EX-UK LINEMAN RETURNING AS JACKMAN
Jacobs finds life after football, 'over the wall'
By: Mark Story / Herald-Leader Sports Columnist
Which is the more pressure-packed moment: Playing defense in the fourth quarter of a close Southeastern Conference football game? Or working on a NASCAR pit crew on the final stop of a race when your driver comes in with the lead?
Hang with us, Mark Jacobs will tell you which is more nerve-racking. The ex-University of Kentucky defensive tackle has lived both.
Jacobs ended his three years (1996-98) as a Wildcats starter in UK's Outback Bowl loss to Penn State on Jan. 1, 1999. Now he is in his 12th year working as a jackman at NASCAR's highest level.
When the Sprint Cup Series at long last comes to Kentucky Speedway for the July 9 Quaker State 400, Jacobs will be jacking the No. 42 car of Juan Pablo Montoya.
Over the years, Jacobs has worked on the pit crews of NASCAR stars such as Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Growing up in Shalimar, Fla., Jacobs dreamed of the NFL, not NASCAR. "I didn't even really follow it," he said.
Believe it or not, the journey that led him to the Cup Series started in the Green Lot at Commonwealth Stadium.
Back in his UK playing days, Jacobs was among some Kentucky football players who befriended a group of tailgaters that included Chuck Hughes, a Prestonsburg native.
After Cats games, the hungry players would stop by the tailgate to eat.
Hughes was a NASCAR enthusiast who had ties to Harry Ranier, the onetime Eastern Kentucky coal operator who started a NASCAR team and wound up winning the Daytona 500 three times (once with Buddy Baker and twice with Cale Yarborough).
Said Jacobs: "Chuck was big into NASCAR. He was always trying to talk me into trying it. I'm like, 'Chuck, I don't know anything about it.'"
When his UK football career ended, the 6-foot-3, then-274-pound Jacobs hoped to keep playing. Yet the 1999 NFL Draft came and went without the name "Mark Jacobs" being called.
Jacobs tried the Canadian Football League but was cut by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He played some arena football for the Tampa Bay Storm but found it unsatisfying.
Without an outlet for his pent-up competitiveness, Jacobs said, he was driving his wife, Stacie, batty. She suggested he get back in touch with the guy in Kentucky who had always been talking about NASCAR.
Jacobs called Hughes.
"You know, I don't really know why I thought Mark should go into NASCAR," Hughes said Thursday. "There were several of the (then-Kentucky) players — Jonas Liening, Jeremy Streck, Mike Webster — that used to stop by our tailgate. Maybe it was just when I talked about NASCAR, Mark always seemed the most interested."
A trip to Charlotte
A phone call from Hughes about Jacobs went out to Harry Ranier's son, Lorin, who has long worked in the NASCAR industry. At the time, Lorin Ranier was in the employ of NASCAR star Bill Elliott's race team.
Three days later, Mark Jacobs, with $200 in his wallet, drove from his home in Florida to the Charlotte area race shop where Elliott was then based.
"I didn't have an appointment. I walked in and asked for Lorin Ranier," Jacobs said. "They threw me out."
Jacobs drove around to the back of the race shop and found that Elliott's pit crew was practicing.
"I got out; they looked at me and were like, 'Whoa, have you ever jacked a car?'?" Jacobs recalled. He hadn't, of course. The former football player asked for some "game tapes" of NASCAR pit stops. For three days, while holed up in a Charlotte-area Motel 8, he studied the tapes, Jacobs said.
He came back for a tryout. Afterward, the Elliott team offered him a contract.
Some 13 months after he played his final football game for Kentucky, Jacobs worked as jackman for Elliott in the 2000 Daytona 500.
"The first NASCAR race I ever saw (in person), I was in," Jacobs said.
Jacobs was an early part of a NASCAR trend that saw race teams move away from having their mechanics also work the pits in favor of having actual athletes pit the cars. Many credit Ray Evernham in his days as Jeff Gordon's crew chief for popularizing the idea.