If T.J. Semke and his teammates have a great night at Saturday’s KC Masterpiece 400, they’ll be in action for approximately 85-90 seconds. A little less would be a smashing success. A little more would be a race-ruining disaster.
Such is life for NASCAR pit crew members. Semke, a Lee’s Summit North High School product who played football at KU, is in his second season as the jackman for Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet.
Semke’s path from Lee’s Summit to Lawrence is a familiar one. The journey from Lawrence to Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte is a bit more unconventional.
Semke was busy preparing for a shot at professional football when coaches at Kansas recommended him to an HMS talent scout.
“I did my work out for them, and just like the NFL would do, they have a combine. They bring in 200 kids, from all different backgrounds, and they narrow it down to 35 guys,” Semke said. “They bring you into a minicamp, and from that 35, they picked five to come and train and be a part of the Hendrick Motorsports team.”
It didn’t take Semke long to learn that the science of shaving off the bits of seconds needed to win races extends far beyond car and driver.
The job of a jackman is relatively simple, but perfecting the chaotic ballet of pit stops is not. To that end, Semke and his teammates spend the week refining their craft.
Monday is a recovery day, with yoga and light stretching. They break down film on Tuesday, and then hit the practice pits after that.
“We watch our film instantly, we break it down, we look at it, analyze, and to finish up, we usually lift,” Semke said. “We have a nice state-of-the-art weight room, a strength staff, and we have a strict regimen. We lift, we run, just like any other sport.”
This year has been more of a challenge. NASCAR amended its pit stop rules, and now only allows five people to work on the car, instead of six.
Last year, Semke’s only job was to jack up the 3,500-pound car in about eight tenths of a second. This year, once the car is up, Semke is responsible for putting on the 70-pound rear tires. He starts on the right side before repeating the process on the left.
“It sounds simple. In football, you might have 80 plays where you can affect the game and one mistake isn’t that big a deal,” Semke said. “When you only have six opportunities in a race, one mistake can really cost you.”
Semke admitted he was a “football guy” growing up, with only a passing knowledge of NASCAR. He’s all-in now, even though he’ll never go under the hood.
“A lot of people might ask me about the car, and I couldn’t tell you anything about it,” Semke said with a laugh.
One day, Semke hopes to get into football coaching. But for now, he’s a part of the No. 9’s pit crew.
“I’m hooked now. I love what I do. I don’t feel like I’m going to work every day. I’m definitely going to stay in the sport as long as I can, as long as body allows me to,” Semke said. “Father Time is undefeated, but as long as my body holds up, I’ll do it as long as I possibly can.”