Derrell Edwards grew up without any inkling that this world existed.
More than 100,000 people cramming into open-air stands to watch cars careen around an oval at death-defying speeds? A sport in which one well-timed spin-out could make the difference between a hopeless afternoon and a career-defining champagne celebration?
Edwards didn’t know the difference between a piston and a lug nut, much less the intricate teamwork required of a NASCAR pit crew or the awesome spectacle of the Daytona 500.
Like many of the kids in his East Baltimore neighborhood, he had only one vision of athletic greatness and that was becoming the next Sam Cassell or Carmelo Anthony. He was a heck of a player, too — second-team All-Metro guard on a championship Dunbar team, starter on a junior college national champion, steady contributor at a Division I conference winner.
But as his college career at High Point neared its end, Edwards recognized the NBA was out of reach. Around the same time, he accepted a fortuitous invitation to tour the headquarters of Richard Childress Racing in nearby Welcome, N.C. Less than four years later, he spent last Sunday slapping on tires and pumping a jack for the newly minted Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon.
I never wanted to do normal. I always wanted to be different.
Derrell Edwards, basketball player-turned-NASCAR pit crew member
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In the afterglow of victory at the Super Bowl of NASCAR, Edwards chuckles at the improbability of his career path — a black guy from Baltimore letting go of basketball to make his fortune in a sport dominated by white faces and conservative politics.
“I never wanted to do normal,” he says. “I always wanted to be different. It’s something you hear motivational speakers say: If you’re comfortable, you need to get out of your comfort zone to be successful.”
Edwards, 26, lays out the stereotype of a NASCAR pit crew member — a country boy who began fiddling with engines from the time he learned to walk.
But the sport’s leading teams have recently turned to ex-athletes in their eternal quest for the slightest edge.
Why couldn’t a guy like Edwards use his quickness, hand-eye coordination and cool under pressure to shave a few tenths of a second off a tire change?
It hardly matters that for him, LeBron James, and not Richard Petty, was “The King.”
“I’m going to say the mental aspect applies even more than the physical,” Edwards says. “You have to be fit to do it, but the mental side, I’d almost compare it to having to hit a free throw to win the game. Everyone’s yelling at you, wanting you to miss, and you have to have that focus.”
He describes his mindset during the final pit stop of Dillon’s victory at Daytona, a crucial moment because the team had decided to stop when most other drivers were rolling toward the finish.
“Slow is fast,” he says. “That’s all I was saying in my head. Slow will result in a clean pit stop, and clean pit stops are fast pit stops.”
It’s a mentality he learned handling the ball in high-stakes basketball games.
The refined madness of a NASCAR pit stop unfolds in about 11 seconds. In that span. Edwards leaps the wall with a tire on his arm, hangs it on the right rear of the car, then hustles around to jack up the left side of the vehicle and hangs the left rear tire. He used to be a pure jackman, but NASCAR rules reduced the size of pit crews and forced him to add tire carrying to his repertoire. To the untrained eye, a pit stop looks like an oil change on amphetamines, but Edwards says it requires the same exquisite interplay you might see from an elite basketball offense.
“It’s like a symphony,” he says. “Everyone has to be in sync. Everyone has to trust each other. Or it just won’t sound right.”
He acknowledges the pain he felt at giving up basketball. This was a guy who grew up a few blocks from Dunbar and went on to score 33 points in a state playoff semifinal for the legendary program. His teams won big at every level.
“It was my first love,” he says.
But Edwards also realized his performance “hit a wall” during two years at High Point. He grew more serious in his faith as his college career wound down, and he came to believe God was steering him in a different direction.
Richard Payne, the chaplain at Richard Childress Racing, was a fan of High Point basketball. He admired the way Edwards shifted from starting to serving as the team’s sixth man without “crying or squawking.” After games, he’d say hello and suggest a visit to the Childress facility about 30 minutes away. Edwards finally took him up on it.
“What struck me was, having been a part of team atmospheres my entire life, the amount of work that went into these cars,” he recalls. “Seeing these beautiful race cars, nicely wrapped. Everything was perfected, it looked like. These guys were just trying to be perfectionists.”
After his senior season wrapped in the spring of 2014, he jumped into a pre-graduation internship with Childress Racing.
“What surprised me the most was how dirty you have to get,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I was going back to the dorm and after I showered, my whole shower was black.”
Payne says the gritty side of the job is too much for many former athletes, who are used to being feted. “They all start out sweeping the floor, and it’s their attitude that gets in the way,” he says. “They can’t do it. But Derrell put his head down and did any work that was asked of him.”
That message hit home for the self-styled iconoclast. He was in.
Edwards anticipates the question about race before it comes. He can’t ignore the fact he’s a rare black participant in a sport dominated by white faces, so he embraces it.
“I haven’t come across anything really crazy,” he says. “But you can tell when you’re favored by someone or not. People have said little things like, ‘Hey, that boy’s lost.’ That happened to me in Alabama. But I’m trying to leave my legacy, and if that takes making people uncomfortable, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
His mother,who works as a lab technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, cried when she heard about the bigoted comment. “I cannot protect my child now,” she thought.
But he assured her he could handle it.
“Derrell has always stood out in a crowd,” Christine Edwards says. “He has no trouble adjusting to where he is or anybody that he’s around.”
Uncomfortable moments aside, it’s almost eerie how well Edwards’ career has worked out in recent months. He wore the No. 3 for his entire basketball career and on Sunday, he crewed for Dillon’s No. 3 car, made famous by the great Dale Earnhardt. After the race, Dillon’s celebratory spin through the infield grass left a mark that looked like, you guessed it, a large No. 3. Then, after the crew partied into the wee hours, Edwards received a tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon — his official mark as a member of Dillon’s “Wolfpack.”
Payne notes that on Tuesday, while other members of the team were still celebrating, Edwards ground through his regular workout.
“To do this, having never watched a race before he started, it’s phenomenal,” the chaplain says. “It’s that work ethic. He’s just earned respect from everybody.”
Edwards has converted family members and friends into regular NASCAR viewers, but he understands the sport is still foreign to most kids growing up in Baltimore. He hopes his story might clue them in to the vast, wild scene that unfolds each weekend at the races. It’s not the NBA but on its own terms, it’s just as big.
“I’m still in awe,” he says. “I don’t get in awe about a lot of things, but looking up in those stands and seeing them packed, like the other night in Daytona, you get the chills through your body.”
He hopes to bring a Childress car to Baltimore and show it off to the kids in his old neighborhood. He wants his story to open their minds to the possibilities of a wider world.
“It was the NBA guys for me,” he says. “But I’m Derrell Edwards, and I’m doing it in another way. Just because you don’t make it in the NFL or the NBA, it doesn’t mean your life is over. There’s other ways to make it and be successful.”