Thursday, May 19, 2011

DJ Copp: Veteran tire changer and so much more

DJ Copp, front tire changer for JR Motorsports but so much more..
Like most who work in racing DJ Copp was had an interest in speed since he was young. Growing up near Rochester, New York DJ had an early interest in racing after growing up near a junkyard and racing the beat up cars around with his father. That progressed into his racing dreams. DJ learned the ropes of racing as a teenager at Canandaigua Speedway ( .5 mile dirt track in New York) and became successful as a racer. At the young age of 18, DJ packed his bags and headed for North Carolina, the holy land for everything auto racing has and can offer to a young man just wanting to start out. After realizing becoming a driver would not be as easy as he thought, DJ changed his path, staying in racing but experimenting with where he fit. After trying his hand at being a crew chief for a while, DJ than decided on becoming a tire carrier.  Many may know DJ from his segments on ESPN, called Over the Wall or from his work with many of the elite teams of NASCAR including Dale Earnhardt Inc., Roush Fenway Racing and presently he works for JR Motorsports. DJ not only is a pit crew member but has developed a pit crew training facility called OTWcrew.com (Over the Wall crew) and he explains that and much more to me in our one-on-one interview. Join me in learning about the rigorous work behind the scenes.

Amanda Ebersole (AE) : I know you have worked in many different series of racing, can you tell me which all you have at one time or another?
DJ Copp (DC):I did it I guess the way the book is written the way you should do it. I started in the local late models, when I started going over the wall; that was in the Pro Cup Series. Then I went to ARCA, Trucks, Nationwide then Cup Series. Me personally, once I realized the crew chiefing thing wasn’t my deal, was fortunate to do a good job going over the wall. It took off from there, I started with ACE Motorsports and ran in the Cup Series, I was with Ricky Craven in the Tide ride and was part of some cool victories there. After that I was with Roush Racing with Carl Edwards and was a part of his first win at Atlanta when we passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. That win was really special to cause we Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle were the class of the field, we lingered in 3rd that day and on the last pit stop we came in 3rd and went out 1st. Carl credited that win from being able to get him enough down force on the nose of the car. That was just really cool. He credited us with that win and that was just a lot of fun. I worked with them for a few years and we had a chance at the championship. After that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the guys at DEI called me up to go over to the No. 8 car. The fun of dealing with the spotlight from that team, but then also seeing it from a different perspective as well. 

AE: Right now you work for JR Motorsports correct?
DC: Yeah when Jr. left to go to Hendrick I decided I wanted to stick with him. I tried a couple of other teams, but I wanted to stick with Jr. and the pit crew there. I have been at JR Motorsports for the last 5 years.

AE: Now I know you previously pitted both Nationwide and Cup cars, but this year you are just Nationwide?
DC: Nope not doing Cup, just focusing on my development program. (More on that later)

AE: Between all the different series you have worked (Cup, Nationwide, Trucks, etc.) what can you different as the major difference from a pit crew standpoint?
DC: With each series, the higher you go up the more financially prepared they are. When you have the finances you can have the extra help. In the Cup Series from a pit stop you have hose pullers, tire catchers and all the behind the wall support you need. They have the nicer pit boxes with all the tools you need for maintance. As you move down and especially in the truck series the level of experience for individuals and the equipment, it just falls off a little. The biggest thing is not being able to take things for granted in the different scenarios and it's easy because once you work with the big teams everything is handed to you. When you move to another series you can take it for granted pretty easily and get caught with your pants down.

AE: A topic as of late is the safety issues involving pit road. The Nationwide race at Dover for example saw a crew member from KHI get struck with a spring suffering injuries. How do you personally feel about the safety for pit crew members?
DC: I think NASCAR does a good job about it all, there are some things that are overkill for sure but at the same time it’s a necessity. We know it's dangerous getting into it and one thing I will never agree with, regardless of what sport it is, they talk about the NFL needing better finances and better health care for our guys after the leave. I think anyone that gets paid a lot of money, especially in the NFL, should be able to make better decisions to prepare for one of those worst case scenarios. This profession didn’t pick you, you picked the profession! I feel the same way with NASCAR, from a pit crew standpoint you are not making millions of dollars but its still a sport you picked to be in, the sport didn’t pick you. You should be grateful for that and whatever the situation is, whether it be dangerous or high profile, you should appreciate it, The danger part of it is what makes it exciting for me, it makes it different from every other job. When I got started in racing I decided to be the front tire changer (versus rear) because I thought it would be cool to avoid getting hit by the car coming in the pit box. The thing I don’t agree with it these people, who after they get hurt wanting more financial restitution or sympathy. You choose to be in this, you know what it takes and if you don’t like it just get out. Don’t run your mouth, don’t ask for anything more.

From a NASCAR deal with the fuel, the full face helmets, the shoes I think all that stuff is great. I don’t know that there is too much more NASCAR can do without eliminating jobs on pit road. With every bad situation, whether it be on track or pit road, NASCAR has made a change. They are trying to slow pit stops down the same way they are trying to slow cars down at Talladega and Daytona. They are rebuilding the cars and next thing you know they will be rebuilding the pit crew situations and make it that there is no chance to race and have that rush of energy flow through you.

(DJ is referencing the old style of NASCAR racing, where cars pitted for a 5 minute break to make needed changes instead of the newer style of pit stops which was invented by the Wood Brothers)

AE: Some teams are opting to use a “bench” of pit crew members, swapping members out after a bad race or in the event of injuries. Are their pros and cons to this?
DC: Yes absolutely, I will be really honest some of the best teams out there are along the lines of the Stewart Hoss teams. Hendrick has the most turnover than any other team and I think a part of that is because they don’t build cohesiveness between individuals. Each person works really close and in a game where it is hundreds of thousands of seconds, the front tire carrier puts the tire on at .6 seconds if he does his job right. The tire changer is hitting 5 lug nuts in about one second. It’s a lot of play, some of the crew members can capitalize on those. If you keep changing out the tire changer (for example) that tire is going to go on at a different rate, the carrier will need to make an adjustment on how he throws the tire in there. It's hard to anticipate another persons movements without being able to work with them consistently. I am not against having a full crew ready to go, but if you are going to change the front changer also change the front carrier. Hopefully those guys going in as backups have had the chance to work together. (So they know each other's rhythm so to speak)

AE; This is one question that I am highly interested in your answer! How do you feel about the lack of attention that a pit crew gets except in the event a mistake is made and they are called out on national TV?
DC: It’s the nature of the business. When you get done with a stop you see people hooting and hollering YEAH YEAH that they did a 12 second stop and that’s cool to be excited but at the same time that just means you did your job, what you were hired to do. When you have a bad stop it is unfortunate that it is pointed out, that’s the media side of it. I think there needs to be a better way to showcase the teams who are on top of their game week in and week out. They have the vote for the fastest pit crew on TV, that’s a popularity contest though. They show time on and off pit road but if you ever notice, the clock keeps running as the car is pulling out. It's hard to see who the good teams are. I really think there needs to be a points structure for teams just like the drivers have.

AE: How did you get your start doing the Over the Wall segments with ESPN? They are a great eye opener for the fans at home.
DC: I have fun with that, hopefully it will keep growing. I have been with ESPN since they have been back involved in the sport. I don’t have a communications background or anything like that, but I want to give people a real understanding of what is going on. At some point I would love to come out with the rawest of raw and show people what it all is.

AE: Is this something you enjoy, could you see yourself in more of a TV role down the road?
DC: Yeah, I have found out all the things that are involved in TV are different from what I though, You watch cameras run up and down, see ESPN shirts everywhere but again in my 5th year I am still learning why they are always running around. A lot of times the crew, crew chiefs and everyone want to give the TV people a hard time but they are there hours before the garage opens and there hours after everyone leaves. Is it something I want to keep doing…yeah if it allows me to educate the people at home to a different perspective of what is going on at the race track.

AE: I know you have developed a pit crew training facility, Over the Wall Crew can you explain it for those who are unfamiliar with it?
DC: The idea behind it was that I didn’t want people involved in the sport facing something different than they thought it really was. My program allows people to come and join, enroll and if they like it continue paying their monthly due and if not, its not like college where you are stuck. As soon as you figure out what you what, that is the direction we move. Once the guys commit and we start working on their experience levels and building them up, once they start showing us their talent levels and growing at that point I go to teams in the ARCA, Pro Series and Truck and Nationwide. It's financially beneficial to hire a team through me because I turn from being their coach more to like their broker, getting them jobs. Teams than rent them from me and I send these guys racing. It’s a help to the teams because now they don’t have to employ a full time crew. Even teams that do have the finances often don’t have the time to get a team together because of their workload.

We have been in operation two years, put two other companies out of business and there is nobody who sends more teams to the track than us right now.

AE: So it’s a hands on learning process, not read some books and we will teach you in 6 months after you read those?
DC: Its not classroom work, its real time, real life what its all about in NASCAR. From maintance of the equipment to hand eye coordination to footwork, cardio and different scenarios because these days in NASCAR there are basically play books for different scenarios.

AE: Following you on Facebook OTW Crew, DJ Copp and even on Twitter @DJCopp83 you had a busy weekend. You went over the wall for the Nationwide race at Dover than travelled to the ARCA race on Sunday with the OTW Crew. Are you always so hands on? *Side note if you are not following DJ on Twitter you are missing out, he tweets during race and will give cool explanations and even answer questions if he can*
DC: Its fun, my girlfriend Amanda she maybe getting tired of it because we have a baby on the way in October!  (Congratulations DJ and Amanda) So I am going to have to look at my schedule a bit later this year and into next year. For right now, I really enjoy it. My guys, we are underdogs when we line up on a wall next to the Gibbs, KHI teams and doesn’t matter what the sport, I am rooting for the underdog. We are in black firesuits against all the lettered up suits, I want my guys to beat them off pit road. When that happens it's really exciting. I get more excited watching my guys trying to prove themselves than I do when I go over the wall myself. One thing I really think that helps my guys is that they know I got their backs and the best way to have their backs is to be there with them. 

*Of note, DJ and his OTW crew work with teams in the ARCA series such as Frank Kimmel (9 time ARCA champ), Chad Hackenbracht, Maryeve Dufault, Venturini Motorsports and truck teams including Eddie Sharp Racing. DJ himself is even working with Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter’s ThorSport teams.*

AE: How many guys do you have to work all these different teams and series?
DC: This past weekend we had about 30 guys, but a lot of them did double duty. We had guys at the Pro Cup race Saturday, they turned around and drove to Toledo for the ARCA race and then the guys who did the Truck and Nationwide race also turned around and went to Toledo as well. I don’t have enough guys to definitely say this is your team and that’s it.

AE: So you are always looking for more people?  How can anyone interested sign up for information?
DC: Oh I am always looking for more guys, Ideally if I got to a point where I had 100 guys and I could say, you are definitively with this team, that would be great and make travel a lot easier. I have almost 40 students right now and almost 95% of them go racing each week. As it stands, OTW will be racing every weekend from now up until Thanksgiving. 
Go to OTW Crew and there is a link for my e-mail, find me on Twitter or Facebook as well. 

AE: If I remember right, you tried you hand at ownership in the Nationwide Series in 2010. Is that something you are going to try down the road?
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DC: Yes I owned the No. 43 that Josh Wise drove at Charlotte last year with Ingersoll Rand as our sponsor. We got in the race, knowing what we had to do and ending up finishing 18th. We had a great woman work with us, Demi Knight from Girl Friday PR, and she arranged for us to have hero cards made up. The crew guys were signing autographs right along with the drivers. They were just as popular because its different, getting the time to spend with the fans one on one.
OTW Crew members signing autographs prior to the Dollar General  300 at Charlotte

DJ also shared with me how he has maintained his good attitude through the highs and lows of NASCAR. Dr. Ed Bice, founder of Peak Performance Consulting has worked with DJ to help him get past his limitations that he imposes on himself. Empowering his mind has helped strength his work and he credits that to Dr. Bice.

Despite all his success, DJ Copp is still the same humble guy who grew up in New York. He still enjoys getting his hands dirty, working on the cars and not letting the notoriety of a career in NASCAR go to his head. After growing losing his mother at at young age from brain cancer, DJ knew he would make his mother proud. She always said for him to be successful, I think with all DJ’s different endeavors and his hard work without the fame and glory, he has done his mother proud.

A special thank you to DJ for sharing his time with me, I know you are busy and I really appreciated getting to know you!

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Amanda takes NASCAR seriously and is willing to pass up other activities to watch the boys have at it. NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two main focuses with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also frequently writes the post-race recaps for Skirts and Scuffs. Feel free to contact Amanda via Twitter.

1 comments :

Isn't it feels good when your dream for a long time is coming true and that you are one of the top?

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