Female in the pits: Christmas Abbott is set to enter where few women have gone before

DAVIDSON, N.C. – The laws of physics explain why there aren't any female members of a NASCAR pit crew: The average woman of 5-4 weighs around 130 pounds, and the average racing tire weighs between 55 and 70 pounds. So physics explains a woman of average size would have to lift and move half her weight – twice – and bolt two tires in 12 seconds or less to succeed in a NASCAR pit.

Physics never met Christmas Abbott.

Physics never visited her house, saw the lug nuts on her kitchen counter, or stumbled across the air gun and wheel-and-axle set outside her bedroom. Physics never saw her garage, filled not with an automobile but with barbells and plates on top of plates. Physics never saw her lift a 70-pound barbell and leave it to rest on her shoulders like it's a winter shawl.

Danica Patrick is a badass, but the 5-3, 115-pound Christmas Abbott makes her look like a hand model. Abbott, 31, has a gun tattooed on her hip to remind her of time she spent in Iraq. She can squat 255 pounds "currently," which means it'll probably be 275 by the time you read this. And her newest pursuit – trying to make her way in one of the most male-dominated places in all of sports – is actually not as physically grueling as her day job. Auto racing might have a new sex symbol, but her life to this point has been built with true grit.

Last week, Abbott inked a deal to serve on a NASCAR pit crew in the Camping World Truck Series, where she'll change tires for driver Jennifer Jo Cobb. That means she'll be expected to whip around the No. 10 Ford with an air gun in hand, unbolt five lug nuts, rip a 60-pound tire off the car, bolt on a new one, then repeat it again on the other side all in about 12 seconds. She also will be in Clint Bowyer's pit for Sunday's Daytona 500, where she'll shadow the Michael Waltrip Racing crew in anticipation of a potential future "over the wall" assignment.

But the question isn't whether Christmas Abbott has what it takes to survive in the pits. She's been in more dangerous, more daunting spots. It's whether she can thrive there.

"I have to get dirty and [travel] overnight," Abbott said about diving into a year-long Truck Series schedule. "NASCAR fans are die-hard and they will call out your B.S. I want to go to the highest level, and I left three jobs to do [this] one."

The first sign came when she was a little girl in Virginia who wanted to play baseball. This wasn't because she wanted to beat the boys; she had small hands that made it hard to hold a softball. There was a problem, however, as there often is when girls try to play on boys teams: Christmas Abbott wasn't allowed.

So her mom, Barbara Nichols, who named her second daughter Christmas because she was born in late December, got on the phone with the league organizer. Christmas remembers the look on her face when she heard her daughter would have to wear a cup. That was a bluff, and Mom was not falling for it. She yelled back into the phone: "She'll wear a steel bra, too!"

Christmas was 10.

She joined the team – after her mom threatened to bring local news trucks with her to the baseball diamond. Christmas didn't have to wear a cup. Or a steel bra. But the other teams weren't happy to see her. "They chucked the ball at me," she says now, with a laugh. "A lot."

Her toughness comes from her grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from Germany with her husband after the Korean War and didn't understand why people were shunning Germans like her. "She taught us to turn the other cheek," Christmas says. She grew up worshiping the women in her family, and she still does. "I come from an incredible heritage of women," Abbott says.

[Related: Danica Patrick captures Daytona 500 pole | Photos]

She might still be playing baseball if it wasn't for the accident. Christmas was 13 and a passenger in a car on the way home from a party. The car flipped. And kept flipping. Christmas only remembers waking up amid the shrapnel and asking for her sister, Kole. She would only hear paramedics and the jaws of life. Her sister had been thrown from the car and fell into a coma. She had to relearn how to walk. Christmas was fine on the outside, with only a case of whiplash, but her world fell apart.

The accident caused her to spiral. She stopped going to church and started smoking. Her studying lapsed and she spent more time at basketball games with boys. A lot of teenagers rebel, and Christmas definitely has a rebellious streak, but this was something darker. "I was angry," she says. "I was depressed. My world was drinking and smoking and not thinking for the day."

She got therapy. It helped her see value in her life. She took classes at Virginia Commonwealth. But she still didn't graduate. Kole recovered, eventually married and had kids. She even took a construction job as a laborer – typical Abbott toughness. But at age 21, Christmas was lost.

That's when her mom left for Baghdad as a general contractor. And Christmas decided to follow her, at 22. "I always had great respect for the military," she says.

For nearly three years, Abbott spent her days at a military laundry center in a war zone, sorting fatigues stained with blood, sweat and a lot of desert sand. Life became grueling and more than a little bit dangerous. "I remember when we were on a bus and there was an IED [improvised explosive device] in the road," she says. "I said, 'What's an IED and why can't we drive around it?' "

Christmas found a new respect for discipline because she had no other choice: She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She was surrounded by men, wore "very concealing clothing and not a lot of makeup." She often slept in the laundry office. Then a soldier mentioned a workout he was doing that he thought she might be into. Christmas hadn't really been an athlete since her baseball days, but she went to take a look. And her life changed.

Skeptics in Iraq referred to it as "CircusFit" or "MonkeyFit" because it featured shirtless men swinging from bars and throwing around barbells, but CrossFit was on the verge of becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Back then, P90X was considered arduous (and let's face it, it is arduous), but CrossFit was on another level. It was designed to break the spirit and weed out the weak. "The minute you get arrogant," Abbott says, "it will smack you down."

CrossFit is a workout that combines pull-ups, squats, sit-ups, lifting heavy balls – and a host of other sweat-inducing exercises – all in a short amounts.

Abbott loved it. She was unafraid of all the heavy weight and soon she was throwing it around, too. She returned to the U.S. in 2007, opened her own CrossFit gym in Raleigh, and made it her career. She became one of only a few dozen "Head Trainers," which put her in a very elite group. She can clean and jerk 175 pounds, which is nearly 150 percent of her body weight.

She also got a cult following, as CrossFit fans became familiar with her six-pack abs, her cherubic smile, and the new gun tattoo on her hip. Abbott arrived in Iraq looking for an identity; she certainly found it upon her return.

And then a NASCAR exec found her.

Ted Bullard, then of Turner Motorsports, always wondered why there had never been a woman member of a NASCAR pit crew and decided to do his own talent search. It was actually inspired by CrossFit. He joined a gym and quickly noticed several of the women could lift more than he could. Soon after, he saw one of Abbott's CrossFit videos, loved her name and invited her to Charlotte for a tryout.

Lifting a tire wouldn't be a challenge. One of the standard CrossFit workouts involves flipping a tractor tire. Even the fuel can, which can weigh up to 90 pounds, wouldn't slow down Abbott. Nor would jacking up a car. Easy stuff for her. The hard part would be drilling the bolts on the tires once they're on the wheel. The pros do that six times in 1.3 seconds.

Turner set up a wheel-and-axle assembly station and Abbott gave it a try: 1.7 seconds. Not bad for a first-timer. Abbott was hooked, and Turner had its pit crew version of Danica. Or so they hope. "Christmas is going to transcend NASCAR," Bullard says.

There's nothing glamorous about this life. A low-level race pays only a few hundred dollars. One mistake, like missing a bolt, could result in dismissal. Doing the job perfectly, every time, is required. The driver gets most of the credit and tons more money. And the travel is insane. Abbott, who has a boyfriend, will not get to see loved ones for the better part of the entire year. Socializing won't happen during races, and it probably won't happen during nights out either.

Abbott says she rarely drinks anymore, and would spend a night out with the guys sipping a "pretend and tonic." She's been in testosterone-fueled environments for years now, both in Iraq and at her gym in Raleigh, but this is different. The other men in the crew will be depending on her to not screw up. If you drop a barbell in the gym, you pick it up and nobody cares. If you drop an air gun in the pit, you could cost your team the race.

"We have a lot of great athletes," says Gary Smith, pit coach for Front Row Motorsports, "but there are some who mentally just can't do it."

To Abbott, though, that's the appeal. "It's that much of a challenge," she says. "In pit crewing, even with the fatigue, you have to have the perfect precision to get the task done. You remember every tenth of every second. It's that consistency of performance."

[Related: Bowyer ready to go racing … and lion hunting]

Even more than CrossFit, being on a pit crew requires a mental control over physical actions. That's the hook. Abbott is everywhere on YouTube, wearing not much in her workouts, but she's not out to be a celebrity. In fact, the attention makes her a little uncomfortable. "There's a lot of spotlight," she says. "I prefer to be the quiet underdog."

She's perfectly fine proving herself at lower rungs along the way, however, she may not have to. She was expected to be on Cobb's crew for the entire Camping World Truck season, but Wednesday Michael Waltrip Racing announced it had signed Christmas as a full-time crew member for its Sprint Cup operation.

"As Danica has seen, it takes a lot of work and dedication to get to the top level of her trade. With her Daytona 500 pole, it seems so much of that work has been worth it," team owner Michael Waltrip said. "I believe the same can hold true for Christmas. We expect her to excel or we wouldn't commit the position to her."

It took her years to excel at CrossFit and she knows it may take that long to climb the NASCAR ranks. Asked how she would feel if another woman became the first full-timer on a NASCAR pit crew, she says it would be "bad ass."

"I absolutely don't want to be put in a position because of this opportunity," she says. In other words, she doesn't want to be given a shot because she's a she. She wants to earn it.

A noble thought, yet one that will likely drown in criticism. The pretty face with the sculpted arms is not likely to be the "quiet underdog" once people see her on TV. Bullard wants to make Abbott the first pit star, and so will TV producers. That will bring untold pressure.

Bullard says Abbott's already in talks with Hollywood about a possible reality show. It won't be about her life in the pits; it'll be about her life. "There's no blueprint for this," Bullard says.

Abbott loves what she does because of the grind – the tiny, incremental improvements she makes over months and years. She got that from the women in her family, and her greatest rewards have come from the agonizing, glacial chisel of sustained effort.

This, however, is different. "Christmas needs time," Bullard says, but there is no time. That's the one thing the pits don't allow for.

It's taken years for Christmas Abbott to excel. She's proud of that.

But now she's going to have to hurry.

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