Now a strength coach in a sport that piles up checkered flags instead of touchdown catches, Les Ebert leans on his background of training pro football athletes to strengthen today’s award-winning NASCAR pit crews.
“These guys are the unsung heroes,” Ebert said of NASCAR pit crewmen. “They’re like offensive linemen in the NFL – they do all the dirty work.”
Ebert, a 39-year-old native of Circle Pines, Minn., is in his fourth season as the strength and conditioning coach for Roush Fenway Racing, including the No. 17 team, which recently won the second-quarter Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award. It’s an honor voted on quarterly by each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief with an overall year-end award going to the season’s top-performing pit crew.
Ebert oversees the training programs for Roush Fenway’s NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide and Developmental Series pit crews.
“Pit crews work really hard to do the things they do,” said Ebert. “Yes, they have a lot of athletic ability, but to be able to do that repetitively in practice, race-after-race, month-after-month, they have to be in great physical condition. Not only is athletic ability important, but keeping the athletic ability to be able to pit racecars day-in-and-day-out is really what a lot of people don’t see.”
Ebert knows positions can be gained in a matter of seconds in the pits. His role at Roush Fenway is crucial in strengthening some 70-plus pit crew members on a daily basis so they can thrive physically on pit road.
“We run through strength and conditioning workouts four days a week,” explained Ebert. “We do two total body strengthening workouts and two conditioning workouts Monday thru Thursday. We’re real fortunate – Jack [Roush] and Robbie [Reiser] have supported the program very much in the fact that we have the tools we need to get these guys in the best shape possible.”
Known to insiders as “Les’ House of Pain,” the Roush Fenway Racing gym which Ebert oversees is a real “pumpatorium” packed full of free weights, exercise machines and conditioning equipment to keep pit crewmen conditioned and durable over the 36-week grind.
“Les keeps us in shape and feeling good, which is really important with the long season and hot weather,” said Cameron Cobb, an eleven-year veteran and jackman on Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Best Buy Ford. “Ever since Les came on board, I have less aches and pains from doing my job. Now Les has given me a few aches, but it’s what you need to win. You have to be physically and mentally strong and he does a good job for us.”
“Les pushes us pretty hard with our training,” echoed Sean Ward, gas man on the No. 17 who got his start in racing with Tommy Houston in 1996. “Les expects a lot, but it’s worth it in the end and I’m better for it. The workouts help keep us in shape and help prevent us from getting injured on pit road.”
Not long after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in Physical Education, Ebert landed an internship in the NFL under coach Tony Dungy that eventually led to a full-time position. He spent three years as an assistant strength coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then went on to become an assistant strength coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars for six years.
Though his career began on the gridiron, his childhood has circle track roots. Ebert grew up around racing through his father's involvement with Dick Trickle in the American Speed Association in the 1980s.
“As a kid I grew up watching my dad work with Dick back in the Midwest in the ASA days,” explained Ebert. “I followed Dick’s racing on TV and he would call often to keep us updated on how things were going on the NASCAR circuit.”
When the job at Roush Fenway became available while Ebert was still working in the NFL, he thought, ‘well, I’ll give it try.’
Four seasons later, Ebert’s top-notch strength and conditioning program is helping produce award-winning pit crews like the No. 17.
“The 17 group is a talented bunch of guys who have been doing this for a while,” said Ebert. “They have good camaraderie and they work really hard and that allows them to perform at a very high level. It’s a combination of their work ethic, their talent as a group and their ability to perform under pressure.”
The No. 17 crew’s performance this season has cemented Kenseth’s solid start to the 2012 campaign of one win, nine top-fives and 13 top-10s. Currently, Kenseth and the No. 17 team sit second in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.
“It’s nice to be recognized by your peers,” Ward said. “They see you’re doing a good job and that makes you feel good and strive to do better.”
In addition to Cobb and Ward, crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s over-the-wall pit crew consists of Justin Nottestad (front tire changer), Collin Pasi (front tire carrier), Jon Moore (rear tire changer), and Ryan McCray (rear tire carrier). Andy Ward is the team’s pit crew coach.
“There are a lot of crews deserving out there,” Ebert said. “It’s a very competitive sport and we’re very fortunate to have guys at Roush Fenway that can perform at a high-level whether it’s in practice or in a race. It’s an honor and a blessing to be here at Roush Fenway.”