Justin Terry helps set up the pit box before a NASCAR race in Charlotte, N.C. in May of 2009. Terry joined the Coast Guard in 2010 after working in NASCAR pit crews for more than three years. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by J.D. Terry)
Portsmouth, Va ----- March 15, 2015 ---- Ever wonder what it's like to respond to a distress call as a member of a Coast Guard boat crew, in the dark, in high winds and heavy swells? How about to work as part of a NASCAR pit crew? To be surrounded by thousands of fanatics with cars screaming by in excess of 200 mph? Just ask Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Terry, an intelligence specialist stationed in Portsmouth, Va. He's done both.
Military members sometimes have unique, exciting and rewarding work experiences prior to joining the service, performing jobs that develop skills and traits that later translate into their military missions. Terry worked for more than three years as a NASCAR pit crewman before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010, taking what he learned trackside to the seas off North Carolina.
A Wilmington, North Carolina, native, Terry graduated from E.A. Laney High School in Wilmington, then earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2004.
Through college and immediately afterward, Terry worked in restaurants to pay the bills. Yet he yearned for something a bit more exciting than the grind of those everyday eateries.
Watching NASCAR for years, Terry took notice of pit crews and admired the teamwork, coordination and skills they demonstrated in maintaining cars during each race. He did some research, made some phone calls and attended Pit Instruction and Training in Mooresville, North Carolina, which taught the skills needed to be a NASCAR pit crew member.
"I moved to Mooresville in September of 2006, said Terry. "I didn't know anyone there or really what I was getting into, but I knew I wanted to learn and work as part of a NASCAR pit crew."
Terry completed the eight-week 'Pit Crew U' course, learning all the positions in the pit crew and enduring the physical training requirements.
"On each pit crew there are two tire changers, two tire carriers, two fueling positions and what is known as a jackman," said Terry. "After completing the training course, I earned a position as a jackman. That's the person responsible for jacking the car up so the tires can be changed."
Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Terry, an intelligence specialist for the Coast Guard 5th District in Portsmouth, Va., talks outside the Federal Building in Portsmouth Monday, March 9, 2014, about his experience working in NASCAR pit crews.
Jackmen are the first to climb over the wall and the first in front of the car as it pulls into the pit box for service during a race.
"Depending on the track, when cars pull onto pit road for service, they are traveling anywhere from 35-60 mph," said Terry. "You're putting your life in the hands of the driver by jumping out in front of a car traveling at those speeds."
In late 2007, Terry was offered a NASCAR job with Roush Fenway Racing. Though it wasn't a full-time position, Terry realized he probably wouldn't get such a unique opportunity again. He continued to work at restaurants to make ends meet while enjoying the excitement as part of the Roush Fenway team.
"Some pit crew members work for more than 10, even 20 years and never get the opportunity to work with teams or in races with drivers as successful as I've been fortunate enough to," said Terry. "I worked as part of Carl Edwards' Nationwide Series team, a team that won races. I was lucky enough to experience victory lane."
Victory lane is where the winner of a NASCAR race goes, along with the car, crew, owner, special guests such as corporate sponsors and media.
Toward the end of the 2009 season, Terry decided to part with Roush Fenway Racing and seek a new, full-time career.
"My NASCAR work experience is something I'll never forget. I would do it all over again if I could, but it was time for me to move on, said Terry. "The Coast Guard seemed like an option that could provide a stable, exciting and rewarding job with various long-term career opportunities."
"We are excited to hear about Justin's decision to serve our country in the United States Coast Guard," said Andy Ward, Roush Fenway pit crew coach. "I hope his pit crew training here at Roush Fenway Racing helped prepare him in some way for his military service. We place tremendous emphasis on teamwork and I would imagine the same is true of the Coast Guard. Jack Roush and the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization are proud supporters of our military members and their families. We wish Justin the very best in his military career."
After completing eight weeks of basic training at Training Center Cape May, New Jersey, Terry was assigned to Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in January 2011. During his time there, he became qualified as a crew member and engineer aboard three different response boat platforms and as a boarding team member. Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Terry, an intelligence specialist for the Coast Guard 5th District in Portsmouth, Va., talks outside the Federal Building in Portsmouth Monday, March 9, 2014, about his experience working in NASCAR pit crews. Terry worked in NASCAR pit crews for more than three years before joining the Coast Guard in 2010. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn)
"While working in NASCAR, my teammates and I were heavily scrutinized on how quickly we performed tasks," said Terry. "Tenths and even hundredths of a second can make a huge difference in the outcome of a race. Having that kind of pressure at work definitely helped prepare me for pressures I've faced in the Coast Guard. When responding to search and rescue cases in the Coast Guard, our response times can mean the difference between life and death."
Terry indicated there are several areas of overlap between his experiences in NASCAR and his roles in the Coast Guard.
"The unpredictability and danger of working on pit road during races is not unlike the hazards and unknowns of going out on the ocean in response to mariners in distress," he said.
"The Coast Guard's motto is 'Semper Paratus,' Latin for 'Always Ready,'" said Terry. "As Coast Guardsmen we need to be ready to respond to any number of circumstances at any time. With NASCAR, I had to be ready for the cars to come in and was constantly preparing and adapting to situations and overcoming obstacles as they arose."
As with any job, anticipating problems and realizing there will be surprises are crucial for success. Jobs that put people in life and death situations on a regular basis demand trust and attention to detail at levels far higher than most people are comfortable.
"Trusting all members of your team to do their job often means trusting them with your life," said Terry. "Being accountable for performing tasks well and paying close attention to every last detail are all paramount for working on a pit crew or working as part of a Coast Guard response crew."
Both jobs required Terry to make split second decisions with potentially grave consequences. Though his latest role in the Coast Guard doesn't put him in harm's way as often as his previous jobs, as an intelligence specialist Terry works to keep our homeland clear of danger.
"Terry hit the ground running in his new job, quickly mastering his primary duties," said Ensign Jamie Thompson, Terry's latest supervisor. "He is an important part of a team that has engaged the field and improved operational support - keeping his hands dirty in new ways."
With people like Terry standing watch, Americans are free to spend more time out at the track or on the water.
Trackside to seaside
Pit stops prepare former NASCAR jackman for U.S. Coast Guard
by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn