Now a strength coach in a sport that makes left turns instead of touchdowns, Les Ebert leans on his background of training pro football players to strengthen today's award-winning NASCAR pit crews.
"These guys are the unsung heroes," Ebert said of the crewmen. "They're like offensive linemen in the NFL. They do all the dirty work."
Ebert, a 39-year-old native of Circle Pines, Minn., is in his fourth season as the strength and conditioning coach for Roush Fenway Racing. He oversees the training programs for Roush Fenway's Sprint Cup, Nationwide and developmental series pit crews.
"Pit crews work really hard to do the things they do," said Ebert. "Yes, they have a lot of athletic ability, but to be able to do that repetitively in practice, race after race, month after month, they have to be in great physical condition. Not only is athletic ability important, but keeping the athletic ability to be able to pit race cars day in and day out is really what a lot of people don't see."
Ebert knows positions can be gained in a matter of seconds in the pits. His role at Roush Fenway is crucial in strengthening some 70-plus pit crew members on a daily basis so they can thrive physically on pit road.
"We run through strength and conditioning workouts four days a week," Ebert said. "We do two total body strengthening workouts and two conditioning workouts Monday thru Thursday. We're real fortunate -- Jack [Roush] and Robbie [Reiser] have supported the program very much in the fact that we have the tools we need to get these guys in the best shape possible."
Known to insiders as "Les' House of Pain," the Roush Fenway gym that Ebert oversees is a "pumpatorium," packed with free weights, exercise machines and conditioning equipment to keep pit crewman conditioned and durable during the 36-week schedule.
"Les keeps us in shape and feeling good, which is really important with the long season and hot weather," said Cameron Cobb, an 11-year veteran and jackman for Matt Kenseth. "Ever since Les came on board, I have less aches and pains from doing my job. Now, Les has given me a few aches, but it's what you need to win. You have to be physically and mentally strong, and he does a good job for us."
Sean Ward, the gas man on the No. 17 who got his start in racing with Tommy Houston in 1996, agreed.
"Les pushes us pretty hard with our training," Ward said. "Les expects a lot, but it's worth it in the end, and I'm better for it. The workouts help keep us in shape and help prevent us from getting injured on pit road."
Not long after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in physical education, Ebert landed an internship in the NFL under coach Tony Dungy that eventually led to a full-time position. He spent three years as an assistant strength coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then became an assistant strength coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars for six years.
Though his career began on the football field, his childhood has track roots. Ebert grew up around racing through his father's involvement with Dick Trickle in the American Speed Association in the 1980s.
"As a kid, I grew up watching my dad work with Dick back in the Midwest in the ASA days," Ebert said. "I followed Dick's racing on TV, and he would call often to keep us updated on how things were going on the NASCAR circuit."
When the job at Roush Fenway became available while Ebert was still working in the NFL, he thought, "well, I'll give it a try."
Four seasons later, Ebert's top-notch strength and conditioning program is helping produce award-winning pit crews. The No. 17 team won the second-quarter Most Valuable Pit Crew Award. Each Cup crew chief votes on the quarterly award, with an overall award going to the top-performing pit crew at season's end.
"The 17 group is a talented bunch of guys who have been doing this for a while," said Ebert. "They have good camaraderie and they work really hard and that allows them to perform at a very high level. It's a combination of their work ethic, their talent as a group and their ability to perform under pressure."
The No. 17 crew's performance this season has cemented Kenseth's solid start. He has one win, nine top-fives and 13 top-10s. Kenseth is second in the points standings.
"Pretty awesome when a pit crew can win an award that gets voted on amongst the crew chiefs," Cobb said.
"It's nice to be recognized by your peers," Ward added. "They see you're doing a good job, and that makes you feel good and strive to do better."
In addition to Cobb and Ward, crew chief Jimmy Fennig's over-the-wall pit crew consists of Justin Nottestad, front tire changer; Collin Pasi, front tire carrier; Jon Moore, rear tire changer; and Ryan McCray, rear tire carrier. Andy Ward is the pit crew coach.
"There are a lot of crews deserving out there," Ebert said. "It's a very competitive sport, and we're very fortunate to have guys at Roush Fenway that can perform at a high level, whether it's in practice or in a race. It's an honor and a blessing to be here at Roush Fenway."
- Roush Fenway