Ever wonder how those pit crew members, especially for the elite teams, muscled their way into that kind of a sweet gig? Well, this week NASCAR Behind the Scenes focuses on two of Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew members in training who wrestled their way into the sport.
Matt Wilps and Zach Thomsusseit were actually wrestling teammates at the University of Pittsburgh when they decided to go NASCAR racing after graduation. Both are in training with Hendrick Motorsports to eventually and hopefully carry tires on one of NASCAR’s elite teams.
“I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, from around the Carnegie area,” Wilps said. “I went to the University of Pittsburgh for five years. I wrestled there and was a two-time All-American.
Following that, I coached there for one year as a second Assistant Coach. And then I heard through the grapevine about NASCAR. I really didn’t know much about the sport at all and I got invited to Hendrick to do a combine tryout.
I did well enough and I ended up here at the track.”
For Wilps, focus and repetition are the commonalities between wrestling and NASCAR racing.
“You have to focus,” Wilps said. “Obviously you have to watch for cars that can hit you on pit road. It is a dangerous thing. But you cannot worry about mistakes that you make. You just have to keep focusing on your task.”
“The way wrestling prepared me was that you would practice a specific move over and over again, like ten times, over and over,” Wilps continued. “That repetition is the same thing in a NASCAR pit stop.
So, I’ll just practice putting the tire on the car over and over again. I have to notice where my feet are prior to the movement and throughout the movement as I put the tire on. It has to be not only the most efficient way to do it but also the healthiest for my body.”
Just as when he wrestled, Wilps is dedicated to an intense workout routine, at least when they are not on the road.
“Typically we are at the track every weekend but on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we have a full day at the gym,” Wilps said. “During those days, we will help out with Cup practices as well as getting our own practices in as the developmental crew.
We’ll get a lift or a run in every day. We actually do yoga every Monday as long as we don’t get back late from the track on Sunday. We need to stretch out as we are standing on the concrete all day.
You’re not going to be sore from the pit stop but the long day standing and being out in the sun wearing three layers of fire suits, the yoga helps and clears you up. It helps you keep feeling nimble.”
“A lot of the guys appreciate the same hard work that translates well from wrestling into NASCAR,” Wilps continued. “I’m in training to be one of the guys to go over the wall in the future for maybe Jimmie Johnson. I’m not quite good enough yet. Hopefully, I get there.”
“I help out any way I can.”
Wilps’ partner in wrestling and in the pit crew development program is Zach Thomsusseit. He too is in training to carry tires, while currently handing in the gas can to the gas can man.
“I grew up in Dayton, Ohio,” Thomsusseit said. “I was always involved in athletics and got the opportunity to go and wrestle for the University of Pittsburgh.”
“Wrestling got me here. I think every opportunity I’ve had has come about because of wrestling. Someone in the Pitt wrestling program knew about NASCAR and he gave some of us a call.
I honestly didn’t even watch NASCAR or know there was such a thing as a pit crew. I had the itch to compete and missed it. So, I came and tried out because it was a sweet opportunity. I gave it a go and here I am.”
Thomsusseit is grateful that he is in this program with a buddy, in fact, one that he not only wrestled with but lived with in the dorm down the hall.
“I think it’s made it easier to have a friend,” Thomsusseit said. “We push each other. He doesn’t want me to do better than him and vice versa.”
“There’s another guy who wrestled at Pitt that is on the developmental team for Dale Jr. So, there are three of us Pitt pit crew trainees now.”
Thomsusseit echoed his teammate’s thoughts about wrestling skills parlaying into NASCAR pit crew skills, however, he also noted that Team 48 demands just a bit extra, even out of its developmental pit crew members.
“You obviously have the athleticism, but the 48 team holds themselves to higher standards,” Thomsusseit said. “I just think wrestling is very disciplined and you have to focus on the little things. That’s what Chad Knaus here on the 48 team does.
He has won a lot and that is what he makes his guys work towards. You have to have that goal in sight. And that’s what wrestling is all about, competing for the national championship. But in NASCAR, it is preparing for the Chase and winning the championship at the end of the season.”
“I think wrestling parlays really well into NASCAR. I’m a tire carrier, so I’m pretty much in wrestling stance most of the time. That’s worked well because I’m used to squatting down, unlike some of the football players in the program.”
“I also like the team atmosphere,” Thomsusseit continued. “I was a sales rep out of school, but wrestling was my life. So, I love working together on goals and I get paid to work out, which is what I’ve done all my life.”
While both Wilps and Thomsusseit treasure the time they are having in pit crew training, they also acknowledge that there is at least one big challenge that they have to face.
“The most difficult thing is getting used to the travel,” Thomsusseit said. “We’re gone most every weekend. That’s a bit like wrestling but it’s a lot more travel.
“I have become a race fan now and I have more appreciation for the sport. What goes on behind the scenes is amazing.”