The professional path for an NCAA Division I wrestler after their collegiate career ends usually has three options for continued participation in sport: training for the Olympics, coaching, or something in the MMA, UFC or boxing realm. However, there is a fourth viable option that many former collegiate athletes, including wrestlers, are now embarking on with regularity: joining NASCAR pit crews.
Sometimes, when you play a sport from the time you were in the second grade until your early twenties, you can get burned out and need a bit of a change of pace – even if you were great at that sport.
This is the exact scenario Matt Wilps, a former two-time All-American wrestler at the University of Pittsburgh, found himself in after the 2013-14 college wrestling season, his first and only season on the coaching staff at his alma mater.
“I enjoyed it [coaching],” Wilps said. “I enjoyed helping guys achieve what they could. Coaching just seemed like the next logical step. And I gave it a try. But I’ve been involved in wrestling so long, I wanted to try something else. I wanted to transition to something new.”
The “something new” was very new indeed to Wilps. He would try to become part of a NASCAR pit crew – a sport and occupation Wilps admittedly had zero familiarity with prior to his initial tryout with Hendrick Motorsports in late summer 2014.
Ironically, Wilps’ tryout and now nearly seven-year career in NASCAR that has followed is a direct result of his connection to Pennsylvania wrestling, in particular his former Pitt head coach Jason Peters, and Devin Dietrich, a former high school wrestling coach in Grove City.
Dietrich, now out of wrestling, wanted to continue his connection with the sport. The way he has done that is by trying to set wrestlers up with NASCAR teams.
Dietrich reached out to Peters in fall 2013, wondering if the Panthers he had any former athletes who might be interested.
“It started trying to help one guy out, and that led to networking with a few teams and establishing relationships,” Dietrich said to The Pitt News in 2015 regarding his recruitment efforts.
It should be noted that Dietrich isn’t paid for his services by either party.
Former Pitt heavyweight, Zac Thomusseit, who was teammates with Wilps, dipped his toe in the NASCAR waters first in June 2014.
After a successful tryout with Hendrick Motorsports, Thomusseit relayed the particulars about his experience to his Pitt teammates, and good friends, Donnie Tasser and Wilps, all three of whom graduated Pitt in 2013 and where in the market for career changes.
“I heard there was a way that, ‘Hey, maybe you can get paid to be doing something athletic’,” Wilps said. “Donnie and I called the same recruiter that had talked to Zac, [Keith Flynn, the developmental pit crew director at Hendrick] and set up our tryouts at Hendrick [at team headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina].
“Then we drove down and did our tryout,” Wilps continued. “The following week, we did another tryout. The next thing you knew we had three Pitt wrestlers from my  graduating class in NASCAR by 2014.”
The entire process from the initial phone call to singing with the development program at Hendrick took roughly one month.
To be signed with the Hendrick’s developmental program, all tryout participants, many of whom are former college athletes, are put through a series of two workouts. The first of which is a NFL Combine themed workout designed to test an athlete’s overall health, physical fitness, flexibility, and athleticism. This first tryout consists of a variety of agility, speed and strength drills, including sprints, various cone drills, and bench press work.
If you pass that initial tryout, you’ll be invited back for a second tryout, one that is akin to “on-field” work. During this second tryout, everyone worked at one of the three positions they’d likely hold on the pit crew, which is determined the person’s height and body type. Additionally, all athletes also put through live pit stop scenarios as well at that second tryout. But, according to Wilps, no one really knows what they’re doing during these live drills.
For Wilps, a former 197-pounder, he was assigned to be either a carrier or a jackman. Both roles are reserved crew members that are larger in stature and stronger as well. Crew members that are smaller in stature are usually brought on as tire changers.
“They [the teams] also want to see a mental side because the pit stops are physical [but also require mental strength too],” Wilps said. “A lot of it is about when you make a mistake, how well do you react to it? Can you put it behind you and move on to the next task?
“And then the second part of the tryout was actually doing some of the pit stop things and them judging your coachability,” Wilps continued. “Can you can you switch [a part]? Can you change how you’re moving when the coach tells you to do it? And I guess they tend to like wrestlers.”
NASCAR certainly must like the intangibles that wrestlers bring to the various crews because not only did all three former Panthers sign with Hendrick following their respective tryouts, but other former NCAA Division I wrestlers have done so over the years as well: former West Virginia University wrestler Roman Perryman, former Michigan State heavyweight Mike McClure, and former Northwestern Wildcats wrestler Alex Polizzi, have been involved with Hendrick, according to various InterMat articles.
At first, the NASCAR teams don’t care how much these ex-athletes know about tuning up cars or even anything about the NASCAR industry itself. Most importantly, they want an athletic and competitive mindset. As far as changing tires and other other mechanical nuances, those can be taught over time.
After an athlete passes both tryouts, they will usually sign a five-year contract, which also includes a sixth-year option with the team. Then, over time, athletes will learn the various positions within the pit crew on a deeper level. These positions, according to Aamco Colorado, are:
Tire changers – This is a two-man position where one covers the front set of tires while the other the rear. These individuals must be quick and accurate.
Tire carriers – This position entails the carriers to bring the new replacement tires over the wall and to remove the old ones. Two carriers accompany the two tire changers making the actual changing of the tires. Thus, this is a four-person job.
Jackman – The jackman hauls around and uses the twenty-pound jack. They are well known for their size, speed, and strength. The jackman lifts either the left or right side of the car to allow the tire changers and carriers to do their job.
Gas man – The gas man’s job is as the title would intimate. They are tasked with filling up the vehicles with gasoline. The gas man must be strong as often the gas cans themselves can weigh over 80 pounds, and they must be held high to let the gasoline flow quickly. For this reason, it helps for the gas man to be tall as well to make this easier.
“They [Hendrick] signed us on a developmental contract [after the tryouts],” Wilps said. “We were signed to a five-year, plus one year [a sixth-year option]. They signed us for a pretty long contract under the assumption that they would train us up, teaching us what to do, and then use us on the top-tier [Cup Series] cars if you can get to that level.”
Then, if an athlete becomes a starter on a Cup Series pit crew, they are presented with a new contract.
For the first three years of his career [2014-17], Wilps remained with Hendrick as a Carrier. During that span, Wilps was in a backup role. Sill, he worked with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car as it won NASCAR Cup Series Championship in 2016.
While Wilps admits being part of that championship was, “fun and awesome,” he wanted more than being a backup .
Two years later, prior to the 2018 season, NASCAR reduced the number of over-the-wall crew members from six to five for pit stops. With that, Wilps transitioned into a Jackman role.
In 2019, Wilps moved to Roush Fenway Racing after more than four years with Hendrick. Wilps has been with Roush for the last two years. Today, still with Roush, he has transitioned into a Gas Man role, working with Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Cup Series car and others.
“I’ve been all over the place [throughout my career],” Wilps laughed. “I’ve been in different positions and I jump around doing different jobs for different racing teams [and series].”
Wilps has worked for two different racing organizations, countless different drivers, and in numerous different racing series, but no matter the role, his goals always remain the same.
“I’ve just been chasing the next step,” Wilps said. “When I started in the developmental program, I was trying to get to a backup role. And then when I was in a backup role, I was trying to get into a starting role. Even now I’m trying to move up, trying to get to the next level.”
Earlier this season, in February of 2021, Wilps had his biggest achievement in the motorsport to date. The Oakdale, Pennsylvania native served on the pit crew and helped fuel McDowell’s No. 34 car, which won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s pinnacle of Cup Series races.
Matt Wilps, #DAYTONA500 champ!
— Pitt Wrestling (@Pitt_WRES) February 15, 2021
“It’s just exciting that I was able to be on a team that won the Daytona 500,” Wilps said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was ever going to get a win. I just thought, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be doing this [as my job and that’s it]. I never thought about the team wins until now.”
While Wilps acknowledges that his success on the track is much more team-dependent than his myriad successes on the wrestling mat ever were, Wilps said he believes his decade and a half as a wrestler have prepared him for the challenges he faces daily on the track.
“The biggest [crossover from wrestling to NASCAR] is the mental aspect,” Wilps said. “Being able to focus and put the distractions behind you [is huge].”
Additionally, Wilps went on to say that the concentration and focus dedicated toward repeating a single athletic movement over and over and over again at the perfect times is something common to both wrestling and NASCAR. Even the stances you find yourself in during races and wrestling matches have commonality.
Wilps, now 31 years old, knows time in NASCAR won’t last forever.
“Most people in NASCAR pit crews don’t last until they’re 40,” Wilps said of the longevity of a typical NASCAR crew member. “It’s like most sports, I mean, unless you’re Tom Brady, you probably max out around 35. But [for me], I’m just going with it and seeing where this path takes me [for now].”
Wilps said he could see himself owning his own business once his days at the track are done, though he is uncertain exactly what the business will be.
For now, Wilps is focused on moving up ranks of a NASCAR pit crew. He is also enjoying the fact that his team at Roush Fenway Racing is off to a fast start – finding its way to Victory Lane multiple times less than a month into the 2021 season.
“We’re still just fired up about how the beginning of the season has went, because we finished very well for the first couple races,” Wilps said. “We were just shocked and excited. it was a huge adrenaline rush.”