Stress runs high in professional stock car racing, where losing a tenth of a second on the track can mean the difference between first and 20th place. Drivers must perform flawlessly despite the constant threat of collision and the strain of sitting in a cramped car going 200 miles per hour for four-hour stretches. Pit crew can cost their driver the race with one slow tire change. To top it all off, stock car racing has the longest season in professional sports, with many teams racing and practicing 48 weeks out of the year.
Luckily, NASCAR pros aren't alone in their quest to manage these stressors, thanks to performance psychologist Jack Stark, PhD. Stark works for Hendrick Motorsports racing team, home to such popular drivers as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
His mission: Keep all 550 Hendrick employees — from office administrators to the pit crews and drivers — humming like well-tuned engines.
Life in the fast lane
Stark wears three hats — sport psychologist, industrial-organizational psychologist and clinician. A typical day at Hendrick's 140-acre campus in Concord, N.C., may begin with Stark critiquing a pit-crew drill and end with him counseling an engineer struggling with depression.
"It's such an intense business, so about half of my time is helping [staff] with whatever is going on in their lives, whether it's a kid's illness or trouble with their wife or girlfriend, so that they can focus on performance," says Stark, who often makes home visits to help struggling employees.
Team-building is another one of Stark's main tasks. Drivers, spotters, crew chiefs and pit crews spend long hours training together, so respect, good communication and solid bonds are essential. To promote unity, Stark organizes workshops and outings, such as whitewater rafting, to build trust among team members.
On race days, Stark's priority is easing stress. The pit crew, in particular, need to be as serene as possible before a race, not revved up as one might think, he says. "If they try to go too fast, they can make a mistake," says Stark, who has developed relaxation recordings that crew members listen to before the race.
In October 2004, Stark's main job was grief counseling. The Hendrick Motorsports corporate plane crashed, killing 10, including the company's chief engineer, general manager and the owner's son, Ricky Hendrick. Stark spent much of the next year helping his colleagues adjust to the loss and work through their grief.
"It was the worst tragedy of my professional career," he says. "Helping others during this time ... helped me get through it, too."
An unlikely leap
Stark got his start as a clinical psychologist at a large Nebraska health-care clinic. He also dabbled in sports consulting and, in 1989, he took a job as the psychologist for the University of Nebraska football team. For 12 years, Stark worked with renowned head coach and educational psychologist Tom Osborne, PhD, and the Cornhuskers won three national championships. That job prepared Stark to take a position at Hendrick in 2001. Stark has been with the team ever since, traveling to Hendrick's North Carolina headquarters and races from his home in Omaha.
Stark has been a boon to Hendrick Motorsports's recruitment strategy as well as team members' mental health. After observing that pitting a car is a sport in itself, Stark encouraged his company to recruit employees from college sports. After all, changing four tires in 12 seconds requires tremendous strength, concentration and agility.
Hendrick hired a college scout who, with Stark's help, pursues new talent at schools throughout the country, particularly from football, hockey and wrestling. "Basketball players are almost a little too tall for the pit," he says.
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