Off to the races

Becoming an athletic trainer might seem like an odd way to join the NASCAR world, but alumna Pam Brown has successfully navigated that route. A full-time athletic trainer for Michael Waltrip Racing in Concord, N.C., she’s been a fixture on pit row at every Sprint Cup race for the past four years.

After having worked as a trainer in college football for almost 10 years, Brown wanted to try something new when the season came to an end in December 2010.

“I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time, and I wanted to get back down South,” Brown says. “I applied on our national website for athletic trainers, and I was one of 150 applicants, and they narrowed it down to three. And here I am.”

Athletics and stock car racing might seem like an odd mix, but not for those involved in the sport.

The drivers and crew are extremely fit, says Brown, a 2004 graduate of Carolina’s athletic training program. Pit crews are often made up of former college and professional athletes, and their retirement from Major League Baseball or the NFL might take them off the playing field, but it doesn’t get them out of the gym.

On weekdays, the crew has regular workouts and practice sessions. The task they train for isn’t for the faint of heart: the team replaces four tires with four fresh ones and gas the car up, and they do it in under 13 seconds.

“The tires can weigh between 65 and 75 pounds, and some of those guys are pulling them off the car one-handed,” Brown says. “The gas cans that the gasmen carry are about 92 pounds.”

It’s an intense burst of physical activity, one that inevitably causes injuries. Brown works weekdays at the Michael Waltrip Racing compound, primarily as an athletic trainer for the pit crew, but also with any of MWR’s 200-odd employees, whether their injuries are personal or work-related.

The weekends involve a trip on the company plane to the race site, where Brown works during the race with the pit crew. With 36 Sprint Cup races a year, it makes for a full calendar of weekends from Valentine’s Day until Thanksgiving.

Even with that schedule, Brown still finds time to help students on the way up. Since graduating from the Carolina, she’s kept in touch with Jim Mensch, the director of Carolina’s athletic training program. This past summer, the two arranged for senior Katie Fisenne to shadow her at MWR for a couple of weeks.

“My Dad and I watch NASCAR on Sundays, so I was super-interested in hearing about her position,” Fisenne says. “People kind of see us in a box, they generally think of athletic trainers as being ‘those people on the football sidelines,’ but they don’t know how much the field has grown.

“Now we’re working in PT clinics, we’re working out of high schools, we’re working with Cirque de Soleil and the Rockettes and NASCAR and the military. Our field has grown so much.”

Brown has experienced that growth firsthand. She’s still the only full-time, in-house athletic trainer among the NASCAR teams, but others are taking notice.

Every major team in NASCAR has an athletic trainer or physical therapist now that they contract out to,” she says. “When I first started, I was the only one that would travel with the team, and now I see every team with one every weekend.”

Those weekends take her to a world she never imagined she’d be a part of.

“I didn’t understand it. I was thinking, ‘Who would want to watch a race? The cars just go round and round,’” Brown says, “But I’m telling you, once you go to a race, you get a better understanding and more love for the sport. Have I been converted? Absolutely.”

Learn more

The University of South Carolina’s athletic training program is one of the largest in the country, with more than 200 undergraduate students. To support top-notch programs like these in the College of Education, visit Carolina's Promise.

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