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If going from Nebraska football walk-on to Olympic gold medal bobsledder was a giant leap for Curtis Tomasevicz, you can't help but wonder how he would describe the next possible stop on his fast-track career ... over the wall?
Well, that literally could be true.
Question: Who in his right mind would think about climbing over a wall to carry 40-pound tires to NASCAR drivers making pit stops between laps at nearly 200 miles an hour?
Answer: The same kind of guy who broke wedges on Nebraska's kickoff teams in 2003 and pulled the brake on the fastest sled in Olympic bobsledding history last March in Whistler, British Columbia.
"My life is crazy right now, but I had to give this a shot, and it's definitely challenging," Tomasevicz said after spending two days this week in his second tryout for the Hendrick Motorsports Racing Team in Charlotte, N.C. "I didn't grow up a huge fan of NASCAR because I didn't know much about it. But I'm learning now, and it really is fun and exciting."
Psychologist Jack Stark Creates the Path
The invitation for Tomasevicz to train for a potential role supporting Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the result of another connection to Nebraska football - Jack Stark, a clinical and sports psychologist who consulted for Husker teams that won 88 percent of their games and three national championships.
Today, Stark is in his ninth season as a performance psychologist for NASCAR, and he's convinced that Tomasevicz not only can land a spot on a Hendrick pit crew or somewhere else, but also become a competitively productive engineer in the sport.
"If anybody could do it, Curtis could," Stark said. "He's a perfect example of a guy who can pull something like that off. He's a world-class athlete with a master's degree in electrical engineering, and he's one of the nicest, most mature, humble, laid-back young men I have ever had the privilege to be around."
Before excelling in two Winter Olympics in 2006 and 2010, Tomasevicz lettered on Nebraska's winning Alamo Bowl team, playing behind linebacker Barrett Ruud, NU's all-time leading tackler.
"Like football, NASCAR is a sport based on speed, strength, power and precision," Stark said. "Twenty years ago, you'd see the volunteer of the week becoming part of a weekend pit crew. Today, it's all about athletes who know how to compete and teammates who share their commitment. Guys in the pit crews make a big difference between winning and losing, and that's why some have six-figure salaries."
To realize his Olympic dream, Tomasevicz had to put an experience of a lifetime ahead of financial security. He intends to continue setting his sights on the 2014 Winter Olympics, but he admits he's eager to earn a more traditional living.
"I had a little break in my own training, so I wanted to test this out and see what the lifestyle was like," Tomasevicz said. "It's very competitive and very demanding."
This week, in the shadow of the 140,000-seat Charlotte Motor Speedway, Tomasevicz was among those learning what all goes into the fine art of pit crew efficiency.
NASCAR's Challenges Similar to Football
"It really is similar to football," Tomasevicz said. "The big guys - the defensive ends, tight ends and offensive linemen - take the 60-pound jacks and jack up the cars. The linebackers and running backs carry the tires, and the defensive backs and receivers change the tires."
Then, of course, there are the "gas men" who carry the long nozzles, shoot the fuel into the car and get out of the way so their drivers can get back on the track.
Tomasevicz marvels at the speed required to win - both on the track and in the pits. He loves the roar of NASCAR and likes its emphasis on fundamentals. Perhaps most importantly, now that he's immersed himself in a couple of training sessions, he respects the professional standards of everyone involved.
"The Hendrick Team has a development program for elite athletes," Tomasevicz said. "They started the program last year, and those athletes are just now starting to intermingle with the Sprint Cup Series."
One product of that program is Nick Covey, a former Husker linebacker who battled injuries throughout his college career.
"I've been training in a lower-tier group," Tomasevicz said, "but I would enjoy the challenge of learning the business and trying to move up."
According to Stark, it takes a highly focused individual to compete for a role in the pit crew. Stark has personally recruited Covey, three Omaha hockey players, a University of Nebraska-Omaha football player and three small college football players to try out.
Bobsledding Runs Down the Poverty Line
For Tomasevicz, the financial incentive is every bit as important as the competitive lure. "While top crews are making good money in NASCAR, even the highest level of bobsledders make next to nothing," he pointed out.
The Olympics may have drained his bank account, but the celebrity Tomasevicz gained from winning a gold medal put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his teammates. He also had several appearances on national television shows, including a stint on David Letterman. On July 19, he even threw out the first pitch for a Chicago Cubs game against the Houston Astros in front of 38,000.
"We had almost 70 family and friends get together for a reception at Harry Caray's in Wrigleyville, a half block from the stadium," Tomasevicz said. "As a lifelong Cubs' fan, that was one of my all-time highlights."
A flicker of fame is nice, but Tomasevicz has places to go, people to see and bills to pay.
He's spoken at corporate events, summer festivals and grade schools, middle schools and high schools. He's representing the Nebraska Corn Board and Pinnacle Bank, and he's enjoying every minute of those experiences.
But this NASCAR thing is becoming more than a bug in his ear and a couple of plane rides to Charlotte for a sneak preview and formal tryouts.
Tomasevicz is starting to do what Stark helped all Nebraska football players do - envision the goal and do everything humanly possible to meet that goal.
Tomasevicz is Used to Being a Long Shot
"I'm a long shot right now," Tomasevicz said, "It's like being a walk-on. You start at the back of the pack and see if you can work your way up. I can do a lot of the jobs, but they see me as a guy who carries the tire over the wall and sets it up, so the changers can use their air guns and get it back on the track."
It sounds simple enough because "it's easy to do - but hard to do it well and fast," says the man who has made his life after football doing just that.
"The Hendrick Team has a unique philosophy," Tomasevicz said. "Instead of taking mechanics and trying to make them athletes, they're taking athletes and trying to make them mechanics."
The premise makes as much sense as intersecting NASCAR with bobsledding. The sled for the Americans' first gold-medal bobsled team in 48 years was, after all, designed by former NASCAR Daytona 500 champion Geoff Bodine.
No wonder Bodine was the first one invited to the gold medal stand by the American team of Steve Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Tomasevicz, who admitted this week that he didn't have a chance to tell his bobsledding mates about the NASCAR thoughts that keep swirling around in his mind.
If his NASCAR dream stays alive, would Tomasevicz be willing to leave one fast track for another?
"I don't know," he said. "Our bobsled season goes from October to February, and NASCAR goes from February to November. There are two important overlaps there. Something would have to give."
Daytona 500 or the World Championships?
One overlap, in particular, rings loudest. "The Daytona 500," Tomasevicz said, "is at the same time we're competing in the World Bobsled Championships in Germany."
Fortunately, Stark doesn't see the same hurdles Tomasevicz sees.
"First, I think Curtis has the strength and the power to be a jack man in addition to a tire carrier, and I can see him playing either role for Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon," Stark said. "Second, I can see him working in the shop during the week in addition to going over the wall on weekends. Of the 80 engineers on the Hendrick Racing Team, only one has a PhD and two have master's degrees like Curtis has."
"I'll say this. They like everything they see in Curtis," Stark said. "It's pretty heady stuff, and I can see people standing in line to get him into the sport.
"Curtis has a rare combination of skills and expertise, and he can be a real talent in NASCAR," Stark said. "They love these Nebraska guys because of their strong work ethic and their great leadership skills. Throw Curtis' mechanical skills on top of his other skills, and he's a perfect match. He's done it on one track, and he can do it on another."
The big question is obvious. Can Tomasevicz compete in NASCAR and bobsledding simultaneously?
"I would say yes, knowing these NASCAR teams like I think I do," Stark said. "If one of them hires Curtis, I can see that team letting him compete in a World Championship on the same weekend that would conflict with an important race.
"Remember," Stark said, "these guys in NASCAR are every bit as patriotic as they are competitive."
Voices from Husker Nation
Curt's story transcends sports and geography. He is not merely an athlete, a Nebraskan, an American: he is a living embodiment of what it means to pursue your dreams, regardless of your field of endeavor. Dan Gertmenian, Sunnyvale, California
I know I'm in the minority here because I'm a big Nebraska fan but an even bigger NASCAR fan. We try to see at least one (home or away) Nebraska football game a year and two NASCAR races a year - one in Kansas City and another someplace else. We became Curt Tomasevicz fans when he went from Husker walk-on to the Olympic gold medal stand. Now, we are in awe, just thinking about him having a role on one of our favorite NASCAR teams. All I have to say is, Curt, may the force be with you. Dan Johnson, Topeka, Kansas
Saw where a former Husker is dreaming about NASCAR. Never head of Curt Tomasevicz, but after reading his story, our family will be pulling for him to make the team and be in the winner's circle. What a great combination of skills he has. He would be good for NASCAR, and NASCAR would be good for him. Interesting story. Thanks for writing it. Gary Phillips, Charlotte, North Carolina