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By Larry Happel
From left to right, Cam Waugh and Matt VerMeer.
Given the choice, Cam Waugh would still rather spend his Saturdays clad in red and white, eyeing open patches of FieldTurf at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium while barreling upfield in an adrenaline-fueled surge with another kickoff return.
College football ended for Waugh and teammate Matt VerMeer after helping Central College secure three Iowa Conference titles in four years. They graduated the following spring.
But that’s when life for the two former Dutch wide receivers took a dramatic left turn into the high-decibel world of NASCAR. In less than a year, they journeyed from Pella’s tranquil brick streets to the thunder of pit row at the famed Indianapolis brickyard.
The pressure-packed precision required of them on auto racing pit crews brings the kind of rush they never thought they’d experience anywhere but the Central end zone.
“It’s a lot of the same adrenaline,” VerMeer said. “When I left Central, really, I didn’t expect to ever get that feeling again.
“The only difference is you have seven guys on a team here, instead of 100.”
Waugh and VerMeer were hired by Hendrick Motorsports. Waugh landed a spot with the Nationwide series, NASCAR’s second-highest tier of competition, while VerMeer vaulted to the big leagues, working with superstar Jeff Gordon in the elite Sprint Cup series.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said VerMeer. “Growing up as a Jeff Gordon fan, it’s kind of a dream come true. It’s very interesting.”
Neither came to Pella in 2005 thinking that they could parlay football into a professional athletics career. But then Central strength and conditioning coach Jake Anderson received a flyer about a tryout in Omaha for positions with a NASCAR pit crew. He smiled and saved it for VerMeer, whose passion for the world of wheels was well known. VerMeer jumped on it.
“He was joking, but I was 100 percent serious,” he said.
Hendrick Motorsports was looking for skilled athletes for its innovative new developmental pit crew program. The theory was that in a job where a second’s delay can cost thousands of dollars, sprint times outweigh socket wrench skills.
“In the past, they didn’t have true athletes on the pit crews,” VerMeer said. “Just guys who knew about cars.”
At the initial tryout in Omaha, VerMeer and Waugh were part of a herd of applicants.
“It was sort of like the NFL Combine,” VerMeer said. “They did bench press testing and agility tests. They were looking for athletes who could come in and learn.”
In late June the duo received a call inviting them to a final round of tryouts at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. VerMeer had accepted a teaching/coach position at Centerville High School, and his contract was due the next day. But he elected to take a chance and joined Waugh on a trip to Charlotte.
More testing awaited, but much of it mirrored what Anderson requires during speed and strength workouts at Central on a regular basis.
“I was well prepared after being a Central football player,” VerMeer said.
But Central taught VerMeer more than bigger, faster, stronger.
“The main thing I found working with Coach (Jeff) McMartin and Coach Anderson over the years is they’re just people who want more in their lives,” VerMeer said. “They’re dedicated and they just treat people right. When I was trying out, I was always staying late and offering to help people. Just doing the little things and doing them right. Central taught me that’s important and that’s what I try to do.”
The little things matter at Hendrick Motorsports, which is among NASCAR’s top racing teams, with drivers like Gordon, Jimmy Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin. VerMeer and Waugh were among nine athletes who got a six-month trial, then survived a final cut before seven were hired. VerMeer then won a tryout for the rear tire carrier position on Gordon’s crew.
There was a steep learning curve for the technical aspects of working on the pit crew.
“Being at Central, I learned how to take coaching,” VerMeer said. “I can take what the coaches are saying and apply it.
“There are a lot of things to learn over time. I catch on a little more every race. But being athletic helps more than anything.”
Gordon has rock star status in one of the nation’s most popular sports. Every race he enters has a big-game aura, and every pit stop is like fourth-and-goal.
“It’s very intense,” VerMeer said. “Jeff has won four Cup championships. There’s pressure with him to win every weekend. A pit stop can make or break you. If he has to pit when he’s in first place and we mess up as a crew, that could put him at 10th or 15th place. Then his chances aren’t as good.
“People don’t really understand how fast a pit crew has to be. It’s super fast. But they have it down to a science. They can change four tires and refuel with two cans of gas in anywhere from 12.3 to 13.5 seconds.”
As a former football player, the weekly routine is a familiar one for VerMeer. The crew arrives early on race day to set up and there’s a pre-race meeting that includes Gordon, as well as a post-race meeting. Less than two hours after the checkered flag drops at the race’s finish, the team is flying home to Charlotte. There’s evaluation of the team’s performance including video study then a two-hour strength and conditioning four mornings a week, work in the shop and daily afternoon practice.
It isn’t a typical first job for a recent college graduate. But VerMeer said working with a celebrity like Gordon is little different than having a colleague in the accounting department.
“He’s just a typical guy,” VerMeer said. “He’s humble as can be and very good to work with.”
Larry Happel is associate director of marketing/media relations and sports information director at Central College.