A former top tire changer for Michael Waltrip Racing sued the Cornelius-based motorsports team on Tuesday, claiming he was fired a day before undergoing surgery for a shoulder injury suffered when he was struck by a car during a NASCAR race.
Brandon Hopkins helped Michael Waltrip Racing to its first Mechanix Wear Pit Crew of the Year Award in 2012.
He contends team officials “blacklisted” him after his surgery by falsely accusing him of stealing a pit gun used to remove lug nuts.
As a result, he lost an unpaid internship with another NASCAR Sprint Cup team and paid work with a NASCAR Truck Series team, Hopkins says in the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Charlotte employment law lawyer Joshua Van Kampen in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.
Hopkins, 28, is suing for damages, citing breach of contract, defamation, intentional interference with a contract and violation of the N.C. blacklisting statute, according to his lawsuit.
“It’s not about the money,” Hopkins told the Observer. “It’s about doing what’s right and what’s wrong and making sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Drew Brown, spokesman for Michael Waltrip Racing, said the team doesn’t comment on litigation matters.
Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl, who is defending Michael Waltrip Racing, declined to respond to the allegations. “We don’t try our case in the newspaper, and we’ll see the plaintiff and his I-need-some-publicity lawyer in the court when it’s time,” Diehl told the Observer.
Replied Van Kampen, “I understand that defense counsel would like the public not to know what his client is accused of, but we have public courthouses in America for a reason.”
About midway through the race, Bowyer’s car entered the pits in the top 10. As Hopkins finished the passenger-side front tire, he began to make his way across the passenger side of the hood when Bowyer’s car took off. The car slammed the left side of Hopkins’s body, hurling him off the driver side of the hood, according to the lawsuit.
Hopkins felt pain in his right shoulder that radiated into his neck. He was sent to rehab, which failed to stop the pain, the lawsuit says.
In early 2014, the lawsuit says, he asked the team to open a workers’ compensation claim. He was sent to a doctor who gave him a cortisone shot that also didn’t alleviate the pain, the lawsuit says. An MRI revealed a torn labrum.
In March 2014, a doctor with OrthoCarolina told Hopkins he needed surgery. Hopkins says he told a team official he would delay the surgery until he could no longer perform.
After the April 2014 race at Texas Motor Speedway, he says he started losing feeling in his arm and requested surgery as soon as possible. A team official asked him to wait until after the season, or until the team knew whether it would make The Chase, according to the lawsuit. The Chase is the season-ending series of races among top drivers eligible to contend for the Sprint Cup championship.
Hopkins says he “sucked it up” and worked through the summer.
He was fired Aug. 6. Hopkins says the Aug. 7, 2014, surgery was a success and he “diligently” attended physical therapy. In late October, a doctor cleared him to return to work, the lawsuit says. But Michael Waltrip Racing officials told the teams that later retained Hopkins that he’d stolen a pit gun, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit calls those claims “demonstrably false,” noting that Hopkins was the team member entrusted to transport the guns to each race.
Just before his surgery, the lawsuit says, he mistakenly brought a pit gun home, thinking it was his personal pit gun. He didn’t want to leave it at the race shop because he knew the surgery would keep him out for a while.
“Although this was a feasible and true explanation, MWR instead deduced that Brandon had suddenly become a thief,” the lawsuit says.