Team Penske: Building the Pit Crew Dynasty
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Inside the Team Penske warehouse, five young men, dressed in workout attire, do their final stretches before they pull on helmets. The radio blares 00’s bass-boosted, hip-hop, and Asst. Head Coach Joe Piette yells, “Ready? Four tires.” With a wave of his arm, an electric Team Penske stock car zips into the mock pit stall. The stopwatch starts, the five crew members hop the wall, and the roars of the air compressor guns fill the warehouse. One lifts the car with a single pump of the jack, and four simultaneously pull tires from the wheel well. New tires are pressed in, the guns roar once more and Coach stops the timer.
What an average four-tire pit stop takes in 16 seconds, this team had executed in 13. Where 12.5 to 13.75 second range is considered exceptional, Team Penske's coaches have stressed continuous improvement and repetition, pushing these young men further without allowing them to feel satisfied with just 13 seconds. “Two tires, left side!” “Four Tires.” “Two tires, right side!” Again, and again, they hop the mock pit wall and change tires, firing off dozens of little yellow lug nuts onto the ground.
What we had witnessed was not just men changing tires quickly; we saw coordinated teamwork where the timing of the Jackman’s lift of the car was precisely the moment the tire changers had finished removing all of the lug nuts. Like a ballet, they seamlessly flowed as one unit, listening to the actions of the other. We saw athleticism in its purest form: athletes using teamwork to push their abilities to the next level.
Walking through Team Penske’s doors, walls are adorned with banners commemorating every race win, championship photos, trophies, and historic memorabilia symbolic of Team Penske’s successes. This is what is seen at the front of the house, but behind their bay doors, in expansive facilities, they build their racecars from scratch. Penske’s signature colors of black, red and white, light up the warehouse and company sponsorship logos are found on their display cars and on small “huts.” In between each hut you’re greeted by Würth’s recognizable vending machines dispensing essential parts that help construct their vehicles.
In the racing world, the drivers and their cars are often solely praised and visually representative of a team’s success, however, what most don’t realize is that the success or failure of one single pit stop can make or break any driver’s race day. So when every second counts, Team Penske knows to invest heavily in its pit crews to nurture a team that executes quickly and efficiently.
To analyze the team, it’s best to look at its leaders. The pit crew coaches at Team Penske contain ex-members of the pit crew that have excelled in their positions. We sat down with Trent Cherry, the current Head Pit Coach for Team Penske, as he described what candidates they look for, what goes into training, and company culture.
Starting in 2000 as a tire carrier for the team, Head Pit Coach Trent Cherry takes pride in never missing a race or pit stop in his 14-year career as a member of Team Penske’s pit crew. Over the years, as he gained more experience and races under his belt, coaching opportunities presented themselves and gradually he transitioned from part-time coaching into a full-time role.
Growing from within the Penske organization, Trent Cherry recognized what kind of individual candidates and team dynamic he wanted to ensure success. What some may not realize is that several members of Team Penske’s pit crew team don’t have a racing background. Rather, these men were athletes of other sports; athletes with the conditioning and hunger that Trent Cherry looks for.
When it comes to recruiting, “[we] don’t go for a lot high profile athletes or premier college programs… we stick to the local colleges around here, Division 2 talents, often local athletes that we could train…” Football tight ends and defensemen are often sought for the Jackman position, while baseball, soccer, and lacrosse players currently on the team experience success as tire changers.
Unlike most sports, Trent Cherry isn’t just looking at the raw talent – he tests his candidates’ personalities as well. While looking at a candidate, he shakes their hands, gives them a tour, and asks about their parental/familial relationships. Through this candid and personal conversation the coaches gather an understanding of their personality and detect whether the candidate would be a valuable, team-oriented athlete.
Once a candidate has been picked, they are placed into a developmental team where they are trained and educated as pit crew members. However, that does not mean you’ll be placed on a car’s pit crew. A lot of those who are developed oftentimes do leave for opportunities in smaller teams. However, others continue to develop their skill in pursuit of the opportunity to earn a position on one of Team Penske’s teams. “We’ve got 16 total teams, 35-40 guys, and got developmental teams that are climbing the ranks… it’s important to get these young guys and train them up.”
“A pit stop is 12-14 seconds, [you] don’t have to be a marathon runner. When it comes to conditioning, it’s to help with [getting] up at 5am, get on a plane, get on the track, 125 degrees, working 9-10 hours, 10 pit stops, by 4 o’clock, and you gotta win the race, the pit team STILL needs to be at their best.” - Trent Cherry, Head Pit Coach at Team Penske
The pit teams go through a rigorous training regiment to have their bodies conditioned for peak performance. As Trent shared, the conditioning is to maintain top performance from the beginning to the end of the race. Here’s what their standard training week looks like:
On Tuesday, the team reviews video recordings of their previous practice. Here they scrutinize every detail. How many lug nuts were hit? How fast did the Jackmen move? How prepared were the Tire Carriers? Every detail is watched, played over and over and the team learns from their mistakes. The coaches keep a close eye on each team member, “…when members are missing lug nuts, it’s [our] job to say, ‘Hey, elbows up, you’re short stroking, back up.’ You got to stay on them before they start developing bad habits… it’s our job to have the extra set of eyes on each guy to do it the right way.” After film review, the team works out and does their practice at the mock pit stop.
On “Competition Wednesday,” Team Penske builds the event up, and have a big day where the 6 teams compete amongst each other. Through friendly competition, the teams get to have an added incentive to push themselves further than a regular practice.
On Thursday, they go to the gym and have more practices. However, on this day in a normal season, they prepare for a specific track that would be coming up. The teams then repeat this regiment cycle 40 times a year.
A racing season lasts from February until November, and during all those months the pit crew needs to keep their bodies in excellent shape with the stamina to withstand these long seasons and hours at the track.
“It’s the culture here… the culture you have is what dictates what you’re proud of…”
Team Penske is proud to have most of their teams not only be some of the top pit crew teams on pit road, but also have the same consistent members for over 5 years. Unfortunately, pit crew positions have high turnover, so having the same team members consecutively work together is a rare occurrence. When asked what contributed to having these long-term teams, he simply told us that it was due to Team Penske’s culture and how they infuse it into how they build the crew.
From choosing the right candidates and seeing how their personalities mesh with others, Team Penske has built a foundation for the team. “Keep the same crew and build them up to create the best team. It’s like building a company, some of the best companies in the world have the same people to help build it up. Keeping the continuity of the same team is a big deal… The longer you have the same group, they [start] to know how [their teammates operate]… they’ll want to stick together for five more years.”
“We have some of the best on pit road, so we’re in the middle of building this dynasty era of pit crew at Team Penske.”
Penske’s pit crews have a strong history together, a strong dynamic between each other, and now have become some of the best on pit road. The No. 2, No. 12, and No. 22 cars have had 10-11 second pit stops that had blown away some the best team averages of 12.5 to 13.75 seconds. When there’s a season on the line, it’s the valuable seconds lost or gained at a pit stop that could determine a championship, and Team Penske’s pit crew teams come through in the clutch when it matters most.
“It’s hard to get to the top, it’s even harder to stay,” said Trent Cherry as our interview winded down, “we have some of the best on pit road, so we’re in the middle of building this dynasty era of pit crew at Team Penske… so 20 years down the line, we want to have the same result.” We were in awe of how committed Trent was to his team and how much pride he had in them. From finding potential in young athletes, hungry and determined, to shaping them into strong, and conditioned pit crew members with a strong sense of camaraderie, Trent Cherry and his team of coaches are succeeding at shaping this dynasty era.
As our time with Trent slowly came to a close, we asked Trent what was next for him. He smiled and gave a quick thought, “So what’s next… coming off of a championship win, is to do it again.”
Since 2012, Würth is a proud sponsor of Team Penske. Penske Racing headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina is proudly serviced by Wurth USA Territory Sales Representative, Donald Docherty, who keeps their Würth vending machines well-stocked and updated with the latest innovations to meet their evolving needs. During the 2019 season, Würth is a primary sponsor of the No. 2 Würth Ford Fusion driven by 2012 NASCAR Champion, Brad Keselowski.
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