By now, you know change has come to NASCAR. A lot of change. Continuous schedule tweaks. A brand-new race car, dubbed Next Gen, with its door numbers slid forward. Pit stops will look dramatically different with a single lug nut.
Change brings reaction because it isn’t always universally embraced. People get stuck in their ways or used to tradition.
Chris Hall is not one of those people. Hall is the director of player advancement at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he’s one of those within the company excited about a new era in NASCAR giving him and his colleagues a new challenge. Particularly when it comes to the next generation of Cup Series pit stops.
“Change is summed up as opportunity, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s track record with opportunity is highly successful,” Hall tells RACER. “That’s not by luck. The more you’re in the know, the more prepared you can be, the more excited you are. And we’ve been prepared for a long time. We’re extremely excited about the opportunity to compete with the Next Gen car and the next gen pit stop.”
The vision of Coy Gibbs, team COO, reshaped the way JGR approaches pit crews. Seeing how hard it was becoming to sign top talent from other teams as most were locked down to increasingly long-term deals, Gibbs felt it was worth more emphasis on developing in-house. Plus, off in the distance was Next Gen, and that provided another reason to change tactics. The result was a new role for Hall, which he started about 18 months ago.
“I’ve been tasked with finding new athletes who come from all walks of life, who speak different languages, who aren’t your typical NASCAR fan,” says Hall. “I say all the time, they didn’t grow up playing pit stops in their driveway, and that’s been fantastic because it’s allowed us to become more diverse.”
Hall is a former pit crew member himself. A tire changer at Furniture Row Racing in 2016 and ’17, Hall was on Martin Truex Jr.’s championship-winning team. He performed in the same role for Denny Hamlin in 2018, and spent 2019 at Leavine Family Racing.
Growing up on Missouri dirt tracks on Friday and Saturday nights, Hall rushed home on Sunday from church to turn on NASCAR. His start in the sport came in Nashville with Bobby Hamilton Racing, and he’s done everything from change tires to interiors and car chief. Hall made it to the Cup Series in 2005, first with PPI and Michael Waltrip Racing.
Upon Waltrip’s shutdown, Hall moved to Gibbs, where he’s been ever since. Having gone through the journey, Hall can attest how hard it is and how long it takes for a pit crew member to be ready to go over the wall.
“The Next Gen pit stop is going to allow for such an opportunity for teams to really showcase what the individuals can do,” Hall says. “We’re such a skill-based sport that for so long had a high barrier of entry to get in because the guys who have done it for five, six, seven, eight, nine years got really good at it. And they’ve been in a system where others out there aren’t willing to change – they put up this wall and said, these are our guys, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
JGR didn’t want to come into this year with the same pit crew members from its four teams simply relearning their positions. It wasn’t necessarily that those spots were up for grabs or tryouts were held, but if the pit stops require a new skill set, why not re-evaluate the roster?
It comes down to having the right people in the right places, and as such, Hall and his team stopped looking for the best tire changers and instead have dug into the individual recruiting effort. For so long, recruiting college athletes – those big, tough guys who are used to training and pressure that comes with performing – was the norm. Hall is looking there, and beyond.
“We’re so excited about the Next Gen stop because there’s no barrier to entry. No one’s ever done this pit stop before. Everyone is learning it together,” he says. “So what we’ve taken from it is, you have Olympians in here. You have Major League Baseball players. Players from the NFL. SEC football players. Watching these guys come in who are used to being under the microscope all the time put the work in at the gym, on their skills, and on the practice pad, and the feedback we get from coaches and film review, it’s been an intense battle for those positions.”
The diversity Hall mentioned comes from there now being four different languages spoken in the Gibbs locker room. Crew members come from all areas of the globe and different neighborhoods. It’s made the workplace at Gibbs the most diverse it’s been in 30 years.
“It forced us to get creative with our people,” Hall says. “Instead of doing the same old song and dance, we thought, what guys and what movements are best for these positions since they are changing?”
Gibbs has exclusive biomechanic partners in the training world, where they can put their crew members on force plates to measure forces and displacements. It helps explain why individuals are good at what they do, and lead to training in the gym the right way. Another exclusive partner of the company is P3 (applied sports science). It gives JGR access to the same training resources as other professional athletes like Steph Curry, LeBron James, and other professional baseball, soccer, action sports, and Olympic competitors.
“Basically, it’s getting smarter with how to make our athletes more efficient at the job at hand,” says Hall. “For a lot of years, everyone thought we have to have football players, and they’ve got to be really big. That was just the thought, the perception. We’re actually building models out for each of our positions that are like, ‘Well, wait a second. Maybe it’s more about strength and their foot speed, and what forces and displacements they make here, and who do they model after?’ They model after this guy? Well, he’s really good, so maybe we should find more of these.
“So really diving into the science of what’s making each position valuable is just as interesting as where we find these guys and the recruiting pipelines we have set up.”
Hall says JGR started practicing for the Next Gen pit stop to the extent that they could 10 months ago.
“We spent the entire 2021 season running a Next Gen pit stop simulation alongside competing on the weekends,” Hall explains. “It was grueling for our guys (but they) handled it like pros. It was a lot of the coaching staff. It was a lot on the film (department), and I mean, everyone was maxed out. But we feel like that allowed us the opportunity to put the best guys in each position, which will allow us to make great teams for the next gen pit stop.”
Translation: expect to see many new faces on all four pit crews this season.
“All of our pit crews have changed,” Hall says. “I’m not sure that there are two people on a team currently that were on the same team last year.
“Again, it’s all about putting the best product on the (track) with the best guys that are best for our fans and engagement. We feel like the study told us that these are guys who work well together. Some guys are six months into the process who are going to go to the Daytona 500 on a Cup car because of the Next Gen pit stop and how we are doing things, and without that change, the barrier of entry would be too steep for guys to come in and allowed that.”
Nearly 70 athletes were evaluated last year who were unfamiliar with NASCAR. Hall says the vetting process is among the most strenuous in the company. And there are so many departments, coaches, and resources available for pit crew members like the gym, film room, nutrition, and more, that it’s like a company within a company at JGR.
“We make data-driven decisions,” Hall says. “You have to perform to play, and that separates Joe Gibbs Racing from a lot of other race teams, in my opinion. It all goes back to the numbers. What does this guy bring? Or where is he deficient? Can he improve? Is he willing to put the work in? All those things have to line up for you to be successful.
“We associate ourselves as a professional sport, and we treat our guys like professionals, and we give them all the tools they need to be professional athletes. With that comes the understanding that, hey, if you’re good, and you’re hot, and everything is rolling, it’s rolling. But when there’s work to be put in, you should probably put the work in because we’re not waiting around because you’ve done this for 10 or 15 years. The new era is we have guys here hungry, ready to get after it, and the best guy plays.”
By no means does Hall want to give off the impression that JGR is the only company recruiting or doing things in a unique way. But they have embraced developing the new age athlete for the new world of pit stops.
“I think the Next Gen pit stop is going to be one of the most critical components of the event,” says Hall. “If the Next Gen car is the great equalizer for race teams and race car drivers, pit stops are going to be the great separator.”
And as a team sport, Hall sees no better time now than to lean harder into such a concept.
“These guys aren’t just nameless, faceless people,” Hall says of the pit crews. “These guys are interesting. They’re a lot of fun. They’re a cool story to follow. I think to engage a new fan base and continue to grow a fan base, these stories need to be told. I think it’s important for people to understand that the outcome of the race could be because of five people, not what their favorite driver just did.
“And as we get into the Next Gen car and the Next Gen pit stop and this new era of fans, I would love to see a pit crew jersey in the stands. I think it’s the responsibility of the race team, the media, the sport to really dive in and not do this halfway but capture all of it. Let’s tell our story to the best of our ability to really make this thing go and cast our net as wide as it can go.
“With the next gen pit stop, the Next Gen car, I think now is the opportunity to do that.”