DAYTONA — The job interview that led to Delphos St. John’s graduate Ryan Patton being part of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew today at the Daytona 500 probably was nothing like most people would imagine it.
Experience wasn’t necessary. In fact, he had never changed a tire in his life before he began his pit crew training with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011.
“Zero. I had no idea,” Patton said, with a laugh, when asked about his pre-racing tire changing history.
The debate about whether race car drivers are athletes is as old as the internal combustion engine. But there is no doubt most of the people fueling their cars and replacing their tires are.
Patton, a 2004 St. John’s graduate who played football, baseball and basketball, is part of a NASCAR trend in the last decade in which racing teams recruit athletes for their pit crews and train them to perform mechanical tasks.
On Johnson’s six-man pit crew, three are former college football players, one was a college baseball player, another was a three-sport athlete in high school and Patton was a three-sport athlete at St. John’s and a former graduate assistant strength coach at Ohio State.
It was his job at Ohio State that helped Patton be recruited by Hendrick — the New York Yankees of NASCAR, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Johnson as its drivers.
On a 2010 visit to Hendrick’s training site to see if there were ideas he could borrow to train football players, he was working out and caught the eye of the racing team’s recruiting coordinator, Chris Burkey, a scout for the Miami Dolphins before he moved to NASCAR.
“I’ve always been a race fan. My family was race fans. We’d go to Indianapolis for the Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR races. I paid attention to the racing world. When I was at Ohio State, I saw how some NASCAR teams were training former athletes to be pit crew members and I found that intriguing,” Patton said.
“I really thought I would spend my career being a football coach in some aspect, whether it would be as a strength coach or as an on-the-field coach. Football has always been a real passion of mine. But when the opportunity came up with Hendrick Motorsports, knowing the type of organization it is, I felt like it was too good an offer to pass up. And if I did, it would be something I’d regret later down the road.”
There were many steps between that first invitation and jumping the wall from football to the pit crew of a Sprint Cup champion, though.
First Patton was invited to a Hendrick combine, similar to the NFL combine where players are put through drills, tested, poked, prodded and evaluated.
He was one of 10 out of 50 hopefuls who were invited back from that combine for a two-day mini-camp. At the mini-camp, they were competing against each other and other would-be tire carriers, gas men, jack men and tire changers from other Hendrick combines.
“It was two days of learning how to do a pit stop and then actually doing them,” Patton said. “Out of that group, they offered 10 of us positions to be on what they call their research and development pit crew.”
Patton spent 2012 on a research and development pit crew, then moved up to become the rear tire carrier on Johnson’s pit crew in the fifth race of last year’s Sprint Cup schedule.
The race day expectations of a pit crews are simple. They are expected to be perfect and to get the driver back on the track in 12 seconds or less. If they don’t, someone else will be doing their job in the near future.
“They say football is a game of inches. In NASCAR, it’s seconds and tenths of seconds,” Patton said.
The workouts and film sessions Patton goes through now are probably as rigorous as anything the Ohio State players he worked with ever did.
In the off-season, Johnson’s pit crew practices five hours a day in addition to workout time in the gym or the weight room. During the season, that is scaled back, but only slightly to three or four days every week.
“During the week, we review practice film. We’ll come in Monday or Tuesday and watch the race film and look at what went right, what went wrong. We film every practice. We’ll review film as a team and individually. I watch film every day and try to find something not only on myself but from other teams at Hendrick and try to learn from guys who have been doing it a lot longer than I have,” Patton said.
“At Ohio State, I was around world class athletes. I was constantly preaching to those guys. At Hendrick, I have to practice what I preached to the guys at Ohio State.”
Patton has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Ohio State. He still connects with former OSU coach Jim Tressel and several ex-players, like Brandon Saine, Alex Stepanovich, Zac Boren, Kurt Coleman, Devier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher.
“Coach Tress is a great mentor and a great friend. I stay in touch with quite a few of those guys I worked with at Ohio State. We still message back and forth. They think what I do is pretty cool and I think what they do on Sunday in the NFL is pretty cool,” Patton said.