DOUG RIEPE: RACE HUB'S HIDDEN HERO
By: Michael Fornabaio, CTPost.com
A decade ago, the sports information department at Wake Forest asked a baseball player named Doug Riepe what his career might be, if not for baseball.
He laughs now at his response. "That was actually kind of tongue-in-cheek," he says.
Still floating around the Internet on his Demon Deacons bio page is his answer, "NASCAR Pit Crew Chief."
"I thought it'd be funny to put that on there," Riepe said. "The way it worked out, it's pretty neat."
The Danbury native knew little about NASCAR when he got to Wake Forest, which is close enough to Charlotte, N.C., that Riepe got the feeling that NASCAR is "a way of life" in the region.
Today, he's the front tire carrier on the pit crew of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray, and has been with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing since graduating from Wake Forest in 2004.
On the track, he has been part of the team that helped McMurray win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in 2010.
Off the track, Riepe, who has a marketing degree, is a valuable part of the business team, dealing with sponsors.
"He knows a good amount of the racing side, and the sponsors appreciate that," said John Olguin, Earnhardt Ganassi's vice president of communications.
"He can really talk the talk ... and walking the walk, he can do that, too. Business guys are usually not that knowledgeable about the race car."
Riepe went to Wake Forest out of Immaculate High School in 2000, a year in which he starred in baseball, football and basketball.
He said he had some offers to play in the minors after he hit .299 as a senior in 2004, but he didn't see himself making the majors.
"I kind of ran out of talent, if you will," Riepe said.
As Riepe finished up his degree, looking for a way to stay in sports, his strength coach told him that NASCAR teams were looking for college athletes to train for their pit crews.
Earnhardt Ganassi's pit crews include football players from Kentucky and East Carolina and a number of baseball and hockey players, Olguin said.
"(The pit crew) just needs to do things quicker," Olguin said. "Chip (Ganassi) always says it's easier to teach an athlete to pit a car than it is to teach a mechanic to be athletic.
"You have to be able to run around a car while cars are coming into the pit, dodging them. It's paramount that you're athletic."
Riepe learned that quickly as he looked for a job. Hendrick Motorsports -- "kind of the New York Yankees of NASCAR," with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- offered him an unpaid spot on their development team after putting him through a rigorous tryout.
But a friend from Wake Forest was working for Chip Ganassi.
"I went there and met their coach, and he gave me a development contract. It wasn't a ton of money, but it was paid," Riepe said. "I'd never worked on a car. I'd never turned a wrench. And here I am now, completing my eighth year."
A pit stop is all about timing and teamwork. If everyone does his job, a driver can get four tires and 15 gallons of gas and be on his way in a little over 12 seconds. A bit over 13 isn't great but can still cost a team in the long run.
"Anything over 14, you're losing spots," Riepe said. "It's a rush. The adrenaline, it's like playing a football game or playing a baseball game. The only difference is you only have the adrenaline rush for 12, 13 seconds."
Focus can't waver, though. A driver could need to come in on short notice at any time.
Every member has to do his job and at the same time relies on someone else. Unlike baseball, where a player can usually make up for an error in the field in his next at-bat, "you leave a wheel loose, drop a jack too soon, you can lose the whole day. You could lose a race, give your driver an injury," Riepe said.
"The physical aspect of carrying 65-pound tires is not that taxing. Seeing a person who can do it 10-15 years, the big thing is consistency, doing the same thing every time."
On top of those duties, he used his marketing degree to get in on the business side, which Olguin said isn't common for members of pit crews.
"He could probably do more upstairs (in the office) than downstairs," Olguin said.
As Riepe said, "I didn't go to a good academic school to carry tires my whole life."
Riepe got involved with Ganassi's marketing department. He moved up to sponsorships, managing show car appearances. He moved up to dealing with the team's in-kind partners, the companies that trade products for a logo on the car. He moved up to managing accounts on the team's Busch Series, now Nationwide Series, car, working with about 15 different sponsors.
His 8-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job gets interrupted a few days a week for pit-crew practice before he heads home to his wife, Klarysa, another Wake Forest athlete, and their 12-month-old son, Henry.
Then Sunday is race day, capping off a busy week for a guy whose funny answer turned into a career.
A Week in the Pits
A typical week for Doug Riepe, front tire carrier for Jamie McMurray's crew:
Tuesday-Thursday: Two hours of pit-crew practice. The team has a pit area set up outside the shop, complete with a wall, a replica of what they'll see on race day. They practice different situations, whether a car might already be in the pit in front of them or behind them. "We record pit stops, break down the video," Riepe said. "We have a strength coach who works us out."
Sunday: Fly out of Charlotte, N.C., in the early morning to reach the track around 7. Set up electronics, tools, crash-repair tools, 8-12 sets of tires. Examine the cars one more time -- "check all the lugnuts," Riepe said. "We kid around that you could liken the pit crew to the Carolina Panthers going to set up the bleachers and making sure the lines are marked on the field. That's what we do, make sure things are in working order."
Sunday late morning: The other half of his job: taking sponsors behind the scenes, maybe into the drivers' meeting, getting pictures taken.
Sunday afternoon: Race time. By the time everything is cleaned up, it's a 12-16-hour day.
Click over to EarnhardtGanassi.com/Drivers to see Race Hub's newest installment of "Hidden Heroes" with Doug Riepe.