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My MWR Fantern Experience

By Kellyanne Lynch
Loudon, New Hampshire: 13 July 2014

My life changed on June 12th. I was at work, taking a break from training new employees about the agencyís clinical practices, when I checked my email. I found the following message:

Thank you for your submission to be our Fantern at New Hampshire. Congratulations, we wanted to let you know that you have been chosen!

My jaw dropped. I know I had to have made the craziest expressions, trying my hardest to contain my excitement. Getting through the rest of the training was incredibly difficult. I SO wanted to start hooting and hollering and to tell everyone who would listen that I won!

Since creating my video submission for the contest, I had daydreamed about being the MWR Fantern in Loudon. I still canít believe I was chosen and this really happened!

My Fanternship began at 8am, when I stepped onto pit road at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I met Wes Evans, who is the jackman for the #55 team. He and the crew set up the war wagon. They transformed what appeared to be an oversized tool box into the teamís sophisticated race command, with everything the crew required to attend to the ever changing needs of car and driver throughout the day.

Later, Wes drew my attention to a tarp covered cart behind the pit box. The team stores fabricated pieces of race car within that cart for easy access, should anything happen to the #55 Aaronís Toyota Camry during the race. Fortunately, they didnít need anything from there yesterday.

After the pit box was good to go, Wes took me to the car. He carried a jack while leading me through the paddocks, to the #55ís spot. The team was running tests on the Aaronís Dream Machine.

Wes showed me the new jack for tracks like Loudon and the one they had used for all tracks in the past. Cars are so low to the ground at New Hampshire that they have to use a jack with a tip that is only one inch thick. Jack tips used to be larger, but even the newer model only clears the bottom of the car by one sixteenth of an inch. They still use the older model for tracks that donít require as much down force.

Once we were back on pit road, Wes showed me the tires. Before the race, the crew removes the rust from the centre forging. Then, they spray and polish the tires. Finally, they glue on the lug nuts. It takes four and a half hours for the glue to dry. They put circular metal covers over the wheel wells so they donít accidentally spill anything on them and so nobody is tempted to grab souvenir lug nuts. The #55ís covers have pictures of the Aaronís Lucky Dog.

NASCAR only allows teams a certain number of tires per track. Goodyear charges $500 a tire but only gives back $100 for each new tire returned at the end of the race. If a car wrecks, a teammate can inherit the tires. If the car is from a single car operation, or if a teammate doesnít need the extra tires, the team sells the tires. Wes said it gets crazy on pit road when multiple teams bid on tires. The team with the tires can price gouge, charging $1,000 a tire, and people will buy them.

The tires in the #55 pit box were marked with the car numbers 15, 55, and 66. MWR partially owns the #66 team with Jay Robinson Racing, providing some of the funds and technology. Sometimes, the #66 car is prepared at MWR as a development car. Other times, it is totally JRRís. MWR plans to ultimately have a third full time team. This partnership helps them maintain ownersí points in the top thirty-five. Jeff Burton ran the #66 at Loudon, and it may be his last race.

Wes said they have to use an air hose to get all the dust off tires during pit stops, particularly at tracks like this one where they have to do a lot of braking. The wheel wells get really hot. Thick dust and heat blast the crew when theyíre changing tires. They can only blow off the left sides though, because they canít easily get the air hose to the other side.

Wes also showed me how they put a strip of neon orange tape across the tire to mark where to grab it for a pit stop. The tape marks the only spot where one of the five lug nuts line up with a tire spoke. All this prep work shaves off tenths of a second, which translates into track position. This is particularly valuable at Loudon, where it is harder to pass than at other tracks.

Unfortunately, NASCAR no longer has a pit crew challenge; it was cancelled in 2013 due to lack of sponsorship. Sprint pulled out once they picked up the Shoot Out at Daytona. Wes said theyíre hoping to get it going again. There is talk of having it on an Air Force carrier.

We talked about team communication too. I knew that teams had primary and back-up radio frequencies, but I learned yesterday that they also have a third digital frequency where they communicate with one another throughout the race. Drivers donít listen to it; all the radio chatter would distract them. NASCAR monitors this frequency. Because other teams can also hear it too, they use code words for plays. The meaning of various code words can change from week to week.

Wes also told me about Brett Moffitt. I started following Brettís career in 2009, when he started driving for Andy Santerre in what is now known as the K & N Pro Series East. He is now a test driver for MWR. Brett takes part in technical testing, where catering a car to a driverís personal preferences is not yet a factor.

We talked about driver preferences regarding the set up of the car. Some drivers, like Kyle Busch, like the car to be really loose. This makes the car fast; it also makes the back end fishtail in the corners, and it burns up the tires. Wes said that, compared with other drivers, Brian Vickers likes the car neutral.

Brian and Wes worked together in the past, when they were both at Red Bull Racing. Brian was the driver of the #83 car at the time. In 2011, Wes moved onto MWR, and Brian followed suit a year later.

Later that morning, I met Tyler Key, senior director of marketing at MWR. He talked more about the career of an over-the-wall pit crew member. The annual salary can be upwards of $250,000, with higher pay going to tire changers and carriers. Due to the physical demands of the job, however, the career is short lived. The bodies of tire changers and carriers take more of a beating, so the typical career length is ten years. The career of a jackman or gasman is closer to fifteen years. Subsequently, over-the-wall pit crew members usually pick up other trades by working other jobs at the shop.

Tyler talked about how Wes taps into his athletic and educational background working in NASCAR. In 2008, Wes was a tight end for Arizona State University while working on his degree in Marketing and Communications. Race teams look to college athletes for over-the-wall pit crew members nowadays. Red Bull Racing recruited Wes as jackman for the #83 team. In addition to performing jackman duties, Wes works in the marketing department. This started at Red Bull Racing and has continued with MWR.

I met Tyler in front of the #55ís transporter in the garage at 10:15am. I also met Billy Scott, crew chief for the #55, and Andrea Freeman, the vice president of marketing at Aaronís. Andrea was accompanied by her father, who had never been to the track before today.

Andrea, Tyler, and I talked about how MWR and Aaronís grew with one another. When Aaronís began sponsoring Michael Waltrip, they had about four hundred stores. They now have thousands of stores across the country. Andrea said the national brand recognition through Aaronís association with NASCAR has had a huge impact.

Tyler took us to the motorcoach lot to meet Brian at about 10:30am. Brian was in front of his motorcoach when we arrived, preparing for an interview for NASCAR RaceDay. We watched him film the interview. Then, we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions of our own.

I first met Brian at the Busch Series Preview in Charlotte in 2003, before his first full season in the series. He was as much of a sweetheart back then as he is today. While we were talking, someone asked us if we could all move closer to Brianís motorcoach to allow a vehicle to pass behind us. Brian saw that I was struggling to juggle everything in my hands, and he graciously moved my backpack for me. He also posed for pictures and signed autographs.

Brian hadnít realized that he was on the cover of the trackís program this weekend until I showed him. I let him know the program included a nice article about him as well. Andrea showed him that he was also on the front page of the local newspaper.

Tyler took us to MWRís corporate motorcoach, which was across from Brianís. We relaxed in the air conditioning, talked racing, and watched part of NASCAR RaceDay Ė including the interview they had just filmed with Brian. Andreaís father had a lot of questions. He was soaking in his first NASCAR experience, and I could tell he caught the racing bug.

Next, we walked back to the garage area. Tyler gave us a tour of the #55 transporter. All of MWRís transporters are set up the same; if anyone from MWR needs anything, he or she knows exactly where to look. He showed us the compartments where the springs and shocks were kept, and we took a peak at the back-up car by ascending the steps at the rear of the transporter. Tyler also introduced us to rear tire carrier Blake Haugland, who is a tri-athlete.

After emerging from the transporter, I met MWR executive vice president Ty Norris. He asked about my experience so far as the MWR Fantern. MWR pit crew members asked me this throughout the day. Like the crew members and Brian, Ty was very friendly.

MWR was incredibly accommodating throughout my Fantern experience. Amanda Johnson, who works in business development and sponsor services, was the point person prior to and during my big day. When she told me that food and drinks would be provided, I let her know that I am a vegan and said that I can bring my own lunch. She asked me about my preferences and arranged to have the team chef prepare a meal for me. Amanda was at MWRís food station when we arrived, and she gave me my specially prepared lunch. The kitchen crew also let me know that the pasta salad was vegan if I wanted to have that as well. I enjoyed my lunch with iced tea, and I grabbed a few ice cold waters from the #55 coolers throughout the day.

After lunch, we headed down pit road for driver introductions. The plan was to take pictures with Brian once he got to the car. I lost track of Tyler and the others due to tweeting. Fortunately, I saw Wes at the #55 pit box. I asked him where the car was, and he escorted me to it.

I had my picture with Brian and wished him good luck in the race. Then, I went to the #15 car further down pit road. Clint had just hopped off the back of the pick-up truck that had taken him to the car, and a pit reporter was interviewing him. I stood by Clint and MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman during the invocation, National Anthem, and flyover. Pastor Garry Hamilton of Manchesterís First Assembly of God gave the invocation, Janine Stange sang the National Anthem, and the flyover was courtesy of Douglas AD5 Skyraider and a Grumman FM-2 Wildcat of Stow, Massachusetts.

I had a chance to meet Rob after Clint climbed into the #15 car. Later, when Amanda led me to the #55 pit, she told me that he isnít able to attend all the races. I was very lucky to get to meet him! I learned that he is from Connecticut, and he lives there now.

I arrived at the #55 pit box just when Camping World Senior vice president Kevin Bostrom gave the command to start engines. I climbed the ladder to the top of the pit box and watched the Camping World RV Sales 301.

What a way to watch a race! I had a birdís eye view of the action! I was right behind crew chief Billy Scott and three other members of the team. I tweeted as much as I could, but there was so much to take in!

I scanned between the #55 and #15 team frequencies. In front of me, Billy and the others sat at the edge of their seats, communicating on the third frequency and pouring over data from their laptops. Below, the over-the-wall crew prepared for stops throughout the race. Whenever they werenít poised to spring over the pit wall, they were hopping in place and stretching to keep limber.

The padded seats atop the box were very comfortable, but I hopped off them every time the #55 pit. What first drew me to the sport in 1999 Ė three years before seeing Michael Waltrip interviewed and instantly becoming an avid fan Ė seeing the finely tuned choreography of a pit stop when I first saw a race on TV. Pitting a car requires strength, skill, and timing, and the composition is an elegant work of art. Watching this dance over the shoulder of the person conducting it was a rare treat.

The race came down to a green/white/checkered finish, extending its distance from 301 laps to 305. Some cars ran out of fuel. Due to pit strategy, none of the MWR cars did. The #15 led 36 laps and finished 6th. The #66 and #55 finished 20th and 21st respectively. Brad Keselowskiís #2 won the race.

As the #2 teamís celebrated in Victory Lane, the #55 team broke down the war wagon, converting it back to the unassuming box that it was at 8am. They loaded the car and gear into the transporter. I said goodbye and thanked them for my incredible day.

Thank you, Michael Waltrip Racing, for choosing me as your Loudon Fantern! Everyone I met made me feel welcome. More than treating me like a VIP, each person made me feel like a member of the team. I love how treating fans like royalty is a part of MWRís culture. With Michael Waltrip in charge, I am not surprised; however, the MWR Fanternship program is so above and beyond what I could have ever imagined. Thank you so much!!


© 2014 Kellyanne Lynch, in association with Cyber Speed Design. All rights reserved.