Building a culture

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Chase Wilhelm
·16 min read
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In celebration of Black Excellence during Black History Month, NASCAR unveiled a three-part docuseries called “The Brotherhood of NASCAR,” highlighting stories of five African American pit-crew members from Chip Ganassi Racing.

Focusing on their relationships on and off the race track, the first of three episodes was released on NASCAR‘s YouTube channel and highlights their preparation leading into the 2021 Daytona 500.

The five pit-crew members — Mike Metcalf, Jeremy Kimbrough, Kenyatta “Kap” Houston, Jonathan “Tig” Willard and Marshall McFadden — each take on various roles for Chip Ganassi Racing, Spire Motorsports and StarCom Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.

All five men came from different backgrounds and experience levels to work their way up to NASCAR‘s premier series. Through the brotherhood culture they‘ve built at Chip Ganassi Racing, it shows other African American men and women there is a way into NASCAR, one without all the barriers they’ve had to break down.

But the work will never be over. As NASCAR continues to make strides with diversity, fighting social injustice and ensuring an inclusive culture for all, the Brotherhood series provides a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of those who have paved the path.

NASCAR.com spoke with each member of the Brotherhood for an in-depth analysis of their experiences and what they hope fans of the sport will learn from the exclusive access into their everyday lives.

BIG BROTHER

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Mike Metcalf is a former Appalachian State University football player who has been in NASCAR for more than 15 years. This season, he will continue working as a gasman for the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with new driver Ross Chastain, while he also serves as a pit-crew coach for the organization.

The Brotherhood circle just calls him “Big Brother.”

While he‘s the oldest of four siblings, that‘s not the reason Metcalf earned the nickname.

“I don‘t know why I get that name; I guess it‘s just my focus on making sure that we operate like a family and treat each other with love and respect,” Metcalf said. “At some point, you start something new and you‘re the new guy and then some day, you don‘t know when it happens, you go from asking all the questions to people start asking you questions. There‘s no crown that comes on you or anything that lets you know you‘re now the old guy.

“It just starts happening where people start calling you for advice on relationships. Come in, close the door. I can‘t tell you how many of these guys — not just the Brotherhood guys — the whole crew, guys that would come in, just close the door and break down crying. These are grown men, tough guys, guys that have been in the NFL that are a lot bigger and stronger than I am that just feel comfortable talking to me about relationships and kids and stuff like that.

“I‘ve always tried to make that a priority: If the only thing we do is good pit stops, that‘s cool. But if we elevate ourselves as men, husbands and fathers — people in the community — I think that‘s the bigger win.”

But if we elevate ourselves as men, husbands and fathers — people in the community — I think that‘s the bigger win.

While winning is equated to speed, speed is equated to trust within your team. Metcalf knows without trust, the other two are hard to accomplish.

“You can‘t have anything efficient unless you trust the people you work with, so that‘s a focus,” Metcalf said. “We do volunteering that‘s challenging and hard and tough. (We) have tough conversations about things going on racially.”

It‘s those difficult conversations and NASCAR‘s movement to support social change that led Metcalf, along with fellow Chip Ganassi Racing pit-crew coach Shaun Peet, to provide diversity and inclusion sensitivity training for all pit-crew members in the industry.

Mike 1
Mike 1

Metcalf believes he has been able to change the perspectives of those he works closely with on the circuit, but the journey to opening up that perspective doesn‘t come easy.

“It‘s tough because you‘re talking to your peers that they may not want to hear or just may not have thought about,” Metcalf said. “We‘ve just had a lot of conversations over the years about, man, what could the sport look like if we had a better understanding of how to interact with all different types of fans and what opportunities we are missing because we‘ve thought through the same lenses for so long. This is how we‘ve always done it could be the biggest thing prohibiting us from moving the sport forward in a really powerful way. Just trying to give everyone more tools to think about.”

Even within the Brotherhood and the Ganassi organization, Metcalf admits people don‘t always see eye-to-eye when having these conversations. At the end of the day, though, they are — and always will be — a family.

“We talk about it and we disagree a lot,” Metcalf said. “And that‘s OK. But what it does is realize, hey, we can disagree on things, but we can still have unity.”

The biggest thing Metcalf wants others to take away from this Brotherhood series is just how real it is — nothing forced, nothing scripted.

“It‘s just us being us,” Metcalf said. “It‘s just how we talk when we hang out. We talk about the season and racing. These are guys that are really passionate about the sport, passionate about competing and passionate about making fun of each other. You‘re going to get a little bit of that, so it didn‘t feel like we were doing anything different.”

TIRELESS EFFORT FOR THE TIRE CARRIER

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Jeremy Kimbrough is a tire carrier for the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing team of Kurt Busch. The former Washington Football Team linebacker is a graduate of the 2016 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program.

Kimbrough experienced his first taste of Victory Lane when Busch won the September race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2020. That night was a range of emotions for Kimbrough, especially when Busch overshot his No. 1 stall during a round of pit stops and lost valuable time to the race leader. But Busch was able to overcome, delivering the team its first win of the season.

“It was great, I couldn‘t believe it,” Kimbrough said. “Things worked out well. It was a testament to just never give up. Things might look bleak, but you just have to keep on pushing because you just never know in the sport when it could be your day.”

Jeremy 9
Jeremy 9

Kimbrough thinks those who watch the Brotherhood series will get a good taste of what it‘s like to not only be a pit-crew member but also an African American man in the sport.

“The exposure is doing a good job,” Kimbrough said of NASCAR‘s efforts for diversity. “It‘s opening eyes to a lot of people who wouldn‘t normally look at NASCAR. It‘s opportunity and it‘s a good way to get that exposure.”

The Brotherhood has created a culture where members can be honest with each other, and with honesty comes trust and accountability.

“We can praise, but then we can also criticize,” Kimbrough said. “It‘s just an open floor to just get better. It‘s not just getting better on the track, its finances, family … it‘s a lot of other variables that go into play that really make this organization special and our culture very special. It just makes it easier coming to work knowing that I got some brothers with me and just knowing our relationships go beyond the track. It‘s a fun-loving atmosphere that we‘ve built, but it‘s also competitive.”

TIRE CHANGER FOR CHANGE

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A game of pool altered Kenyatta “Kap” Houston‘s life forever.

It wasn‘t just an ordinary pickup pool game at a local bar. It was a three-day affair of playing the same game of pool with the same people while filming a scene for the movie, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Houston was an extra in the 2006 film starring Will Farrell and John C. Reilly. Wearing a bright peach-colored button down, he was in the background playing pool with other extras in the scene after Ricky Bobby broke his arm in a crash. While Houston was on set, he had the opportunity to meet some other crew members in the sport, including current Chip Ganassi Racing pit-crew coach Shaun Peet, who is also featured in the Brotherhood series.

Peet was a jackman on the No. 41 for Ganassi at the time, while the head pit-crew coach was Phil Horton. Peet referred Houston to Horton, who has been a vital part of building up the NASCAR Pit Crew Combine into what it is today and who many younger pit-crew members of color mention when they discuss the keys to making it into NASCAR.

That‘s how Houston got started in Ganassi’s developmental program. That’s not how he caught Horton’s attention.

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Kap 3

“He didn‘t come and look at me hit a lug (nut) for about two months because I wasn‘t good enough to get a look from Coach Horton,” Houston said. “When I did start getting better, he would be really hard on everybody. I was like why is he always hard on me? When he finally told me, he‘s like, ‘If you can‘t get through me here at practice, you‘re not going to be able to withstand the pressure at the race track. These crew chiefs getting on you because you missed a lug. When you make a mistake, they‘re going to be on you. Drivers going to be on you.\"”

It was that pressure and hard-nosed coaching by Horton that readied Houston for the big leagues, eventually becoming a pit-crew member for Kevin Harvick — a driver notorious for being tough on his members in order to get the best out of them — for a period of time.

“It was all good with (Harvick) then,” Houston said. “It also helped me develop and Coach Horton prepared me for that moment. Because Kevin, when we would get back to the shop, he would come up to the weight room and say, ‘Hey guys, just wanting to win, I don‘t mean to be hard on you, but I‘ve seen you do it in practice all the time. Let‘s get it. Let‘s do it next time.\"”

Houston thinks there has been positive change in NASCAR when it comes to diversity and inclusion; the key is for it to continue. Change won‘t happen overnight, but Houston said if the industry continues to push hard for change, everyone will be able to look back someday and realize how far the sport has come.

He knows the struggles for African American men and women are real. He has experienced them.

When the opportunity was there for me and I got it, it was up to me what I did with my opportunity to get where I am now.

“People could look at me and be like that wouldn‘t happen to you because you‘re this type of person, you carry yourself this way, you‘ve made a life,” Houston said. “I have to tell them you don‘t know what I‘ve been through, you don‘t know what I‘ve done in my life to get where I am right now.”

Houston is in his 16th NASCAR season, serving as a tire changer on the No. 00 StarCom Racing Chevrolet of Quin Houff. To get there, Houston had to prove he was worthy of the opportunity, more so than others. It was then what he was able to do with that opportunity that began paving the path to success.

“When the opportunity was there for me and I got it, it was up to me what I did with my opportunity to get where I am now,” Houston said. “If I didn‘t do what needed to be done to get where I am now, that opportunity would have become somebody else‘s, it does matter what color you are or what you look like.”

Now, Houston wants to help pave that same path for others.

“With me and my opportunity, now I can use that to show the guy that looks like me and has probably been through what I‘ve been through that hey, if I can do it, you can do it, too,” he said.

Don‘t think for a second Houston can‘t hang with the youngsters still, all while providing some advice for the next generation.

“If they were standing here right now, I would be like, ‘Be careful, young man,\"” Houston said. “‘I might be old, but I‘d still run you up and down this race shop. If you can keep up with me, you can make it.\"”

FROM CLEMSON TO CREW MEMBER

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Jonathan “Tig” Willard is spending the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season as the jackman for Spire Motorsports’ new No. 7 Chevrolet team and driver Corey LaJoie.

Before his days on pit road, Willard played football at Clemson University under the direction of coach Dabo Swinney. While there, the Tigers achieved three division championships, an ACC Championship and three bowl victories against Nebraska, Kentucky and LSU. Willard then went on to play for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans before switching to NASCAR.

Long story short, the man knows how to win, and he doesn‘t like to be absent.

“I‘ve been here five years now and I‘ve only missed one day of work,” Willard said. “They have built an atmosphere here where you hate to miss a day of work because you know something is going to happen. You want to be there to witness it.”

Willard hopes the first thing the Brotherhood series does is bring awareness to the fact there are people of color who are thriving in NASCAR. When he arrived on the scene five years ago, he was under the assumption there weren‘t many people like him.

“I was absolutely wrong,” Willard said. “I didn‘t know anything about NASCAR. The second thing I want it to do is to show that there are opportunities in NASCAR for people of color. You don‘t have to feel like you are on your own if you want to get into the sport. Let people know we‘re here. This is a great sport.”

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Tig 4

Willard feels a deep connection with all of the brothers. He goes to them at any time for advice. That was a lesson he learned early into his first gig, having to swallow his pride and talk to Metcalf about simply getting to work.

“Whenever I first got into the sport, I was going through things with my car, just trying to get my car straightened out,” Willard said. “This was probably my third month at Ganassi. I just broke down and talked to Mike (Metcalf) about it and he was like, ‘OK, we can help you out with that.’ He is just one of those guys that if you invite him and talk to him about everything, he will definitely figure it out for you because he‘s that type of guy — ‘Big Brother.\"”

With the rest of his biological family living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Willard finds comfort in knowing he has a family in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area who care about him just as much.

Those who watch the series are getting a front seat into the lives of this one big family and everything that makes its members tick.

“That‘s our Monday through Friday,” Willard said. “We come in, practice, work out and if we‘re not too beat up afterward because our workouts be kind of crazy sometimes, we‘ll do something on the weekends. Maybe barbecue or hang out with each other‘s families.

“… To be able to go out and hang out with my brothers … it‘s a really great deal.”

THE BROTHERHOOD MARSHALL

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After a career in the NFL playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Rams and in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts Football Club, Marshall McFadden joined the NASCAR Diversity Pit Crew Combine after hearing about it through other graduates.

With the hopes of pursuing a career in NASCAR, McFadden is now the jackman on the No. 00 StarCom Racing Chevrolet, same team as Houston.

“Making the transition to NASCAR was very humbling for me,” McFadden said. “Coming from that NFL background, you walk like you‘re big and tough, I can do this, I can do that. But my experience wasn‘t so good when I actually had my first NASCAR race going over the wall. Oh man, it was a reality check.”

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Marshall 3

While football players get an abundance of plays every game, McFadden gets less than a handful of pit stops every weekend. It‘s a much smaller window to succeed and more detrimental if one falters.

“I had to realize NASCAR was a lot different, but at the same time, the same,” McFadden said. “There‘s no room for error, there‘s just not. … In NASCAR, you practice being right over and over and over and over. In football, you have room for error because you have one side of the field where you made a mistake, but somebody made a play on the other side, so you have that room. You don‘t have that luxury in NASCAR.”

For McFadden, in order to achieve greatness on the race track, he had to build a solid foundation away from it. That‘s why it‘s so crucial Chip Ganassi Racing has created a culture that gives all members an opportunity to grow, both personally and professionally.

“If you can‘t build a relationship outside of your job, then how do you expect to go and do your job at a pro level?” McFadden said. “I don‘t think it can happen. How can you come to work and be in a funk? You can‘t perform at a high level. You can‘t do it by yourself. It‘s five men who have to get to know each other. Gotta build relationships with each other because one task doesn‘t get finished without the other. That‘s what CGR does. They find talented people, but they also find people who are willing to be open to whatever it takes.

People need to see what it‘s like to support one another.

“If I was able to come to any race team, I‘m glad that it was CGR because of the bond and the brotherhood — the respect they have for a lot of different people. Don‘t care what color or where you come from, but as long as you come in with that right attitude and put the work in.”

McFadden has made friendships at Chip Ganassi Racing that will be with him for a lifetime. The Brotherhood is set to showcase those priceless relationships. He hopes it will open people‘s eyes to caring for other human beings, regardless of race or background.

“People need to see what it‘s like to support one another,” McFadden said. “The Brotherhood shows that support of one another and what it takes to be successful.”