Mike Metcalf grew up in Charlotte, played basketball and football at Charlotte Christian, and attended occasional Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers games.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was about 30 minutes from his parents’ home in south Charlotte, but might as well have been in another world.
Metcalf was never a fan of racing ... until he made it his career.
When NASCAR Cup series point leader Kyle Larson lines up for the start of Sunday’s Coca-Cola at CMS, Metcalf will be the crew member responsible for gassing up the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet.
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It’s not where Metcalf expected to be when the former Appalachian State fullback finished up his football career in 2004. But after 12 years in NASCAR, Metcalf can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s the same thing (as football). You spend so much time with a group of guys working for a common cause – training, traveling, competing,” Metcalf said. “And it’s kind of hard to let that go.”
It’s the same thing (as football). You spend so much time with a group of guys working for a common cause – training, traveling, competing. And it’s kind of hard to let that go.
NASCAR crewman Mike Metcalf
Metcalf is one of a handful of former Appalachian State football players – and one of dozens of ex-college athletes – who have thrived on pit crews for Cup teams and in the lower series.
They work out in well-equipped weight rooms, train under full-time strength and conditioning coaches and hoss around 70-pound tires and 95-pound gas cans during precision pit stops, when success or failure is measured in tenths of seconds.
These are not your father’s tire changers, who generally were the mechanics who would work on the stock cars all week, then handle the pit stops during the races.
Many of today’s pit crew members have similar stories: Ex-college jocks who knew little about racing before being recruited to a sport that over the past 12 to 15 years sought to bring more athletes – and diversity – to the track.
Former Appalachian State football players Richie Williams and Kevin Richardson came through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program after playing in the CFL.
Richardson, who set the Mountaineers’ career rushing record (since broken), had a short stint in Canada, and Williams spent four seasons as a backup quarterback in the CFL.
Metcalf, 34, said he heard from both Williams and Richardson when their football days were done.
“I was probably up toward the top end of that list of phone calls, like, ‘Hey man, you look like you’re still working out, competing and having fun, doing the same things we did together. How do I get in?’” Metcalf said last week before qualifying for the All-Star Race.
Stick-and-ball vs. stick shift
Richardson, 32, grew up in Eliabethtown, where his father was a drag racer and owned a garage. Despite his dad’s best effort, Richardson, the front tire carrier for Ricky Stenhouse’s Roush Fenway No. 17 Ford, gravitated to the stick-and-ball sports.
“Instead of me working on cars and stuff, I chose to run around and catch footballs,” said Richardson, who rushed for 88 yards in Appalachian State’s famous 2007 upset of Michigan.
Williams, 34, the quarterback in 2005 for the first of the Mountaineers’ three straight national championships, was a fan of racing as a kid in Camden, S.C. So attending a pit school in Mooresville and going through NASCAR’s diversity program seemed like a natural progression after his CFL career ended.
“I would hit (Metcalf) up just to watch pit practice or try to catch a race (at Darlington) while I was home,” said Williams, the jackman for Jamie McMurray’s Ganassi No. 1 Chevy. “I grew up watching the sport so I liked to be around it.”
Former Clemson offensive lineman Landon Walker also grew up watching the sport: He’d sit in the Coca-Cola box with his father for the two races every year in his hometown of North Wilkesboro.
Walker went to Clemson, where his father played on the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team. He signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but had two arthroscopic knee surgeries and was cut after a week of OTAs.
“Before I even could read my playbook I had to turn it in,” Walker said.
Walker’s agent called and told him Hendrick Motorsports was looking for former college athletes who had experience performing under pressure. He figured his school-record 49 starts at Clemson qualified.
Plus, Walker remembered how much enjoyed the ride-along he did at CMS before the Tigers played in the 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
“Doing that I kind of got a little feel for it,” he said. “It started to buzz in the back of my head. Didn’t know it was an opportunity or an option for me, though.”
On the heels of his two knee procedures, Walker liked the idea of participating in a “low-impact” sport.
“I had failed a physical in Cincinnati,” said Walker, the gasman for Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevy. “I kept thinking, ‘If I keep playing football, what kind of shape is my body going to be in? ... Am I going to be able to play with my kids one day?’”
Williams says he’s yet to suffer a head injury while working on a pit crew.
Chad Knaus, pit crew pioneer
Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s longtime crew chief, is generally credited with starting the trend to recruit athletes to work on the pit crews.
Walker, 28, estimates that 80 percent of the crew members in the Cup series are former football players, although there are also baseball, track, hockey and basketball players in the pits.
Walker has started to see a new trend developing at Hendrick, which recently has brought in several college wrestlers.
“They’re great at maneuvering their way around, which is good for what we do,” he said.
Stenhouse says Roush Fenway was “way behind” other teams in its recruitment of former college athletes, but is making strides.
“I feel like we’ve been on the back side of that. ... We always had guys that worked in the shop that also were really good at changing tires, that grew up racing and weren’t athletes,” Stenhouse said. “You don’t have to have athletes that played college sports. But I think with that aspect, our program over here will keep getting better.”
Stenhouse says he likes having athletes such as Richardson on his team, and the feeling is mutual.
It’s been 10 years since a photo of Richardson shushing the crowd at Michigan appeared in Sports Illustrated. Shown that picture last week, Richardson – who bears a resemblance to former Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert – smiled and said: “Oh, yeah.”
But the former Mountaineers standout has no regrets with the direction his athletic career turned.
“I never had a clue I’d be doing this. I never really watched NASCAR racing. I would see it if it was on TV. But it wasn’t like a big passion to watch,” Richardson said while sitting outside Stenhouse’s hauler.
“But now,” he said, “I love it.”