Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - nascarjeff
hen Jeff Wettengel was in high school, he had one goal:
to wrestle competitively in college. Instead, the front-
tire changer for Michael Waltrip Racing ended up out-
As a junior, the Belpre, Ohio, native already had a verbal scholarship
offer from Ohio University. As a senior, Wettengel, a three-sport athlete,
planned to forego football to focus on wrestling. But, he yielded to
pressure from a close family friend, and went back to the gridiron. But,
the decision to play football backfired. He broke the scaphoid bone in
his wrist, an injury that eventually sidelined his wrestling scholarship.
The decision of what to do after graduation came thanks to a movie,
Tears of the Sun, about a U.S. Navy SEAL team. The movie, starring
Bruce Willis, so inspired Wettengel that he joined the Navy with the
goal of becoming a SEAL.
A self-proclaimed “hillbilly,” Wettengel grew up hunting, fishing and
immersed in athletics. That active lifestyle proved a bonus during
rigorous Navy SEAL training, with its more-than-90-percent average
“I never once thought of quitting,” Wettengel said. “Many times I
thought, ‘How can it possibly get any worse?’ and shortly after, it did.
Quitting wasn’t an option. I wouldn’t have been able to face my family.”
Wettengel graduated and realized the difficult part was only
beginning. He spent the next two years traveling the world and
learning different jobs and skills. As a sniper, he planned to be a career
SEAL, but history repeated itself and an injury forced him to take a
Again faced with the what-now question, Wettengel contemplated
his next challenge.
The answer arrived immediately after his discharge. While visiting
a friend from SEAL Team 10 in October 2012, Wettengel tagged along
as his friend met up with a childhood buddy, Kyle Turner, at Charlotte
Motor Speedway. A veteran tire changer for Michael Waltrip Racing,
Turner also took the visitors through the MWR shop, where they
sampled the pit tools.
A competition ensued and Wettengel impressed Turner enough to be
invited back for a December tryout. Wettengel excelled at his audition
and was hired. He has spent the past two seasons as the front-tire
changer for several teams in all three series, while also studying film,
maintaining his conditioning and learning from veteran teammates.
“When you are the new guy (as a Navy SEAL), it’s like drinking
through a fire hose — the amount of info that is thrown at you,”
Wettengel said. “It’s kind of the same thing with a pit stop. You think
you’re good with your drills and then comes the time to do your first
pit stop, and you just fall apart. But, you just build on it from there and
one day it just all clicks.”
The injury bug hasn’t forgotten him. Wettengel ruptured his Achilles
tendon four races into the 2014 season, during a NASCAR Nationwide
Series pit stop at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. It’s usually a
season-ending injury with a quickest return estimated at seven months.
But, Wettengel was determined to return at a record pace. He
succeeded by returning to pit road in September — five months
following his surgery — for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and
Nationwide Series events at Richmond International Raceway.
“It’s no secret injuries suck,” Wettengel said. “They can bring out
negativity, hardships and cause people to doubt. But, you have two
choices. Feel sorry for yourself and let it defeat you, or defy the odds
and make the doubters choke on their words. Either choice will show
everyone something about your true character.”
Wettengel is considered a NASCAR rarity when it comes to his
former profession. Although a small contingent of military veterans
work for various teams, Wettengel has been told he was the first former
special-operations veteran to serve on a pit crew. Now, there is a
second — Ganassi Racing jackman Graham Molatch, also a former
Wettengel draws comparisons between his SEAL teams and his
MWR teams, citing trust, cohesion, precision, focus and the philosophy
that a team is as strong as its weakest link.
“If everyone is not clicking, not getting along, you’re never going to
be good,” he said. “You might do some good stops, but you’re never
going to be successful. Same thing in SEAL teams. If we get a new guy,
we just don’t (say), ‘Sorry, bud. You’ve made it this far. Good for you,
but you are going back to the fleet.’
“I think that’s why I think it was such an easy transition. It’s like
leaving one brotherhood and coming to a different one. It’s not life and
death, per se, that it used to be, but it’s livelihoods.”
Michael Waltrip Racing’s
Jeff Wettengel a ‘Special
Ops’ on Pit Road
BY NICOLE KELLEY
“It’s like leaving one
brotherhood and coming to a
— JEFF WETTENGEL, FRONT-TIRE CHANGER FOR
MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING AND FORMER U.S NAVY SEAL
Front-tire changer Jeff Wettengel in action on the No. 66
BlueDEF/AAA Toyota at Daytona International Speedway
during the 2014 Daytona 500.
Michael Waltrip Racing front-tire changer Jeff
Wettengel during his U.S. Navy SEAL days.
Michael Waltrip Racing
front-tire changer Jeff
Wettengel served as a
U.S. Navy SEAL sniper.
Front-tire changer Jeff Wettengel (white
helmet) and his Michael Waltrip Racing
teammates during pit practice.
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