RICHMOND — Caleb Hurd figured out what he wanted to do with his life when he first traveled to Richmond International Raceway for a NASCAR race in 2000. He was working as a wide-eyed intern for Hendrick Motorsports at the time, putting his mechanical engineering education at Virginia Tech to good use. That weekend showed him he could so much more.
Hurd brought his wife, Courtney, to the race to show her what he was getting into, and they roamed around the infield for the first time. He could feel the competitive juices flowing, just as he had when he was playing football for the Hokies from 1996 to 1999. He later celebrated in victory lane, another first, after one of Hendrick Motorsports’ star drivers, Jeff Gordon, won the race.
“I loved every minute of. That’s when I knew I wanted to go to the racetrack and not just work at the shop,” said Hurd, who for the past 16 years has been double-dipping as an engineer and pit-crew member for some of NASCAR’s best drivers.
He will return to Richmond for Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400, serving as the gas man in the pit crew for the No. 11 FedEx car driven by Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. This track is hallowed ground for this team: Hamlin is from nearby Chesterfield and witnessed his first NASCAR race in Richmond, and Hurd remembers it as the place where he was first inspired to become a pit crew member.
“It does hold a higher significance than some of the other places we go,” said Hurd, who spends his weekdays as an engineer for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hurd, who has worked for Jimmie Johnson in addition to Gordon and Hamlin, is one of more than a dozen former college or professional football players who are on NASCAR pit crews. Athletes from other sports, accustomed to the demands of executing flawlessly under intense competitive pressure, have also thrived in the profession. There’s also the alluring adrenaline rush. “Anytime, you have to wear fire-retardant underwear, it’s usually not the sign of a safe job,” Hurd said.
“What we’ve found is that it doesn’t really matter, as long as they’ve competed in a sport, they were competitive and they have this kind of athletic mind-set … I felt Caleb was the ideal fit,” said Mike Lepp, senior athletic adviser for Joe Gibbs Racing, of hiring Hurd in 2013. “Secondarily, we were in the process of trying to make the fuel cans faster. And he was an engineer. Now that’s a double win. ”
Hurd, 38, has used his mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech to help teams fine-tune their cars and their racing process over the years, but he also remains in good enough shape to handle the rigors of a gas man in Hamlin’s six-man crew. He has carved out his own niche in the sport, much as he did as a special teams player at Virginia Tech, where he was the holder for place kicker Shayne Graham in the late 1990s.
Hurd held for Graham during their days at Pulaski County High School in Dublin, Va., and were a package deal of sorts in signing with Virginia Tech. Hurd celebrated his share of memorable moments with the Hokies, including appearances in the Orange Bowl as freshman in 1996 and in the national championship against Florida State as a senior in early 2000. He thought his athletic career might be over at that point, until he visited Richmond as an intern. He started off as a catch-can man for Gordon and eventually became a gas man for Johnson and Hamlin.
“He’s been on the road for a long time and has had a lot of success, and he’s one reason why the 11 guys are the best bunch on pit road,” Hamlin said via email earlier this week.
While Hurd is part of fraternity of former football players who have transitioned into careers as pit crew members, he was also reminded of how tightknit the larger NASCAR community is last fall. Courtney gave birth to their daughter, Kate, in November, nearly nine weeks early. About a month later, Hurd was on the road for a race in Phoenix when Courtney called to tell him that Kate needed heart surgery.
“It was NASCAR-wide for me. I’ve been around long enough where I know a lot of people on pit road now … I could barely make it past the pit box without someone coming up to me and saying they were thinking about us and everything. It was a really nice situation to know you have the kind of support out there,” Hurd said.
Hurd’s daughter has recovered from the surgery “and is doing just fine” at their home in North Carolina, he said.
The travel demands of his job won’t be that rigorous this weekend when he makes the short trip to Richmond. Much has changed about the sport and his job since he was an intern with Hendrick Motorsports, which he left to join Joe Gibbs Racing just a few years ago to serve on the pit crew for Hamlin, a perennial contender.
“The fact that there was still an opportunity for me to travel to the racetrack and go over the wall and do pit stops, is one of the reasons I took the job here at Gibbs, because I enjoy it that much,” Hurd said. “I was going to make that leap, to keep going.”