of conditioning coaches. Their race-day performances are taped and dissected, just like football and basketball players. A mistake of three-tenths of a second could cost you your job.

“It blew me away how much speed, hand-eye coordination and athleticism it takes to work on a pit crew,” said Myers, whose NFL career was cut short when he lacerated a kidney on a bad landing after catching a pass from then-Dolphins quarterback Bernie Kosar. “It gave me a perfect competitive outlet after I left football. It’s been fun watching the culture of the sport change from a garage to sport mentality.”

It blew me away how much speed, hand-eye coordination and athleticism it takes to work on a pit crew. It gave me a perfect competitive outlet after I left football. It’s been fun watching the culture of the sport change from a garage to sport mentality.

Shannon Myers, a former Dolphins receiver who is now a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney

myers
Shannon Myers Cross, Dave

Athletic, fast-moving mechanics have become such a hot commodity that NASCAR 10 years ago launched the Drive for Diversity program with the dual aim of diversifying the sport behind the wheel and on pit road. Phil Horton, a former athletic trainer for Florida A&M University and the Milwaukee Bucks, began training NASCAR drivers in the mid-1990s, and his fitness philosophy spread.

Under his direction, NASCAR holds NFL-style combines around the country and invites college athletes to try out for pit crew jobs. Lineman and linebackers make good jackmen and gasmen. Receivers, running backs, defensive backs, hockey players and basketball players make good tire changers.

Kevin Richardson and Richie Williams, former football players at Appalachian State, now work on pit crews. Two female athletes — Brehanna Daniels (Norfolk State point guard) and Breanna O’Leary (Alcorn State softball player) — were also among those selected.

Last year, NASCAR held tryouts at Arizona State, San Diego State, Kansas and Bethune-Cookman. An April 2018 combine is in the works at Homestead-Miami Speedway for athletes from the University of Miami, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University.

ER8V1806
NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Combine participants at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C. Scott Hunter

“We find that many of the traits of athletes apply on a pit crew, so we want to expose our sport to people who might not be aware of the career opportunities we offer,” said Jusan Hamilton, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations and manager of Drive for Diversity.

For Bolling, it was a fairly easy transition, and a perfect career move.

bolling2
Nate Bolling pressures Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese during his time as a defensive lineman with the Miami Dolphins. Dave Cross Miami Dolphins

“When nobody’s paying any attention to you in the NFL, you’re just this person hanging out in the corner doing nothing, that’s when you know your time’s coming,” said Bolling, a Wake Forest graduate who played two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and one with the Dolphins. “I was always one of the last few guys on the roster all three years, so it was tooth and nail week in and week out. I was never like a Jason Taylor, big-money guy. When I’d screw up, nobody would care. When I’d do good, nobody would care.”

His Dolphin highlight, he said, was the day then-owner Wayne Huizenga, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Clarence Thomas showed up at practice in a helicopter.

Bolling’s college roommate and teammate, Matt Myers, was a big NASCAR fan and had gone to work for a racing team. He told Bolling to consider it when his football playing days were over. He made three or four cold calls to racing teams.

“I said, `Hey, I’m a big, strong, fast guy looking to do pit stops, you interested?’” Bolling recalled. They were interested.

Ten, 11 years ago, it wasn’t as popular as it is now for athletes to get into racing. It was more of a luxury to have a former NFL player on your crew. Now, everyone is a former college or pro something or other.

Nate Bolling, a former Dolphins defensive lineman who is now a jackman for Denny Hamlin

“Ten, 11 years ago, it wasn’t as popular as it is now for athletes to get into racing,” Bolling said. “It was more of a luxury to have a former NFL player on your crew. Now, everyone is a former college or pro something or other.”

Bolling and Myers said the cutthroat nature of the NFL prepared them for the pressures of pit road.

blaneypit
Race leader Ryan Blaney makes a pit stop for tires and fuel during the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway, Sat., Nov. 11, 2017, in Avondale, Ariz. Shannon Myers, a former wide receiver who has the distinction of being the final draft pick of Don Shula’s legendary career, is a rear tire changer for Blaney. Ralph Freso AP

“With racing, you have 11 seconds to show up and do four tire changes, all eyeballs are on you, so that mental part of the game transfers from football,” Bolling said.

Added Myers: “Just like in football, you’re only as good as the guy beside you. It takes true teamwork and precision. With so many athletes on crews now, everything goes so fast. A bobble or slip by a tire changer can make the difference in winning a race.”

For both, working on NASCAR race days gives them the same adrenaline rush they got on the football field.

“I am lucky to say that I’ve had the opportunity to win my entire life,” Bolling said. “Most people go to an office and collect a check every week. I have a chance to win every single week, and that’s a fantastic thing to say.”

Not the pits

Here is a sampling of Former College Football Players on NASCAR’s Pit Road:

Name

Race team

University

Mike Metcalf

Chip Ganassi Racing

Appalachian State

Richie Williams

Chip Ganassi Racing

Appalachian State*

Ricky Rozier

Chip Ganassi Racing

Winston-Salem State*

Brian Eastland

Furniture Row Racing

N.C. State*

William Harrell

Hendrick Motorsports

Alabama

Joseph So

Hendrick Motorsports

Wingate (N.C.)*

Landon Walker

Hendrick Motorsports

Clemson

Caleb Hurd

Joe Gibbs Racing

Virginia Tech

Kevin Harris

Joe Gibbs Racing

Wake Forest

Nate Bolling

Joe Gibbs Racing

Wake Forest

Trey Burklin

Joe Gibbs Racing

Miami (Fla.)

Lamar Neal

Richard Childress Racing

Norfolk State*

Kevin Richardson

Roush Fenway Racing

Appalachian State*

Shannon Myers

Team Penske

Lenoir-Rhyne

*NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate

Ford Championship Weekend

What: Season finales for NASCAR’s three racing series — the Monster Energy Cup, the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series.

Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1 Speedway Blvd., Homestead

When: Friday-Sunday. The weekend’s showcase event is Sunday’s Monster Energy Cup Championship 4 showdown in the Ford EcoBoost 400 between Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.

Tickets: 866-409-RACE (7223) or go to HomesteadMiamiSpeedway.com

Schedule

Friday: Gates open 8:30 a.m., practices, fan events all day. 6:15 p.m. Monster Energy Cup qualifying; 8 pm. Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 (televised on FS1).

Saturday: Gates open 9:30 a.m., fan events all day. Monster Energy Cup final practice. 3:30 pm. Xfinity Series Ford EcoBoost 300 (NBCSN).

Sunday: Gates open 10 a.m., 2:30 p.m. Monster Energy Cup Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race (NBC).

  Comments