William Sturgill was a high school and college offensive lineman, so he understands the role of being a team player in a non-glamorous position.
Sturgill, 29, didn’t grow up a die-hard NASCAR fan in Lexington even though he admits his family did sometimes watch NASCAR events. That included his sister,¿Jenny, who now lives in Danville with her husband, attorney Patrick McClure, and their two sons.
“Our family was more into horse racing,” Sturgill, 29, said. “We watched races and I am pretty sure she watched a few. I was a passive fan of NASCAR and my family actually sponsored an open wheel modified car. I got to see the pit area of a race track when I was younger and it did not take me long to realize how strenuous racing is. Everybody pours their heart and soul into it.”
Sturgill decided to venture into racing after his father’s death about eight years ago. He got a needed break when former University of Kentucky defensive tackle Mark Jacobs, who works on the pit crew of Juan Pablo Montoya, encouraged him to look into working for a pit crew and helped him get a spot in the pit-crew development program at Chip Ganassi Racing. Eventually he got to work for Dario Franchitti’s team in the Nationwide Series and then moved to Sprint Cup racing with driver Sam Hornish Jr. for Penske Racing.
Last season he was the jackman for driverRicky Stenhouse Jr. in the Nationwide Series when the driver won the championship. That helped him land a spot back in Sprint Cup with Ragan this year. Ragan ranks 29th in the standings with one top 10 finish.
“I really missed the competitive nature of athletics from playing football and being part of a pit crew has fulfilled that,” Sturgill said. “Being part of a pit crew really is a lot like being on the offensive line. We are in the background. We are an added value to the team. We definitely understand we are not going to get the glory when things go perfect, but we will be in the spotlight when things go bad. However, we all understand we can help keep our car in a race whether it is gaining a few spots or maintaining where we are. That is what we practice for and work out for.
“Everybody is competitive and wants to do well. That helps build teamwork. We get the glory of holding our chests high on pit road when we do our jobs. There are only 42 jackmen who get to do what I¿do on race day. Everybody knows where you rank.¿If your pit stops are good, they are recognized. It’s a hidden community that does not get a lot of the spotlight, but we all love it.”
He hoped to make a visit to Danville this week but his schedule didn’t work out. He’ll fly into Kentucky from North Carolina Saturday for the race and then head back to work.
“I usually get to come up on Wednesday and stay through the weekend,” Sturgill said. “I was planning on doing that this year, but it didn’t work out. Still, having some family coming to the race is a huge deal for me. Them getting to see me and what I do means a lot to me.”
Sturgill is realistic about his team’s chances Saturday night. Front Row Motorsports doesn’t have the funding of Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Racing. Instead, it has a much tighter budget under owner Bob Jenkins, a Tennessee restaurant entrepreneur who started the team in 2005. However, that has given Sturgill a chance to also work in marketing and business development.
“We have our shots and try to be consistent and do the best we can with what we have,” Sturgill said. “Our strong suit is not the mile and a half tracks, and Kentucky Speedway is. I¿don’t really feel like we will be contending for the win, but we have a good shot at running a competitive race.”
He noted the team can compete for wins at super speedways, road courses and short tracks.
“We just have to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. That comes with any profession,” Sturgill said. “You have to find a way to do the best you can at a place where you are not strong. You rely on the pit crew at a track like this not to lose spots. This is one of the most important tracks for our pit crew. I need to shine and not have a mistake. Our team needs to average 13.1 or 13.2 (second) pit stops all race long.”
Sturgill believes increased TV coverage of pit stops has helped casual race fans understand the importance a pit crew can have on a race’s outcome.
“It’s a lot easier to lose positions on pit row than it is on the track unless you hit the wall or something,” Sturgill said. “TV has done a great job showing how intricate and important pit stops are.¿If a lug nut is off or if a tire gets away, it shows. The race off pit row really makes it clear how important our job is because what you gain on pit row equates to track position.
“I’m not sure the passive fan still realizes what goes into our job and what risks we have. Every time you go over that wall, you have an opportunity to get injured, get hit by a car. That’s why now most pit crew members are ex-athletes and people who have been in sports and can be coached. We are not played up in the media, but pit crew members have started getting more exposure the last couple of years as people understand more and more about what a big part of the race team we are.”
Front Row Motorsports even has a sponsor — sports supplement firm Maximum Human Performance — for its pit crews (FRM also fields the No. 38 Cup car for driver David Gilliland).
Maximum Human Performance has put up prize money matching the two pit crews and at the end of the season the top crew will share the money.
“It has been neat to be part of their marketing,” Sturgill, who came to Front Row Motorsports as director of business development. “I am always selling the race team and trying to bring sponsor on board with us. We have had great success for a team that has not really had a lot of sponsorship and now that we are running competitively, we can seek more sponsors to help fund the team.”
Sturgill even tried to work with the University of Kentucky about sponsoring Ragan’s car for the Kentucky Speedway race.
“We were unable to work anything out with them. I wanted to do something congratulating them on being 2012 (national basketball) champions or say something about Big Blue Nation,” Sturgill said. “We just couldn’t get together, but that doesn’t mean next year we are not going to try again.”