When the green flag drops on a new NASCAR season at Daytona this Sunday, February 24, Davidson alumnus Ben Brown ‘00 will be right there in the race again.
Mild-mannered manager of his family's Charlotte-based C.S. Brown Tile and Marble flooring business on weekdays, Brown spends his weekends in the pits as the front tire changer for Penske Racing's #2 car driven by current Sprint Cup series champion Brad Keselowski.
It's a high-stakes, high-pressure job.
Cars fly around the racetrack at up to 200 miles per hour, and then slow to 55 as they enter the pits for tire changes and other adjustments. As the car is coming to a stop, Brown and five other teammates leap over the wall to go to work. "I jump out in front of the car and hope it stops!" said Brown. The scariest part is when he has to turn his back to the adjacent team's cars. He has never been hurt, but other cars have brushed him.
If the pit crew does its job right and there are no complications, Keselowski's car is on new tires, full of gas, and under way again in under 12 seconds.
Brown graduated from Davidson as an economics major and settled into the family business. In 2004, a former high school football acquaintance called and offered him the opportunity to try out for the Penske NASCAR team. Brown didn't know very much about NASCAR at that point. But his acquaintance explained that the job was similar to a football play.
NASCAR teams often recruit college athletes for pit stop work because athletes have the strength, speed and hand-eye coordination for the job, and understand the importance of teamwork.
Brown attended a practice session at the Penske race shop and enjoyed feeling both excitement and fear as the cars roared around him. He decided to try out, and was put through a number of physical and mental tests. The team was impressed, and offered him the job.
He's worked for the Penske team for eight years now.
The team regularly practices its work under simulated race conditions, but Brown said changing tires during practice is completely different than during a real race. "The key is to do it right on the big stage with cameras rolling," he said. "One small hiccup could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or even a championship."
Brown said he owes a great deal of his NASCAR success to his one year of varsity football and four years of varsity baseball at Davidson. He credits baseball Coach Dick Cooke for preparing him by fostering a good work ethic and trust among teammates.
Having won its first Sprint Cup season championship last year, the Penske team is especially excited about the upcoming season and the prospects of a repeat win. Brown said he can feel the pressure already, but that doesn't bother him.
The long NASCAR season occupies Brown from the end of February until Thanksgiving, and he admitted that juggling his racetrack activity, his family business, and family life can be difficult. "There are times when I feel overwhelmed," he said. "But no worse than trying to juggle Davidson baseball practice with the academic work load!"