SE: Life In The Fast Lane: Former K-State WR making career in NASCAR

Second opportunities do not come along for everyone, especially in the world of professional sports. Even more rare is a second chance in a completely different pro sport.

Former Kansas State wide receiver Ernie Pierce got his second life in a competitive atmosphere he never dreamed of joining in NASCAR’s pit road. Now, Pierce is speedily learning a sport he refused to watch, and knew little about, not long before dedicating himself to it.

“Obviously it’s not football, but it’s the best secondary athletic career that I could’ve completely, randomly just fell into,” Pierce said. “What I enjoy the most about it is just the lifestyle that it’s given me, the opportunities to use my natural abilities, albeit in a completely different manner, and I’m enjoying learning something new. There’s always something to learn.”

Before Pierce, who racked up 33 catches, 483 yards and five touchdowns at K-State from 2007-08, could begin climbing the pit road ladder in NASCAR, he had to learn a few of life’s hard lessons.

After K-State, the 6-foot-4 product out of San Diego, California, took his abilities to the Canadian Football League and then to the Arena Football League. Early in his second year with the Utah Blaze, Pierce, still trying to get noticed by an NFL team at the time, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

For him, the injury was not just season-ending. Pierce pushed his football dreams aside completely, moved to Mooresville, North Carolina — known as “Race City USA” — with his family and began to “plant roots” in a normal life.

“I just decided I was kind of done chasing the whole NFL deal,” he said. “I was 24 at the time so I was kind of content with knowing that I could walk away without any major injuries.”

Pierce started in door-to-door sales, which he did for about 10 months. The former Wildcat then took a job at a bank in 2013, but after more than a year’s time, going to work became more than he could handle and less than he dreamed of becoming.

“I was really miserable, actually. That was a really low point in my life,” Pierce, now 28, said. “I just hated going into work.”

Something had to change. In December of 2014, it did.

Pierce quit his banking job, and he decided, despite his wife’s initial doubts, he would join a NASCAR team’s pit crew.

Not your average mid-20s life crisis.

“She was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to get into pit crewing. I’m going to be in a pit crew,’” Pierce recalled. “She said, ‘Yeah, you just don’t do that. Like, that’s not how it works.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s going to work.’”

Thanks to his wife, Chelsea, some key connections were made to set up his chance in NASCAR. Those connections led to industry contacts such as Bruton Smith, recently inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, Coy Gibbs, promoted to COO of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) earlier this year, and Mike Lepp, JGR’s athletic director.

A workout with JGR ensued, followed by an invite to tour the NASCAR-goliath’s home garage, ironically about three minutes from where Pierce was already living. Pierce, after a week of getting a sneak peek into the working life of a pit crew, went home without word on what to do the following week.

So, as he put it: “I just kept showing up. I just never stopped showing up.”

Pierce’s persistence paid off, as he earned a spot on JGR’s team. The situation, Pierce learned later, was rare because JGR, a team he described as the New York Yankees of pit crews, usually doesn’t develop talent on pit road but simply pays for it.

He first learned the jackman role, which is in charge of raising the car so tires can be changed out. Pierce was fortunate enough to be mentored by Jason Tate, a veteran in the sport and at the position.

While Pierce never went “over the wall” in 2015 with JGR, the season put his foot in the door for other opportunities on teams that do develop pit crew members.

“I was kind of like a pseudo-jackman where I knew how to do it but I never got to prove it,” said Pierce, who started this season out with Furniture Row Racing (FRR), which JGR provides pit crews for, before seeing little opportunity to move up the ranks there as well.

Eventually Pierce had a “put-me-in-coach” conversation with the newly appointed FRR crew chief to get a feel on his chances, which he would learn were not good.

Pierce then got permission to try out for other teams, using his skills learned from Tate to impress two groups — Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) and Penske Racing. He chose SHR and has been advancing upward ever since.

Pierce now habitually watches films of pit crews as a learning tool and he has already helped pit cars on NASCAR’s Truck Series and XFINITY Series, the stock car’s “minor league” circuit, this season. He even got the chance to jump the wall in a Sprint Cup Race on June 6, for Landon Cassill, a Front Row Motorsports rider that is supported by SHR.

“It kind of happened really, really fast with them,” Pierce said of his ascension as a jackman that included plenty of 6 a.m., practices where he’s also training how to fuel cars and carry tires. “I’m kind of learning to perfect one and build skills on that while also learning and building skills on the other two just to build some value in utility and versatility.”

Pierce has also learned to control his nerves when his short — about 11 or 12 seconds every 20 minutes — yet vital part in the race arrives, taking some advice from Tate to heart before his first Sprint Cup Race over the wall.

“What he told me was, ‘Look, it’s the same thing that you do in practice, it’s the same thing you do on a Cup car, it’s the same thing that you do on a truck, it’s the same thing that you do in XFINITY,” Pierce recalled. “It doesn’t even matter, it’s all the same.”

The words of wisdom had a calming effect on Pierce for the Sprint Cup Race in Pocono. For Pierce, considered young in pit road circles, time should only see his comfort level rise even more.   

“It was great advice and it was the truth,” Pierce said. “It’s definitely sunk in at this point and it’s only going to get better from here. I’m only going to get much more calm. The car is going to look like it’s coming in slower to me because I’ll be prepared that much more.”

In a way, Pierce’s preparation for NASCAR began in Manhattan when he was reeling in passes for the Wildcats. He now credits those two years with K-State to building up thick skin, learning quickly how to handle being the “new guy” on a team and also dealing with serious humidity.

“Working in the humidity was also kind of a back-sided plus because my first summer camp at Kansas State was tough, coming from the beach of California where the humidity is nonexistent,” he said. “Also because I’m older and I understand that I’m stepping into other people’s worlds as far as NASCAR goes, I definitely go in with a humble side. Where when you’re young, you’re Superman and no one can tell you anything.”

This is where Pierce looks back at his time at K-State, where he admittedly was less likely to take advice and go the extra mile for improvement, not with regret but with a matured mindset to not make the same mistake twice.

“That’s definitely something I didn’t do when I was at Kansas State, so understanding that was something that maybe I would’ve done I might be in the NFL now, I take that to heart,” he said. “So I take what I should’ve done and I take it with me everywhere I go as far as NASCAR – pitting the car, film, practice – and I think that’s why I’ve had such a great start in this sport already.”

 

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