ON NASCAR: Veteran Crewman’s Life Is The Pits But Loves His Front Row Seat

By Cathy Elliott
ON NASCAR: Veteran Crewman’s Life Is The Pits But Loves His Front Row Seat
NASCAR is still so relatively new that many people who work in the sport started their careers doing something completely different, from music teachers to mathematicians. In one notable case, the road to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began in perhaps the unlikeliest place of all – underwater. 

Tony Tolley is the pit crew coach for Front Row Motorsports. He grew up in the Martinsville, Va. area, a true racing Mecca. Always athletically inclined, during his school years he drifted toward more traditional stick-and-ball sports, later going on to pursue a decade-long career in commercial underwater welding. 

Then, he says, in a line that seems destined to be borrowed by Jimmy Buffet sometime in the future, “I hung up my fins.” 

Tolley wanted to go racing. 

He hung out at the shops around Martinsville, getting to know various people involved in the sport, and then had that critical stroke of luck, getting a job with Richard Jackson Motorsports. RJM fielded teams until 2001, with drivers including Morgan Shepherd; Rick Mast, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 pole for the team; and two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Terry Labonte

“I came in as a fabricator, but you had to do a little bit of everything back then — mechanic, painter, welder, tire changer, whatever. It was a great learning experience,” Tolley says. 

He eventually landed at Hall of Fame Racing, where he worked as a tire changer until deciding to retire after the 2006 season. “They asked me at the end of the year if I would be interested in being a pit crew coach and coordinator. I had a lot of experience, and I knew so many of the guys on pit road, they thought I was a person that could be in touch with a lot of good talent,” he says. 

When the economy was hit hard in 2008, Tolley, like so many others, found himself without a job. Fifteen months later, he accepted a position with Front Row Motorsports, and when the pit coordinator’s job opened up soon after, he took it. 

Most race teams have a guy like Tolley on staff these days, many of them boasting pretty snazzy credentials from former college athletic trainers to licensed nutritionists. For some of them, the over-the-wall pit crew is NASCAR’s version of a Delta Force special operations team. “A lot of teams now have guys that come in and work out and they are the pit crew, and that’s their whole job; they know absolutely nothing about the race car,” Tolley says. 

But Front Row Motorsports is a relatively small team, with limited manpower, and a higher level of creativity is required. Tolley’s brand of coaching offers one-stop shopping. He helps his guys -- including David Gilliland’s No. 34 team and the No. 38 team headed by driver Travis Kvapil -- with their training and live practice sessions, but he also works side by side with them in the shop. 

“My main job here at FRM is that I’m a fabricator. I’m involved in building the race cars,” he says. “Monday is basically a fabrication day. On Tuesday and Wednesday the first part of the day would be spent as a fabricator, and the rest of the day, I would be a pit coach.”

Each pit crew trains as a group, working mostly on agility, speed, hand-eye coordination, and upper body strength combined with cardio work such as wind sprints and 40-yard dashes. It is an intense form of interval training, where success is ultimately measured in fractions of seconds. “We need to keep the guys light on their feet. It’s about stamina and quick bursts of speed,” Tolley says. 

Like the old Hair Club for Men ads where Sy Sperling declares, “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client!” FRM pit crews do double duty. Each crew member is a mechanic or a fabricator; they actually work in the shop. 

 “This is the best way to have a pit crew. These guys know what it takes to build these race cars,” Tolley says. “They take a lot of pride in what they do here, and that bubbles over into their jobs on the pit crews. They want to go out there and be the best they can be.”

It is a system that works. Peter Sospenzo, crew chief of the No. 34, says, “A pit crew coach is like a teacher in a classroom, except his classroom is pit road.  He knows all of the idiosyncrasies of a pit stop and can work with each individual guy so everybody can do their job the best they can. It’s obviously better to have one guy overseeing that instead of the crew chief having to worry about it. So, come Sunday, you know your guys are ready to go.”

Over the past few months, pit road has featured prominently in NASCAR headlines, as entire crews have been replaced mid-race and chiefs have been lambasted by their drivers over the radio. 

On the more positive side, one of the highlights of NASCAR Sprint All-Star week, the seventh annual NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge presented by Craftsman on May 19, gave the top 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pit crews the chance to show their stuff head to head. This year’s winner, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, left the contest for the second consecutive season not only with those all-important bragging rights, but with first choice of pit stalls for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.

Team leaders in any sport will tell you their job is a combination of coach and counselor. While tough love may sometimes work, Tolley feels a milder style of communication can go a much longer way. 

“If I ever do anything in this sport, I want to take away the negative overtones and replace them with positive reinforcement. We all are human and we all make mistakes, and when they happen, no one feels any worse than the crew member who had the mistake happen to him. He doesn’t need anyone screaming at him,” he says

“This team has really been receptive to that for the most part. We’ve had some little incidents, but nothing really job-threatening, because we don’t let it get that far. We bring it back here and we talk about it. We assess the problem, and we try to fix it.” 

The week of May 16 may have been NASCAR’s busiest since Speedweeks in Daytona. In addition to the Pit Crew Challenge, the NASCAR Hall of Fame formally honored its second group of inductees: David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Lee Petty, Bud Moore and Ned Jarrett. Everything led up to the Sprint Showdown qualifying event and, of course, the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race itself. 

While it is a week to focus on the biggest names of the sport – the All-Stars – this time of year provides a great opportunity to reflect on where these superstars started, and how far they’ve come. 

If success goes hand in hand with employee satisfaction, put Tolley’s name at the top of the list. “This sport is the greatest sport in the world,” he says. “Crawling up on that pit wall was always such a rush for me, and that’s the way it is with these guys. They train hard, they can’t wait for race day, and when the time comes for them to stand up that wall and do their job, they’re excited to get out there and do it. I wouldn’t take anything for my job.”

NASCAR is about excellence, on every level. Tony Tolley may have begun his NASCAR journey making small sparks deep underwater, but he has risen to the top, to swim with some very big fishes indeed. 

Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100423-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html). Contact Cathy atcathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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