Fair, 73°
Weather sponsored by:

Life in the fast lane

Middleburg’s Hatcher still living his NASCAR dream – 10 seconds at a time

By Don Coble don@claytodayonline.com
Posted 4/20/23

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Drivers were going through their pre-race routines of meeting sponsors and making appearances three hours before last Sunday’s race at the Martinsville Speedway.

Pit crews …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Don't have an ID?


Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.

Non-subscribers

Click here to see your options for subscribing.

Single day pass

You also have the option of purchasing 24 hours of access, for $1.00. Click here to purchase a single day pass.

Life in the fast lane

Middleburg’s Hatcher still living his NASCAR dream – 10 seconds at a time


Posted

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Drivers were going through their pre-race routines of meeting sponsors and making appearances three hours before last Sunday’s race at the Martinsville Speedway.

Pit crews had their routines, too, of stacking tires, unraveling air gun hoses and erecting a massive command post a few feet where their race cars would make 10-second stops during the race.

While others were scrambling, Thomas Hatcher sat patiently and wiped the grime off his shoes. This wasn’t his first race and it wasn’t time to be in a hurry. After running in front of speeding cars to change front tires for the last 17 years, he doesn’t flinch.

Pit crews are younger, faster and stronger, but Hatcher, 38, is still regarded as one of the premier over-the-wall crew members in NASCAR.

“To do it as long as I’ve done, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, especially pitting,” he said. “The guys I started with, there’s only one or two left. Back in the shop, it’s a little longer life. But how many times do you get to do what you love to do? It’s amazing that you get to do something so many people want.”

And he’s never wanted to do anything else since graduating from Middleburg High in 2002.

Now a tire changer for Erik Jones’ No. 43 Chevrolet, Hatcher was part of a championship season with Joey Logano in 2018, and he was a member of the World Championship team with driver Kyle Busch last year.

More impressive, he was one of five men who changed four tires and added 12 gallons of gasoline to Busch’s car last year at the Richmond International Raceway in less time that it takes for your credit card to be approved at the pump.

“That 8.6 (second) stop set a world record,” Hatcher said. “That’s fast.”

In that stop, Hatcher ran from the wall and dropped to his knees to change the right-front tire. He stood up, ran around the front of the car and changed the left-rear tire. The time he spent on the job – wall to wall – was just 10 seconds.

Now it’s his only job.

Hatcher’s career started to fast track to racing when NASCAR Technical Institute got an invitation from auto mechanic instructors Doug Drake and Ronnie Delp to tell students what it has to offer.

“They came and recruited at Middleburg High School because Mr. Drake and Mr. Delp were big into automotive,” he said.

Three years later, he was working in the Roush Yates Engines engine shop. Still, his real passion was to service cars in a frantic atmosphere where a small mistake in the time it takes for a light bulb to turn on can be the difference between going to Victory Lane or packing up and moving the show to the next town.

“I was still working in the engine shop, but I was thinking about driving on the weekends, going to race tracks and pitting,” he said. “On weekends, I went to pit crew school. They had a pit competition at Roush (Fenway Racing), and I thought that was kind of cool.”

So he did both jobs until the organization eventually forced him to decide whether to remain in the shop or pit cars. It was an easy choice.

“They asked me to choose,” Hatcher said. “I was young and I wanted to pit, so I slid over to the car shop (pitting), and I stayed there until 2011.”

From there, he worked at Penske Racing, where he teamed with drivers Brad Keselowski and Logano. His best run was with Logano, where he was part of the 2015 Daytona 500 victory and the 2018 championship.

In his seven years with Logano, they won 23 races.

Before that, racing was transitioning in a direction. Joe Gibbs, who was the head coach for three Super Bowl wins with the Washington Redskins, realized former football players, especially linebackers and tight ends, would be perfect to pit cars. They had fast-twitch muscles that combined speed, quickness and strength. While Hatcher played football, wrestling and track at Middleburg, that was a long time ago. He now competes against other crews built primarily of former football players.

“The toughest part is I’m getting a little older,” he said. “It’s harder to stay healthy throughout the season. It’s a long season. I’m still looking out the front window, though. You can’t look in the rearview mirror.”

Gibbs still employs Hatcher. Another significant change in the sport is powerhouse teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports sub-contract pit crews to smaller teams. Legacy Motor Club has such a deal with JGR to “rent” crews.

While at JGR, Hatcher spent most of 2022 working with Busch. But his entire pit crew team was moved to Denny Hamlin’s car in mid-September after Busch was eliminated from playoff contention. Gibbs wanted to improve Hamlin’s championship hopes by having the world record team pitting the car.

Now he’s with Legacy.

“This is the last year of my contract,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing next year. I’ve got a lot of experience in my position, so I don’t think I’m going to have trouble finding something. I’m with a new crew this year. When I was with the 22 for seven years, we had the heart of the crew for all seven years.”

He’s not ready to slow down.

“I do this because I love racing,” he said. “I don’t care what it is. I love racing. I really love dirt-track racing, but it’s a hard life. There’s not a whole lot of money in it.”

His family still lives in Clay County, and he said he misses home.

“I miss the country. I miss Florida. I miss fishing,” he said. “In North Carolina, it’s really hard to find a place to go fishing. At Lake Norman, since they (homeowners) own the shoreline, you can’t fish unless you’re in a boat. Also, it’s more of a sporting lake. Most of the drivers live on the lake.”

His career has included thousands of pit stops. Unless you examine each stop with time-lapsed photography, it’s nearly impossible to notice a mistake. But Hatcher knows the difference.

“When you have a perfect day, it’s euphoria,” he said. “I’m going to go out there today, and I’m going to make a mistake. But experience will help me recover quicker. I’ve always believed it’s not about not making a mistake. It’s about recovering from it.”

And getting ready for the next stop.