Earnhadt Jr's jack man at Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2000 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR Winston Cup's most widely recognized newcomer, will be under the spotlight Aug. 5 when he competes in his first Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2000 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR Winston Cup's most widely recognized newcomer, will be under the spotlight Aug. 5 when he competes in his first Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, when Earnhardt brings his Budweiser Chevrolet in for pit service, the man most prominent during the 18 or so seconds the car is stopped will be 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jeff Clark. He's the jack man. Jack men are a special breed in NASCAR racing. They must combine strength with foot speed while acting as the sport's version of the football quarterback or basketball point guard. They lift up the right side of the car while these tires are changed, then dash at top speed to the other side, find the jack post, position the jack and, in one swift push on the handle, lift the left side of the car for tire changing. At the same time, the jack man must stay attuned to the sounds and feeling of what is going on with the work of the other over-the-wall crewman. He must release the jack at the very instant the tire changers and fueler complete their tasks. Releasing too soon or too late can cost vital seconds. It's not a job for the weak. Or the meek. Clark is neither. Now 32, he's been a jack man for the past 10 years. He started with Robert Yates and worked with ace drivers Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan. He's also been with the Roger Penske team and Rusty Wallace and with Earnhardt Racing, moving over from Steve Park to Earnhardt. A former high school basketball player in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., Clark enjoys the athletic ability and the competition the job requires. "Having a chance to go over the wall and participate was like a dream come true," he said. The opportunity came for two reasons. One, he attended school with car owner Robert Yates' son David. Two, after graduation from University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Clark began doing odd jobs while he awaited a job interview from a company. One of those odd jobs was painting Yates' racing shop. "Jake Elder was the crew chief at the time and he said, 'Hey, boy, get off the ladder and come over here. We're going to try something.' Jake was kind of like a rough old football coach. "He had me out on the parking lot. Robert was the jack man at the time, and he showed me the steps to take. Jake said, 'O.K., we want you ready next week, we're going to Daytona next week for a test. I want you to try some stops so we won't scare you, we're going to use you this year. "I was real excited." At first it was just a weekend job. But then some engine personnel left the team, and Clark was hired full-time as an engine tuner during the week while continuing his jack man duties at the racetrack. "Certainly, it takes a certain amount of strength," he said. "There are some guys out there who aren't the biggest and tallest, and they have a technique or finesse to it that they use to get the jack up. But I think the majority of the guys are all larger, big guys like players on a football team." Clark compares carrying the 45-pound jack on the run to picking up a cast iron plate at a gym on one side of the free-throw lane, then running as fast as possible around the arch of the key and down the other side. He admits there's a competition with the other jack men but tries to keep intense focus on his duties. "You want to see where they're at to know how you're doing with the other teams," he said. "But when you do that it costs you time. A lot of the time if you just focus on your job, you'll be faster, you probably catch things that may have been a problem. "You catch it and hold the jack a split second longer to let the guy recover, the tire changer or the gas man. Those are the things that make a good jack man, paying attention to detail. You know the synchronicity. It's like a choreography. Like a basketball player, a football player, you know how it's supposed to happen. You can almost sense or hear things that aren't right, a miscue on the air gun or a gas can not plugged in right." Another thing Clark believes separates the great jack men from the ordinary ones is their ability to recover from a trip over a hose or some other mishap. "They don't roll over and grab their knee in pain," he said. "Those (who keep going) are like the great football players who go on with a broken nose or broken ribs. "Some people look at it today like that's kind of stupid or not being smart, but it's the true grit of the sport. You don't give up. You don't stop until that pit stop is complete and the car is back on the track." Back in 1996 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Clark had just released the jack on the right side of Ernie Irvan's car and started his run around the front. Instead, his ankle was broken by a tire from another car. Clark pulled himself up, completed the stop and did the next two, also. He said it was an ego thing, that he didn't want someone else doing his job. "You tie your shoe a little tighter, just grit the pain and go on," he said. He only missed two days' work and not a single race. There's another interesting factor to Clark's life. He is married to Shawna Robinson, who has raced in the NASCAR Busch Series and this year in ARCA. They manage their careers while rearing son Tanner, 4, and daughter Samantha, 3. Clark's parents live two doors from their home and help with caring for the grandchildren. "Right now it's fun," he said. "They're not in school, and they can come to the races with us. A lot of the races she races in the companion event, and we spend a lot of time together. "It is difficult as far as getting chores done around the house. She does a super job keeping our house in shape." Clark actually has been the jack man for his wife's car on a couple of occasions. And when they are at the track together, he keeps a radio scanner nearby in his garage listening to see whether help might be needed. At Pocono, a problem occurred, and and he hustled out to replace an injured jack man. But Shawna was eliminated in a crash before his services were needed. "But I was ready to go if she needed me," said Jackman Jeff.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Ernie Irvan , Rusty Wallace , Steve Park , Robert Yates , Roger Penske , Davey Allison