Salem native keeps hustling after Daytona 500 win

Mar. 24—Jeff Cordero used to enjoy attending the New London-Waterford Speedbowl with his dad and grandmother as a kid, and for most people that would be the end of the story.

But Cordero, a native of Salem, has parlayed his love for the roar of the racetrack into a career as a member of the pit crew of Hendrick Motorsports, the team featuring driver William Byron that just last month won the Daytona 500, one of the crown jewels of NASCAR racing.

"It's the winningest organization in NASCAR, kind of like the Yankees of NASCAR," Cordero said in a phone interview from his home in Dallas, N.C.

And this is not Cordero's first major win as a pit crew member for Hendrick. The 36-year-old Norwich Technical High School graduate who specialized in plumbing and heating has also been on the winning team twice in the Coke 600 at Charlotte, N.C., which along with the Indianapolis 500, the Southern 500 and the Daytona 500 make up the four most prestigious NASCAR races.

Cordero said he tried going the college route after high school, attending Three Rivers Community College and the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, but it was the lure of the racetrack that kept calling him in a different direction.

"School wasn't for me," Cordero recalled.

So after spending a good deal of time helping drivers at the Speedbowl during his teenage years, Cordero finally convinced his parents to drop him off in North Carolina at the age of 21 to attend pit crew school (Performance Institute Training), where he took an eight-week crash course in being a race technician.

"It's a reps thing," he said. "You have to spend thousands of hours to get better."

Then you have to find a job by keeping in contact with others in the racing world.

"You just kind of hustle," Cordero said. "You go do this and that and get any job you can."

And along the way, you find you're often competing against well-toned athletes who once competed at the highest levels of NCAA sports, according to Cordero's friend Glen Thomas, a Speedbowl driver who grew up in Groton.

"He's bulked up and put in the work," Thomas said. "He's just put everything into it."

And while you'd think a kid from Connecticut wouldn't stand much of a chance landing a NASCAR job, Thomas said there are a fair number from the Northeast who make it on the pro circuit.

"The work ethic of people from the North really tends to shine in the South," he said. "We work a little harder up here."

Fellow Norwich Tech graduate Jeff Paul, a Speedbowl driver who used to work on cars with Cordero at his father's Ledyard garage, said his classmate eventually hooked up with the Kyle Busch race team, but he was rarely able to work with the top team there. But being in North Carolina, where racing is king, Cordero finally found his way to another top team.

"To make a career out of it, you really have to move out of state," Paul said. "Racing's pretty tough, but you do learn pretty quick."

Some people in the pit crew business are looking to make the most money possible, Cordero said, while others are looking to collect as many trophies as they can.

"I've been trophy chasing," he said. "I think that's how legacies are built."

Not to say he isn't well paid in his chosen field. He may not be able to retire early, he said, but he is making in the six figures for his prowess.

Cordero specializes in tire changing on a team named the No. 1 pit crew last year. Their best time for changing four tires and filling the tank with 15 gallons of gas was 8.6 seconds, he added.

"Tire changing is usually the one that can make or break a team," he said. "The majority of the shakeups in (race) order happens on pit row because all the cars run about the same speed."

He said racing can be loud (he wears custom ear molds) and chaotic, but the adrenaline rush is second to none. When pit crews jump out to service their team's car, they have to watch out for other race cars flying by at 55 mph trying to make their own quick stop.

"We're always playing in traffic," he said. "It is fun when five guys go over the wall."

The NASCAR season runs from Feb. 18 to Nov. 10 this year, according to Cordero, representing 36 races in 38 weeks. So just about every week he is in a different city as wife Chrystal usually stays at home with the pets and farm animals. And for the big races, there will be up to 100,000 people in the stands, with five to seven million others watching on television, he said.

"There are probably only 40 people in the entire world that do what I do," Cordero said.

But Cordero is very aware that racing is all about the team he works with.

"The better friends you are with the guys you are stuck with, the better team you're going to be," he said. "Team chemistry is one of the most important things you can have. If you don't get along with the people you're working with, it's a really long year."

Cordero said he works on a salary basis, with the typical contract lasting from two to four years.

"If you get a really good team together, you want to keep that team together as long as possible," he said.

The whole Hendricks team wears jackets with decals from racing sponsors that help pay their salaries. Without sponsorship, Cordero said, racing would not be viable.

Reflecting on his career, Cordero said it seems like a dream come true, and one that he would likely be doing for free if he still lived in Connecticut.

"I definitely feel like as a younger kid I never thought it would have been possible," he said. "I have done exactly what I wanted to do."

His friend Paul, whose nephew Riley Paul now races at the Speedbowl, said the great thing about Cordero has been his quest for knowledge, right from the start when they worked on cars in his father's garage.

"He was always there, the dependable one," Paul said.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, particularly in sports. And Cordero, as young as he is today, acknowledges that sometime in his early to mid 40s he likely will be done as agility and speed are key aspects of being a pit crew member.

"I'm on the back half of my career, but I still have a lot of life left in me," he said.