CrossFit Saved Michael Hicks’ NASCAR Pit Crew Career
How does one maintain a high level of performance and keep calm while working in a stressful sport? There are several options, but Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew member Michael Hicks uses CrossFit.
Some details: Hicks has been the rear-tire changer for 48-time NASCAR Cup Series winner Denny Hamlin for a decade, and he has been in the sport since 2006. He has one of the most stressful jobs considering that he has to switch out two wheels and get the new ones tight in a matter of seconds. Any mistakes can lead to lost positions out on the track or a lost wheel, which equals a possible four-race suspension for him, the jackman, and the crew chief.
- Hicks and the No. 11 pit crew were the fifth-fastest out of nearly 40 teams in 2021. Their performances helped Hamlin remain consistent, capture two wins, and secure a spot as one of the four drivers fighting for the championship trophy in November’s finale race.
- The No. 11 pit crew played a major role in Hamlin’s first win of the 2022 season. They changed four tires and filled the Toyota Camry with fuel in 9.4 seconds during the final pit stop at Richmond Raceway, which kept Hamlin ahead of fellow contender Kevin Harvick.
Hicks follows the CrossFit Mayhem programming, and he works out with a consistent group from Joe Gibbs Racing. Some are from the No. 11 team while other members of the group work on different JGR Toyotas.
- “We hit it pretty hard during the week, and it’s a lot of fun. I mean, CrossFit is fun, period. Right? I mean, you do Metcons and it’s competitive and then you get these partner workouts going and it’s just a lot of fun, man. I love that it’s never the same thing twice.”
- One example was a Mayhem partner workout featuring double-unders, clean and jerks, and 400-meter runs. The JGR crew took their equipment out into the field and did the workout in the North Carolina heat and humidity. This helped them attack their fitness while preparing for the summer at the various NASCAR tracks.
Hicks didn’t start out as someone that loved CrossFit or working out in general. He didn’t have to worry much about lifting weights because there were six pit crew members at the time, and his role was more about speed. The situation changed when NASCAR went to five-man stops and changed how Hicks performed his role on the team.
- “There were rumblings at the time that they were gonna go to a five man pit stop,” Hicks said. “And I was like, ‘Oh man, there ain’t no way I’m gonna be able to pull the tires. I’m just… I don’t think I could physically do it and be at a high level.”
- “I was good at changing tires. I didn’t need to touch weights because I was good, right? Back then, I didn’t have to pull any tires. To be a tire changer, you really didn’t have to be that strong.”
Hicks loves CrossFit now, but he didn’t naturally take to the training style. He actually said that there was no way he would do it until tire carrier Joe Crossen and his barber both said that they were testing themselves at CrossFit boxes.
- “I went to that CrossFit box, and I fell in love with it because it was something different every day. And it just fit my style, you know, it was competitive.”
- “I got over here with Greg Powell–they call him Special Greg. He’s done Nitro Circus. He is really big into CrossFit. He had some really good Open scores too, and he ended up living like a mile from me.”
Powell took Hicks under his wing, and they began hitting the training hard. Some of their work included two sessions a day with conditioning in the morning. These sessions weren’t easy, but they prepared Hicks for the switch to five-man pit stops in 2018.
- “Honestly, it really really kind of turned my life around,” Hicks said. “Then the five-man deal ended up happening. It’s like, honestly, it’s kind of like it was just meant to be. All the stars fell in line.”
- “And if it wasn’t, if I didn’t do that, I honestly don’t know I would have made it through the five-man era. CrossFit, honestly, it’s really saved my career looking back on it. And then now we have this one-lug stuff, and there’s no way that I could do what I do now with the one-lug pitstop if I was the way I was four or five years ago.”
Hicks is now several years into CrossFit, and he has a full setup at his home. This provides him with the ability to work out with his wife, who also does CrossFit, while spending time with his kids. Achieving balance is important given Hicks’ daily duties at JGR, as well as his oldest daughter’s foray into Go-Kart racing.
The ability to train and physically prepare for each race on the schedule is crucial, as is the focus on mentality. NASCAR Race Director Jusan Hamilton previously mentioned that CrossFit helps him prepare to make split-second decisions each week while Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice talked about the positive effects on his attitude.
- “Where it really benefits you is when you’re at those races, where you know you’re gonna have 10 stops, it’s 100 degrees, and you’re in a firesuit for five hours,” Hicks said. “I kind of treat it like a 25-30-minute Metcon where you have to go to that dark place and mentally just grind through it.”
- “You know, doing CrossFit like I’ve done, I’ve kind of trained my body to be able to go to that dark place mentally, just check out and focus and grind and just push through that Metcon. That’s definitely helped me as far as on Sunday when you get seven or eight stops in and you start getting some body fatigue and you’ve been sweating for four hours in a firesuit.”
Perks of the Job: There is no denying that Hicks has a cool job even with the stress and required perfect execution. There are also some solid perks. He gets to travel the country, which has included running into Dani Speegle prior to a race at Sonoma Raceway. Hicks also trained in Rich Froning’s barn.
- “Our gas man, Justin White, is from Tennessee, and he knows [Froning Farms co-owner Matt Billings] real well. He contacted Matt when we were in town for the [Nashville] race, and Matt got with Rich. He’s like, ‘Yeah, just have them guys go to the barn.’”
- “So yeah, we got to go out there, and Haley Adams was training at the time. So we got to do a Metcon in the barn, and I’ll tell you, that was a pretty awesome deal. That’s the Holy Grail.”