EX-FOOTBALLER WATKINS FINDS PIT ROAD A 'GAS'
Former East Carolina University Center Faces Different Kind Of Oncoming Traffic
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Sept. 26, 2011) — Frustrated doesn’t accurately describe Juan Pablo Montoya’s mood following Coors Light Pole qualifying for Sunday’s Sylvania 300. Circumstances – a late rain shower – left Montoya 31st on the grid knowing that his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet had been capable of much, much more.
Montoya, however, put qualifying behind him and raced his way to a ninth-place finish, the Colombian’s first top 10 since Watkins Glen International, and in the process earned the O’Reilly Auto Parts Position Improvement Award with a green-to-checkered flag improvement of 22 positions.
Montoya ran among the leaders throughout the second installment of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, aided on pit road by a crew that includes gas man Ed Watkins. When Watkins played center for East Carolina University’s football team in the mid-1990s, his biggest physical worry was a 250-pound middle linebacker. Today, Watkins deals with a 3,400-pound NASCAR Sprint Cup car approaching at interstate highway speeds.
Watkins was fortunate never to suffer a serious injury playing football with teams that went to consecutive Liberty Bowl games, beating Stanford University in 1995. “Just a few dents and dings,” he said.
The 37-year-old native of Richmond, Va. hasn’t been quite so fortunate on pit road. In his previous role as a jack man, Watkins had his right leg run over. And while practicing at his team’s facility in 2004, what he calls “a freak accident” resulted in serious knee injuries.
“Both patella tendons ruptured and the next thing I knew I was on the ground, holding both kneecaps and waiting for the rescue crew to arrive,” said Watkins, whose rehabilitation required re-learning how to walk. For some, the injury could have been career-ending. Not Watkins, who was back on pit road for the following season’s Daytona 500.
“Growing up there were only two things I wanted to do,” he said. “Football and NASCAR.”
Football taught Watkins a number of skills useful in his current profession. The most important might have been refusing to quit. Watkins went to Charlotte in 1997 knowing no one in NASCAR and arrived at Hendrick Motorsports with resume in hand. Ray Evernham, then Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, had a theory that college athletes would make good over-the-wall crew members. Watkins was the first one he hired.
Watkins later worked for Evernham Motorsports and joined his current team prior to this season and made the switch from jack to fueling. It’s been a case of so far so good.
“I’ve got to empty the can in six seconds and I’ve got 2-1/2 to three seconds to plug the second can in,” he said. “I’ve got to be on my ‘A’ game. So far this year, we haven’t waited on gas.”
Watkins has a camera mounted on his helmet. That video, along with other feeds, will be studied over and over before the next race.
“It’s mind-boggling the amount of chaos going on,” said Watkins. “The best stops are the ones you don’t think about. Your mind is just reacting. You’re in the zone, depending on raw talent. Once you start thinking, your mind slows your body.
“You prepare your mind mentally doing dress rehearsals. It’s not a new experience.”