Life in the Fast Lane: Working on a NASCAR Pit Crew

By MARIA SCANDALE | Jul 17, 2019
Photo by: Janine Seeley Justin Clapper

West Creek — When Justin Clapper comes back to West Creek, the logs get fired up and the tales from his place in the NASCAR pit crew fuel the hometown campfire for hours.

Clapper is jackman under full-time contract in the NASCAR Truck Touring Series, and has been out there part-time in the bigger Monster Energy and Xfinity Cup series races. In pit stops, the jackman is the first in front of the still-moving machines, executing heavy mechanical magic in 13 seconds with the rest of the crew.

Watch for him July 27 at Pocono Raceway, slipping tires on the #98 truck of Grant Enfinger, currently the points leader going for the Championship in the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series. Before that, this Saturday, he pits the Xfinity Cup Series in Loudon, N.H., car/driver yet to be determined in the part-time deal with Ryan Sieg Racing. Two weekends ago at Daytona in the premier Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he was in the pit for the #62 car of Brendan Gaughan, which finished 19th. Lightning ended the race with 33 laps remaining, cutting the chance of a better finish after the pit team’s front tire changer did an incredible job of repairing damage after a wreck.

The fast-paced task is dangerous, but you can’t think of that, the 24-year-old says.

His parents do, and are big cheerleaders at as many races as they can get to. Mom Janine Schnell Seeley is becoming an out-front photojournalist, and stepdad Dennis Seeley, of a well-known local firefighting family, races Outlaw Stocks at New Egypt Speedway in time off from a job with Ocean County.

The SandPaper caught up with Clapper by phone at his Mooresville, N.C., base to get the behind-the-scenes view of what it’s like in the pit, and how he got there from his Manahawkin/Eagleswood Township roots.

Clapper’s story so far is a series of “I’ll never forget when ...” moments. Hint: a certain now-famous hometown boy-turned NASCAR champ had something to do with his entry into the pit, by way of inspiration. Justin’s drive took it from there. A key chance came from NASCAR legend James Hylton, who later became the oldest driver to compete, at age 76, before his tragic car accident on the way home from a race. Seeing a fire in the young fan, he had his crew toss Justin a helmet, and trusted him with a tire. To obtain official pit crew training, there are schools for that. PIT (Performance Instruction & Training) was where Clapper began his formal training.

The SandPaper: Where do you want to go from here?

Justin Clapper: Right now I’m contracted at Roush Fenway Racing. We have a full-time deal with Grant Enfinger right now in the #98 truck. I’m jacking that truck all year going for a championship. Grant unfortunately wrecked out this past weekend in Kentucky battling for the lead, which gave him his first DNF (did not finish) of the season, but we are looking forward to bouncing back and hopefully getting that first win of the season in a couple weeks. We have a part-time deal with Brendan Gaughan in the #62 in Monster Energy Cup Series cars. That was my first experience ever pitting a Cup car.

I got to do the Daytona 500 this year, which was a thrill ride. We got my first-ever top 10 in the Cup series this year at Talladega; we finished eighth. It’s all about building that experience to move up. The goal is always to be on a full-time Cup deal. Winning races in a Cup series is always the goal. Luckily, I’ve been able to get closer and closer to that. It’s been a long road; it definitely hasn’t been easy, but never give up. There’s no stopping me now, that’s for sure.

SP: How responsible does the pit crew feel for victory and for loss?

JC: Especially this year, I’ve noticed finally being at this level of competition, and with Grant Enfinger currently leading the points for the truck series, our team counts on us a lot to put our driver in position to win. There have been many races this year where they kind of let us know before pit stop, “hey, boys, we’re gonna need you on this one,” and, luckily, this year we’ve been able to do that. Sadly, we haven’t been able to get that win yet, but we’ve been able to put him in position to at least compete for a win. It makes going to the racetrack a lot of fun.

But on the other end of it, I’ve been in that situation where you’re expected to perform and something happens, say the tires didn’t go on perfectly and equipment malfunctioned or something. There’s a long list of things that can happen during a pit stop in such a short time. You come out losing spots and your driver can’t make up for it, and you get the blame at the end of the day and you feel at fault for why you didn’t win the race.

SP: The jackman leads off the wall when the car or truck rolls in; what else happens, rapid-fire, in the goal of 13 seconds during a pit stop?

JC: So, basically when I jump out, the carrier will jump out as well. And then your front changer will come out. We read the vehicle coming in, and then your rear guy, once it passes him, will come around the rear. My job is basically to jack the right side up, and then the right front tire will be placed for me by the carrier. I grab the right front tire and I put it on. We take ’em up certain ways and know how to grab it, to be able to just grab and stick it right on the hub, without missing. At least that’s the goal. Then the changer will hit them on. I come back with the jack once the change is finished up, drop, run to the left side, jack the left side up, and then my left rear tire will be placed for me. I grab that tire and I stick that tire on and once the changers and carrier are done doing their job and it’s all fueled up, I drop the jack and the driver drives out of the stall.

SP: How can you tell that quickly that the change went well and the new tire is on securely?

JC: It’s funny because that’s a question I get asked a lot: How do you do it so fast and know that it’s done right? I think a lot of it is just muscle memory. You eventually get used to the way things are done, just from practicing it so much. And ‘how do the lug nuts get on to the stud of the car?’ is something race fans ask me every weekend. We actually glue the lug nuts to the rim. For all five stud holes, we have a special glue so when I put it on, they’ll actually stick right to the studs, and the changer will just hit the lug nuts on and it will fasten to the wheel.

SP: How often do you guys as a team practice this?

JC: Our team practices twice a week for a couple hours, usually Tuesday, Wednesday morning. We practice three or four stops and then we have as much time as we want to drill out. For example, I’m working on certain ways I want to carry my tire to put it on. We can take that time to really rep it out and work on it over and over and over. That’s how we get faster; it’s just repping it out nonstop.

SP: Your family tells us that you’re at the gym every day or almost every day.

JC: Yeah, I try to be. I try to make it in at least five, six days a week, as much as I can whenever I’m not at the racetrack.

SP: People are caught up by the thrill of the sport, even if they know nothing about NASCAR. What was the scariest thing to happen on the job?

JC: Scariest thing to happen to me or that I’ve seen? I’ll answer both, actually. Scariest thing that happened for me, I remember pitting at Texas. This was a few years ago, and I was on the #92 truck, and I had just come out to the right side. I put the jack under the truck, and I go to jack it up, and I can feel this pain hit my right foot out of nowhere. I didn’t really know what happened. I turn around, and I see my front changer and carrier are on the hood of the truck. One of the other competitors came in and he cut it too close to his pit box and almost took us all out coming in to his pit stall and clipped my right heel with the side skirt of the truck. When he came in there was no room for the front changer and the carrier so they actually jumped on the hood to get out of the way.

I was already performing the stop, so I was at the bottom of the handle when he clipped my heel, and it was one of those quick “what the heck was that?” I turned around, I see him pull into his box, and I realized “I just got hit.” It was one of those deals where you had a split second of looking there, looking at myself, and I was kind of, like, “oh wait, I still have a job to do, finish the stop.” It was funny; I actually did two more stops after that and ended up having a sprained ankle the whole time and never knew it.

SP: Wow, it’s a dangerous job.

JC: Oh yeah. But I would say the scariest thing I’ve ever seen had to be this year at Daytona. I think it was only lap six of the race, if that, and one of the trucks came down pit road and lost his brakes. It’s your biggest fear, but you can never think of it during a stop, because if you’re thinking of getting hit, chances are you’ll get hit. So let that just clear out of your mind during a pit stop. That’s why they often say pit stops aren’t made for everyone; you’ve got to be a little crazy (laughs). I remember looking down and all I saw was somebody laying in the middle of pit road, and they were not moving. It was a scary moment because the guy lost his brakes, and when the jackman jumped off the wall, he basically went for a hood ride. He broke his collarbone and it could have been a lot worse.

You never want to see an injury on pit road. You never want to see anybody in a race injured, for that matter. Little moments like that are like, hey, this is real; this could happen to you. You can’t think of it; you’ve got to clear it away, go out there and be mentally tough. That’s a lot of what this is; it’s just mental toughness.

SP: How did you end up doing this as a profession? Were you going to the area races when you were young?

JC: I’ve always been in and out of racing as a small fan, growing up as a kid, but it was never something I saw myself pursuing in any career or even having the chance to go to a race; I never thought it would happen. But I’ll never forget the first moment I realized I was a fan of auto racing and that this is something I want to get into. I remember coming home one day, I was about 10, my mom was making dinner and she says, real quick, “I gotta put the TV on because the guy from our hometown is about to win the race.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She says, “A guy I know, his family knows our family very well and he is about to win the race.” I turned it on and there was Martin Truex Jr. in the #8 Bass Pro Chance 2 Motorsports, about to win in Mexico City. I remember sitting there just blown away that this guy from our little hometown in New Jersey was about to win a NASCAR race. I became the biggest fan of his ever since that day. I still have a flag of that car in a box in my parents’ attic. I still have die-cast currently hanging up on my wall right now.

It was that race and I followed his career and I kept going. I ended up volunteering with his foundation at his events in Manahawkin. I ended up having a chance where a friend of my parents knew somebody in the ARCA racing series. It was James Hylton, who I was able to go help out in ARCA racing. I believe this was 2012 at Pocono; I was about 17. I thought, oh, they’re just going to bring me in; I didn’t have any idea. I was just fanning out. He was teaching me all the ways of the car, and how everybody does everything before the race. I’ll never forget, before the race, they threw a helmet and a fire suit at me, and it’s funny because he looked at me and goes, “Can you carry a tire?” Well, not thinking anything of the position of the tire carrier, I literally picked the tire up and said, “Yeah, why not?” And he goes, “OK, good. Well, I need you to go out there and put this tire on during a pit stop today.”

I remember my eyes getting big as the moon, and having no idea what I was about to do, and the adrenaline and the heart rate of it, and I remember going out there, I’ll never forget. I stood on the wrong side of the changer and barely got this tire on and ended up having a safe stop at least, and getting the car back out there. Everybody was high-fiving and celebrating. I was, like, “I just went out there having no idea what I was doing, and these guys are so ecstatic about it; this is awesome.” And I was, like, I could see myself doing this.

I kept digging and digging from everybody I met from that point on: Where do I need to go? Who do I need to talk to? It skyrocketed, and the story can go on and on from there of just the networking. The two people I’ve got to thank the most for even getting me started in my career have to be Martin Truex and the late great James Hylton, who I miss dearly. He passed away in a wreck leaving Talladega last year, and that man is truly missed. We had the Talladega ARCA race that we won last year, with Zane Smith in the #41; it was the closest finish in Talladega history, and sadly I get the news showing up at the track the next day that he didn’t make it home. And I had to pit the Xfinity series race that day. That was probably one of the toughest races I’ve ever been in. What was great was that they did a big tribute for James the following week, and we were able to pull off the win again. I had his decal on the back of my helmet and they actually showed me on TV pointing at it and pointing up to the heavens. It was a really cool moment.

SP: Do you see Martin to congratulate him?

JC: The last time I saw Martin, it’s been a little while. I think I had just graduated from NASCAR Tech and I remember having a conversation with him where I said, “One day I’m going to be on pit row.” I know he has asked about where I’m at. We have said hello to each other and it’s kind of like one of those cool things; I give him a head nod at the racetrack, but I don’t know if he even recognized me for that matter, because I definitely don’t look the same as I used to years ago. This stuff definitely put me in a lot better shape than I used to be. I haven’t seen Martin at the tracks lately, with how successful he is now at the Cup level. His fan base has grown tremendously, so I’m sure he tries to stay a little more hidden than years past to not get blasted with fans and be able to be where he needs to be on time at the racetrack.

SP: It must be a little grueling in the heat, at 120 degrees on the track and you’re in a fireproof suit.

JC: Yeah, we’re required to wear Nomax pants and shirt and head sock along with our SFI gloves and a fire suit on top of that. It does get very hot; you have to stay well hydrated. A lot of it is just taking care of your body. A lot of people make jokes about crew guys being nothing but a bunch of crazy drinkers or whatever, and we have our fair share of fun nights, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to race day, it’s no different than a professional athlete treats a game day. You’ve got to take care of yourself, you’ve got to be hydrated, you’ve got to be ready for those hot days.

I remember Chicago last year was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve had of heat. I watched multiple guys dropping out during the race, people going in to the care center with IVs. I was lucky enough to make it through OK. It gets hot, but you have to find shade, stay hydrated, and just not overwork yourself but still be ready before, when that car comes in the pit box. There’s been times where I’ll grab ice and stick it down my suit, just to try to cool off. And there have been other races where you sit there in the sun and you bake in it, but it’s one of those deals where you almost relate your workouts to that as well. Maybe I’ll want to run outside in the heat, just to get your body used to that. You definitely don’t want to go in there being someone who is used to being in air conditioning all the time and then you’re sitting there in 140-degree track temp one day, and you’re that guy. You never want to be that guy that falls out during the race.

SP: How much do the tires weigh, and when you’re jacking up the car how much weight are you carrying?

JC: We actually have specific jacks that are made for the pit stops. That makes our job a little bit easier. But you’ve still got to put some muscle in it, for sure. These vehicles weigh about 3,400 pounds, not including the driver, so you definitely have got to get that up. The tires weigh anywhere from 40, 50 pounds, to, with an inner liner, up to 80 to 85 pounds. Luckily for me, during the week I also work for Goodyear Racing, mounting the tires that go on all these race cars, so I get the luxury of knowing exactly how these things feel every week because I’ve tossed enough of them around.

SP: Do the drivers get the chance to thank the pit crew, which would be one of the rewards? By the way, people will love to read these stories.

JC: There have been moments where after a great stop, a crew chief will come off the box and fist pump us, or they’ll thank us on the radio, “Great stop, guys, really needed that,” stuff like that. We know how to be serious, but I think the key part of this job is you gotta have fun. It’s a very stressful sport; it’s very cutthroat. It’s very hard on you mentally. You gotta be able to have fun. I love what I do so much and I love talking about it. It’s funny because any time I come up, I love to just sit around a fire, and I could sit there and just explain and talk and tell stories and go on and on, and I know people love to hear it.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

 

 

 

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