A Career Pit Stop
Former linebacker finds niche with NASCAR
By Matt Markey
Paul Swan is once again sitting in a darkened room and studying film. After his long football career ended following his senior season with the Falcons in 2013, Swan thought the hours of meticulously reviewing style, technique and the tiniest nuances of his movements had ended.
Then NASCAR came speeding along.
Now the former linebacker is part of the pit crew for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), one of the top teams in stock car racing that has six Sprint Cup Series champions to its credit.
“I honestly thought I was done watching film, but once I got involved in this I found out that the racing teams film all of their pit stops during races and practices. They film everything, and then they pick it apart and try to perfect every detail,” Swan said. “Just like we did with football.”
Swan’s route to NASCAR was a bit more circuitous than your standard racing oval. After graduating from BGSU with a degree in exercise science, he went to Wake Forest to intern with the football staff of former Falcons head coach Dave Clawson.
Swan learned that racing teams have a preference for hiring former college football players for their pit crews, where strength, speed and footwork can mean the difference between winning a race or finishing in 20th place. Swan was then reminded that where he was living in North Carolina is home base for most of the major NASCAR teams.
“I knew nothing about NASCAR — zero,” the Wisconsin native said. “But the notion of getting involved on one of the pit crews really intrigued me. What they were saying was that you can’t take a mechanic and teach him how to be an athlete, but you can take an athlete and teach him how to work on the pit crew. These racing teams realized that football players could be a great addition to their crews.”
Brad Robinson, the pit crew coach for RCR, said former college football players have the right stuff for the demanding, high-pressure task of changing tires and fueling a race car when fractions of seconds mean thousands of dollars.
“They typically already possess the physical characteristics necessary to be successful,” Robinson said. “The rest is repetition, practice and learning all the scenarios and situations a pit crewman might endure during a race."
Swan, 25, felt he had what it would take to meet those stringent criteria.
“They like linebackers, fullbacks, tight ends for the guys that go over the wall and work on the car. I think the demands of the job mesh well with the agility, quickness and the good hand-eye coordination you need to play linebacker,” Swan said.
Swan, who started 38 games in his BG career and was a rare two-year team captain for the Falcons, contacted several different racing teams before earning an audition with RCR. The team found him a place in their crew development program, training as a tire carrier, the guy who has to heft the heavy tires over the pit wall and into position to be mounted on the car.
"Right off the bat, Paul was a good candidate,” Robinson said. “He also seemed very determined to be successful, and wasn't afraid of hard work or getting a little dirty.”
Swan progressed from practicing with the regular pit crews to being an active part of the operation. He worked on lower level races before landing a few opportunities to work at the top echelon Sprint Cup Series.
“I came in thinking that I’m a Division I athlete, I’m strong and I can do this, but I quickly learned that you really have to work hard at it because there are so many different things, so many elements involved,” he said. “This is nothing like I thought it was.”
The pit crew members train constantly and run practice pit stops four days a week. About half of the pit crew guys at RCR are former college athletes.
“This is very much like football, especially with the pit crew, because your success depends so heavily on each person doing his specific job,” Swan said. “And in a race where fractions of seconds mean so much, if you are the one guy that messes up, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”
The folks at RCR believe Swan has a place in their long-term plans.
“He is now a little over a year into his training, and has been to the track a lot to show off his skills,” Robinson said. “We have high expectations for him at RCR."
Swan has had a few of his former teammates come to the track and see him in action.
“They said it was awesome to see in-person and I think they could tell I really like what I’m doing,” he said. “I plan to put my nose to the grindstone, work hard, and see how far I can take this — just like I did in football.”