Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Different Kind Of NASCAR Christmas

Is NASCAR ready for Christmas?
By Scott Fowler -

Christmas Joye Abbott is an unusual woman, and her unusual name is only the beginning of her story.

She is an elite-level fitness athlete who co-owns a gym in downtown Raleigh. She spent four years in Iraq working as a civilian, mostly as an office manager who learned to shrug off the sound of mortar rounds. She likes tattoos, lipstick, lug nuts, stiletto heels and the bulldog named Fran who is her primary companion.

And she wants to be a front-tire changer on a NASCAR Sprint Cup pit crew badly enough that she has moved to Charlotte and put everything else in her life on the back burner to pursue that goal.

Christmas – and I’m going to call her that because that’s what everyone calls her – hasn’t done anything but practice a lot as of yet. Her first race as a member of a real live pit crew won’t come until late November in Florida at a low-level stock car race.

But she’s being fast-tracked by Turner Motorsports, which “discovered” her at a pit crew recruiting challenge in January. All sorts of dreams are being dreamed. A possible reality show called “Chasing Christmas” that chronicles her journey (which she hopes will culminate in a pit-crew spot on a Cup team in 2014) is one of them.

As we sat over coffee recently, I asked Christmas, who is 30, if she was trying to be to NASCAR pit crews what Danica Patrick is to NASCAR drivers.

“I’m going to say no,” she said, “because I want to be the best and she hasn’t proven to be the best yet. I don’t want anything given to me because I'’m female. I go in there and I have to work twice as hard just because I am female and because I look a certain way. I want this because it’s an opportunity that intrigues me.”

At 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds, Christmas doesn’t fit the mold of most NASCAR pit crew members. There have been women pit crew members before in some of the lower-level NASCAR series, including an all-female pit crew that was put together as a publicity stunt to help generate a sponsor for female driver Shawna Robinson for a few truck races in 2003.

In general, women in “over-the-wall” roles in the pits haven’t worked out well. Strength is usually a problem. The tires that Christmas must wrench off the racecar weigh 65 pounds. That’s more than half her body weight. But Turner Motorsports believes Christmas, because of her elite fitness background and her work ethic, could be a breakout star.

Her daily supervisor is Shaun Peet, who is a pit crew coach, a jackman in all three of NASCAR’s top series and a former minor-league hockey player from Canada. When he first heard about the idea of Christmas coming to Charlotte to join the men he regularly trains, he wanted no part of it.

“I’m already super-busy,” said Peet, who is getting married on a Thursday this month because he so rarely gets a weekend off. “And when they brought the idea to me – that we’re going to train a girl to do stuff in the pits – it sounded like a publicity stunt. I was like, ‘No, that’s not for me. I have no desire to do that.’”

But Peet agreed to meet with Christmas and listened to her talk about her background.

“I figured with that military contracting she had been around a lot of alpha males and that Iraq was probably a little nastier than the pit crew community,” he said. “So we decided to try it. And then her second week into training, we had a bit of a lull and we took everyone into the gym. She crushed everyone. These are former football, hockey, soccer players – all of them on our pit crews now. And she buried all of them.”

Said Christmas: “I guess they had You-Tubed me at the beginning and had seen this teeny little girl and they were like: ‘Really? She’s not going to last.’ But I will. I have the mental fortitude to keep going. Whatever anyone says is fine – the bottom line is that I’m going to still do it. Whether you believe me now or believe me later, I’m going to show you.”

First mile ‘almost killed me’

Christmas wasn’t always an athlete, but she has been in male-dominated worlds on several occasions in her life. Born on Dec. 20, her mother named her “Christmas Joye” because she had been on bed rest for several months to avoid a miscarriage and was so delighted at her daughter’s arrival.

Christmas grew up primarily in Lynchburg, Va., the middle child in a family with three kids. At age 9, she decided she wanted to play baseball rather than girls’ softball – not to make a gender-related statement, but because a baseball fit better in her hand.

She said the league she tried to get into originally told her she couldn’t play. But after her mother threatened to tell the media about the issue, the league let her join as the only girl. The following year several more girls played.

But that didn’t spawn a love for sports. By the time she was a teenager, Christmas said she had become a “wild child” who cared nothing about athletics.

“I completely veered off,” she said. “I started smoking cigarettes, started running around with a not-so-great crowd.”

Christmas tried college for a year, but it didn’t really take. Her mother had gone to Iraq, working as a civilian, and talked Christmas into applying for a job overseas as well (Christmas said she had wanted to join the military but was unable to because of her asthma). Once she got to Iraq, she looked around at all the soldiers and decided she needed to get into better shape.

“When I was 22, I quit smoking and tried to run my first mile,” she said. “It almost killed me. I took a week to recover.”

Gradually, however, Christmas began to enjoy working out. At age 24, she found CrossFit – a strength and conditioning program used by a number of police and military squads and elite athletes. After leaving Iraq, she became completely immersed in the CrossFit ideology, enough so that she opened her own CrossFit gym in Raleigh in 2010 after teaching a number of fitness classes, including one called “30 Days of Christmas.” She also began placing well in national-level fitness competitions sponsored by CrossFit.

‘A marketing gold mine’

Meanwhile, Ted Bullard had an idea. Bullard is the chief marketing officer for Turner Motorsports and is always looking for a way to attract new sponsors into NASCAR.

“I had been wondering, how come you never see a woman in the pits at the highest level of NASCAR?” Bullard said. “There have been a few over the years, but I don’t think there has ever been a really serious athlete. I was researching some of the top CrossFit athletes in the country at the time (Bullard was also pursuing CrossFit as a possible new sponsor). And I came across some video of Christmas. Even her name sounded like a marketing gold mine. And she was an elite athlete. If she can do what I’m hoping she can do, we’ve got a real story.”

Bullard invited Christmas and some other male CrossFit athletes to a pit crew challenge in January. “On her fourth attempt, she got all five lug nuts off in 1.7 seconds,” Bullard said. “This was someone who had never touched the equipment. The pros do it in 1.0 or 1.2 seconds.”

Bullard tried to talk Christmas into this adventure. At first, she was leery. But eventually, she came around, deciding to move from Raleigh to Charlotte three months ago to pursue a job in the pits. She also plans to help develop a CrossFit gym in the Charlotte area that will help train current and future pit crew members.

Turner Motorsports has underwritten the costs of Christmas’s training, but she isn’t being officially paid. Peet, her coach, said he hopes to start her at NASCAR’S lowest levels in early 2013, assuming the race in Florida in November goes OK.

“The plan is for her to start in ARCA racing (which is slightly below NASCAR’s top three series of racing),” Peet said. “She’s going to have to drive eight hours to Indiana, pit a car and then drive eight hours back. If she wants the longevity and respect of her peers, we’re going to go about it the right way.”

And Christmas? She said she knows there will be doubters during every step of a journey that has hardly begun yet. And she said she is ready.

“I kind of smile when I hear any criticism,” Christmas said. “I’m doing today what others aren’t, so I can do tomorrow what others can’t. I’m going to catch up. And then I’m going to start passing people.”

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