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Old Posted Oct 12, 2017, 12:32 AM
elly63 elly63 is offline
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The pits are the life for ex-Argo Walls
Cut by two CFL teams, Curtis Walls tried out for a NASCAR pit crew. Now he's hooked, working for Chip Ganassi and part of a wave of athletes switching to the paint-trading world of speed and rubber — and trying to make a difference.
Mark Zwolinski Sports reporter thestar.com Oct 8 2017

When Curtis Walls hopped over the pit wall to help change tires on Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 car at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, he was doing more than just swapping worn-out rubber.

He was part of a bigger trend: elite athletes becoming pit-crew workers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Walls might be remembered as a former receiver and punt returner who spent the 2011 season with the Toronto Argonauts. Today, instead of racking up yardage, he’s buying time. He can get a 50-pound tire changed in roughly 10 seconds, helping McMurray get back on track in pursuit of the season title.

It isn’t something the North Carolina-raised Walls ever expected to be doing.

“Even though I grew up in Charlotte, I had no experience with NASCAR,” said Walls, an academic standout at North Carolina A&T. “I was not a car person. I never knew NASCAR would become an opportunity for me. But one of the things we now say to new guys coming into (auto racing) is, we don’t expect you to be in the sport. And when you see them succeed, it’s amazing to see that the people who can handle the grind are the ones who come to care about the sport.”

Walls is one of three ex-CFLers on McMurray’s Chip Ganassi crew, along with former Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Richie Williams and ex-Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker Jonathan Willard.

Walls’ road from the gridiron to pit lane began when he suffered a knee injury in 2011. Released by the Argos, he caught on with the Calgary Stampeders. Another cut left him short of options.

“I was working out and playing, and then when I got released from Calgary I kept working out and trying to get back into the NFL,” Walls said. “I then signed with Pittsburgh in the AFL and I said to myself, this is not where I want my career to go. I had (accountant Richard Carter) handling my business ventures . . . and he put me in touch with Shaun Peet, who was a pit-crew coach for Chip Ganassi.”

His introduction to a different kind of speed game was an eye-opener.

“I went out to meet the team, and I can tell you it was a world I didn’t expect,” Walls recalled. “I had to compete there. It wasn’t just showing up for work. The guys were all competitive. They all played pro sports. I was a receiver and a returner in football, but all I could offer off the top in NASCAR was that I was coachable and had good hand-to-eye co-ordination. Everything else was so brand new to me.”

While McMurray’s crew might be the only one with three ex-CFLers in the mix, the number of athletes making the switch from other sports — including hockey and wrestling — has steadily increased since the days when pit crews were mostly comprised of mechanics and shop workers pulling double duty.

What started as a trickle in the late 1990s, when Andy Papathanassiou began to recruit elite athletes for Jeff Gordon’s team, has become a wave: 80 per cent of current NASCAR pit crews are made up of athletes who competed at a high level in other sports, either professionally or in college.

The rationale is simple: Every fraction of a second counts in a race, and bringing in athletes known for their speed, strength and agility adds up.

The results have been dramatic. Where 15 seconds was once considered an excellent clocking for a NASCAR pit stop, now it can be done as quickly as nine seconds.

Walls has been changing tires for Ganassi’s team for four seasons now. He’s also trying to help change the sport for the better.

As a Black man raised in the south, NASCAR wasn’t something he had interest in growing up. Five years ago, the series started handing out diversity awards to drivers, teams and tracks, and in 2016 Daniel Suarez became the first Mexican-born champion, in the Xfinity support series. Today, reaching out to new fans is something Walls feels strongly about, at a time when — despite an $8.2-billion (U.S.) TV contract that runs through 2024 — TV ratings and attendance are on the decline.

“Because I grew up in a culture that didn’t recognize NASCAR … you have to have an understanding of the importance of being open-minded,” Walls said. “That was a good thing for me, and I think it’s important for the future of NASCAR — redefining their sport, redefining the look of their pit crews — and if you are not recruiting athletes, you won’t be competitive.

“It’s changing the culture of the sport, and it’s really the changing microcosm of life … where you have people with different values and backgrounds come together and change things.”
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