Though only 32, Ed Watkins has been able to indulge his two primary sporting passions – college football and NASCAR. He’s watched both from childhood, first playing football at East Carolina, then forging a NASCAR career. After exhausting his eligibility – and aware of approaching graduation – Ed spent weeks knocking on teams’ doors in ‘97, making the one-hour, one-way drive from ECU in Greenville, N.C., to the sport’s hub in Charlotte. His mission? Convincing someone to hire him as a jack man.
Eventually, Ray Evernham – then Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports – listened to Ed’s story and offered him an opportunity to drive back and forth from ECU to Hendrick twice a week for pit-crew practices. He also allowed Ed to travel with the No. 24 team on the weekends. When Evernham began his own organization in 2000, Ed was the first pit-crew member hired and has been a part of Gillette Evernham Motorsports – and the jack man on the No. 19 – ever since.
“My story is I basically went from door to door knocking the doors down,” Ed says. “I didn’t have the advantage of knowing someone in the sport. I just knew that major college football and NASCAR racing was something I enjoyed and watched when I was as little as I can remember.”
What he does for a living: Ed is the jack man for Elliott Sadler’s crew, hoisting a 3,400-pound NASCAR NEXTEL Cup on every pit stop. Not a wimpy job.
“You have got your individual drills, you have got your foot work, your fundamentals, and you have got your film review,” Ed says. “You are going through looking at the review, looking at yourself and your position with the car. And you look at the car and the way it is in the pit stall, what you can do and what the driver can do.
“Of course, we are out there as seven, but the driver is ultimately the one who gets that car in, gets it in the right position and gets the car out of there. And of course the workout – staying big, fast, strong, and just being lightening-quick.”
A former offensive lineman, the 6-foot-4 Ed now averages far fewer pounds than his playing weight of 285. Which makes it easier to squeeze in a desk chair at the shop. He works in Gillette Evernham Motorsports’ purchasing and parts departments as motorsports parts manager, issuing purchase orders with vendors. He also handles accounts-payable invoices and oversee all decals and ordering/scheduling of cars that must be decaled.
“I do a lot of front-office work,” Ed says, “and that dovetails with my education at East Carolina with my business degree. I really, really enjoy it and have been doing it for a long time, and when it comes Sunday, that is really the time that gives us the opportunity to shine.”
How he does it: Going over the wall resembles heeding a snap count: Everyone must be ready to pounce. More similarities between football and serving on a pit crew:
“Ninety percent of the job is done before you come to the race track,” Ed says. “During the week we have got the extensive amount of the film review, with the workouts, the pit practices – really getting the mind and body right for the grueling task of four tires and fuel on Sunday afternoon.”
Like blocking schemes, a good pit stop requires precise choreography. Here’s Ed’s description:
“You have got to get that car up,” he says. “The faster the car is up, the faster those right-side tires come off and the faster the new ones are being [put] on. Drop the right side and we are back to the left side, and we are repeating the same thing on the left side.
“We’re getting a good, solid hit on the jack stop and we got the cars coming up in the meantime. We got 18 gallons of gas being dumped into it. The left-side tires are off, and of course you have got the huge brake heat and brake dust that is being thrown at you – new tires on and lug nuts being hit.
“You are looking at the lugs being hit, the gas being put in the race car, and you are also listening. And doing it for as long as I have been, you can hear when things are right and when things are not right.
“Long story short, when all of that is done in hopefully 12 to 12.5 seconds – four tires and fuel and 18 gallons of gas – it is a successful pit stop in 12 to 12.5 seconds.”
How his football experience pays off: Although he served as his own search committee, Ed is one of a growing number of pit-crew members with collegiate or professional athletic backgrounds. Many NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams actively recruit pit-crew prospects with the goal of maximizing speed, function and dedication to craft.
No wonder, Ed says.
“The sport of football is so grueling,” he adds. “You’re against your opponent for four quarters. The discipline you receive when you’re going through three-a-days camp in 108-degree weather and heat advisories in full gear and full pads, stays with you during the off season. The harder you work, the more you prepare your body mind and soul to defeat your opponent.”
An ARRGGHH! for the former Pirate: Ed was a member of the East Carolina football team from ’94-96 – a Dean’s List student who also held two team strength awards.. He spent the ’94 season as a defensive lineman and played guard and center as an upperclassman.
“My senior year we beat Miami at Orange Bowl stadium and both years before that we went to the Liberty Bowl,” Ed says “We finished top 20 overall in NCAA Division 1-A and AP and coaches’ polls each year.”
Most embarrassing moment: When someone tricks him into getting grease all over his hands. Greasy jacks are unusable jacks.
“Of course it goes everywhere,” Ed says. “I do a real good job of covering up some of the most embarrassing moments I’ve had. I try to forget them and move on.”
Sometimes he can’t: That’s life among the jokers.
“I think we’re all comedians in some aspect,” Ed says. “The season is so long that if we didn’t have a sense of humor and rag on each other it definitely wouldn’t be healthy. We act like one big family. We all take care of each other. But in the same instance, we take full advantage to start a joke and get somebody good when we least expect it.”
Best memory: Being a part of Gillette Evernham Motorsports’ first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup win – the 2001 season-finale, which Bill Elliott won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“That set the race team off in a winning stride and we’ve been building with a winning race team ever since,” Ed says.
Most painful: Don’t try this – Ed ruptured both his patella tendons during a pit-crew practice midway through the ’04 season.
“I held both knee caps in my hand, halfway up my quads until the rescue squad arrived,” he says.
Ouch. He returned for the ’05 Daytona 500, seven months later.
The inside track: All three Gillette Evernham Motorsports drivers – Elliott Sadler, Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs – are just folks, according to Ed.
“Elliott grew up not too far from where I grew up,” Ed says of his team’s driver. “He’s just a good old Virginia boy who represents southern Virginia. Kasey is not quite as loud or vocal as Elliott but he leads by example. You can tell by the look in his eyes that he has come to get a job done. Scott’s just a jacked-up bulldog. I’d hate to get into a street brawl with Scott.”