Life in the Pits with Breanna O’Leary

Surely, Breanna O'Leary's future in NASCAR shines brightly. (Photo: Breanna O'Leary)

Surely, Breanna O’Leary’s future in NASCAR shines brightly. (Photo: Breanna O’Leary)

By all means, Breanna O’Leary enjoys life in the pits as a rear tire changer. In fact, O’Leary currently finds herself in her sixth season in the NASCAR scene.

Moreover, Breanna O’Leary’s story, as documented in past interviews on The Podium Finish, remains quite remarkable. Certainly, the 29-year-old Amarillo, Texas native made the leap from the softball diamond to asphalt arena with grace and focus.

On account of Breanna O’Leary’s incredible athleticism and passion for competition, she’s worked her way up the racing ladder. Presently, O’Leary pits for the Chip Ganassi Racing organization across the three major NASCAR series.

All things considered, Breanna O’Leary blazes her own trail with poise. As a result, O’Leary proves quite popular with fans, interacting and showing them some of her on track tasks.

Likewise, there are moments in which Breanna O’Leary finds herself in awe of her experiences. To this end, she enjoys each moment as she progresses with her over the wall career.

Moreover, Breanna O’Leary remains humble, grateful and genuinely refreshing in terms of a NASCAR personality. Similarly, Breanna O’Leary represents the new wave of NASCAR in terms of her down-to-earth, relatable demeanor.

Still, make no mistake that Breanna O’Leary is quite competitive and driven. All in all, O’Leary adds to her successful career in NASCAR even with the challenges ahead for her team and Next Gen car in 2022.

Earlier this year, I caught up with Breanna O’Leary as we discussed her new role with Ganassi. Additionally, she shared her perspective of a slick pit road wall after a rain delay and much more. Now, it’s time for “Life in the Pits with Breanna O’Leary” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : Breanna, a lot has happened since the last time we talked. I think the last interview we did was by phone. But the last time we did it in person one was at Texas Motor Speedway, what seemed like 25,000 years ago in the fall race.

But you joined Chip Ganassi Racing and now you’re pitting in the Truck series. And you’re gonna do some various Cup and XFINTIY team assignments. How’s it been like to work with Ganassi in terms of the culture and opportunities you’ve had so far?

Chiefly, O'Leary (bottom right) appreciates her latest opportunity with Ganassi. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Chiefly, O’Leary (bottom right) appreciates her latest opportunity with Ganassi. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Breanna O’Leary : It’s probably been like one of the best experiences so far in my NASCAR career. Sometimes, it takes taking yourself out of your comfort zone to continue to grow and get better. And that’s exactly what that did. I surrounded myself with different people who had different ideas. I’ve been able to learn so much and just grow as a tire changer.

So, yeah, the culture that they have over there is like. …it’s kind of like a family over everything. At the end of the day, everybody has each other’s best interests in mind. And, it’s been good. I’ve just been able to learn so much.

Tiongson : I imagine so. And I just liked the fact that you’re with an organization that has been so successful in motorsports for so long. Kind of a side note with that, did you ever imagine the day that technically he would be teammates with Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain and all these other folks who have been in the motorsports game for so long?

O’Leary : Yeah, no, I mean, never. And that’s something I don’t even like, think about or realize until it is brought to my attention.

Tiongson : Now, that’s what makes you such a remarkable story [with] how humble you are, no matter the circumstances or opportunities that are presented to you. But, it’s well learned and looking forward to seeing what happens beyond this season with the fact that you’re with the Ganassi organization. And kind of talking along a little bit of those lines, fans are back in the grandstands, not to full capacity yet.

Since last year, I know you were at the track when they just had competitors only. What’s the atmosphere and vibe been like having those fans back in the grandstands? And the news that potentially hot passes may come back and hopefully get some folks back in that infield area?

O’Leary : Yeah, it’s kind of it’s been exciting to look out and see people because last year, that became the normal [with] nobody being out there. So being able to see that is definitely refreshing. I would say at our Truck race [at Richmond], there’s quite a bit of fans out there.

So it’s been good to see. And that the love and interest for NASCAR isn’t going anywhere.

Of course, having maybe the potential to have some sponsors and just non competitors out there, just kind of like, brings everything back to the idea that we’re getting back to normal, I guess, as you can say. It’s been a crazy year. So it’s good to see us slowly, slowly getting back to what we know.

Tiongson : Oh, for sure. I mean, it’s definitely a different time to say the least. It’s funny when I asked this question to you last year, you know, it would be kind of hypothetical. But now that we’ve been through the pandemic for a year, this thought of life before this seems kind of like, “Oh, man, we would be so happy to have a boring race.”

If your family, your friends and family could be there, that would be a lot of fun to have them back. Because I’m sure now that you know being an aunt of two little boys that are into racing cars and all, I’m sure you would love to have them back at the track.

O’Leary : Oh, absolutely. I’m waiting for the day that I get to share it all. And show all my friends and family around again.

Tiongson : Because I know Texas Motor Speedway, that’s your home race. And it’s always a big deal for them to reunite and catch up with you before qualifying and the race. You’ve got Everett and your little baby nephew. I know that was a really big highlight for you.

With Everett getting a little older and kind of talking as you know, uncle to aunt talking here, what’s it like to share your experiences with him about what you do in NASCAR?

O’Leary : Oh, it’s so fun. I love to show him all the race cars. And he likes to ask about the race cars if I do get a chance to FaceTime him at the track. I don’t even, he doesn’t even see me.

We just look at race cars. But I think I’m getting to share that experience in person will just be so much better and I’m really excited for that.

Tiongson : Oh, me too. I mean, I can’t wait to take my nephew. He’s not too little anymore. But he’s been wanting to get a race for so long. So I can’t wait for that to happen because I’m sure he’s gonna have like that wide eyed experience that you and I can attest to.

We’re not fans per se. But I know when we first made that trip into the racetrack, when you did it, four or five years ago, I’m sure it was a world changing experience for you.

O’Leary : Definitely, it was.

Tiongson : Now, as this is your fifth year, as I mentioned, as a tire changer in NASCAR, I know you’ve done a lot of different assignments. You’ve been in ARCA. You’ve been in all the major three series in NASCAR.

What’s been some of the most memorable experiences for you in terms of pitting across those three series and in ARCA, funny, good or serious stuff?

"Every day I wake up, I'm like, "'I am a tire changer.'" - Breanna O'Leary (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

“Every day I wake up, I’m like, “‘I am a tire changer.'” – Breanna O’Leary (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

O’Leary : I think of course, some of the ones that like stick in my mind, though most are probably like the changes that we’ve had on my team to run up front and compete for wins. That always is just like, I know, at the end of the day, you have to do your job, no matter where your cars running. But when you’re up front and running for a win, like you are like so into it. And you’re so excited.

That’s when your competitive spirit comes out. And you’re like, “Whoo!” You’re just really fired up, I think, you know, sometimes, when we had Grant Enfinger running for us in Vegas, that was just such an exciting race that you just zoned in and glued into the whole entire race.

And then of course, just like back to when we had fans, always an experience of mine will be getting the talk to the fans. And having them be excited to see me out there and just having the support of a total stranger cheering me on and just being excited to see me out there.

I don’t know, just all of it. I can never say that enough that, every day I wake up, I’m like, “I am a tire changer.” Like, that’s what I do for a living. And it’s still so surreal to me. And so really cool. So just the whole experience has been crazy.

Tiongson : It’s like an Alice in Wonderland experience for you. Because I mean, you’ve been an athlete for as long as you’ve been basically in school being in the softball diamond. And now in the motorsports arena.

Like you mentioned how when Grant was running for the top five at Vegas, I imagine it went from just doing those pit stops and thinking, “Alright, I just got to nail and execute these stops” to, “Hey, you know, we get him in position, we might even challenge for the win.”

I have to imagine that’s a pretty cool feeling, almost feeling like when you’re playing [softball] in Alcorn State.

O’Leary : Yeah, definitely, it’s always. …just being a competitor, you just feel good. And you get excited. And it’s just a fun thing to be a part of.

Tiongson : I can imagine that. And there’s no greater feeling when you know your hard work and efforts are not just for personal gain but when the team around you is also in on it and doing a great job with that. So, hopefully more races with that situation coming up as the year goes on.

One of the other victories that we’ve been seeing in NASCAR, not just in terms of results, is the fact that I feel like they’ve been making more strides towards a more inclusive environment for everybody. So, being a female tire changer, and being sort of new eyes still to racing, how do you feel about these recent changes with NASCAR being more embracing with equality and diversity?

O’Leary : Yeah, I think that so I started probably got involved in NASCAR in 2016. And it’s kind of when NASCAR, you know, you looked at it, and you’re like “That’s the stereotypical, white male sport,” you know? And then I think last year, obviously, it was a really rough year for everybody in terms of political things, the pandemic, just all kinds of things.

I feel like at that point last year, when NASCAR opened up the doors and like, let everybody know, like, this is what we’re going to stand for, this is what we’re going to do, like this is the path we’re taking, I had never been more proud to be a part of NASCAR. Because I do believe it’s for everybody. And it can be for everybody.

And for NASCAR to see that and know that and then make a conscientious effort to open it up to everybody, it’s just something I’m just so proud to be a part of.

Tiongson : I can attest to that for sure. as well. You know, being one of the few people of color who cover the sport, it’s just exciting to see them still being a cool sport, per se. But also being more in touch with the times and kind of saying, “Alright, we’ve got [to] embrace everybody else out there who wants to be a part of this thing. No matter what gender they are, what they believe in, this is for everybody who wants to be a part of this.”

So, it’s well overdue to say the least. And I’m really excited to see that moving forward.

Now, most of us, and I won’t ever get to do this, because my coordination skills are so horrible. But what’s it like to go over the wall and change those five lug nuts in a frantic pace as you do, which I imagine what are 13 to 16 seconds for a pit stop?

O’Leary : Yeah, yeah, definitely. I guess in a race like 12 to 13 would be ideal. But, I don’t know. It’s just you kind of, after all this preparation, when you go over the wall, you’re not thinking. You’re reacting.

And then it’s not until after the fact that you get to process what just happened. But it’s definitely something that I don’t even know if you could describe it. It’s just like, it’s just fun. I can’t wait to go out and compete and have that pressure put on you to go perform in a few seconds and do well.

And it’s just, it’s fun. It’s fun. It’s hard work. And it’s rewarding at the end of a good pit stop. It’s rewarding.

Tiongson : It sounds like bullet timing. If I were to make it relatable to folks who’ve seen The Matrix or any of those sci-fi movies, I can’t imagine the rhythm to do all of that. If I have to follow up with that, we’ve seen races where you guys have gone back to the track. And pit road wall and pit road itself is probably slicker than the racetrack surface.

Adding on to that, what is it like to climb over the wall and that top of the wall is not as dry as it should be?

O’Leary : I definitely do all I can to get it as dry as I can. Obviously, it would never be ideal to hop off the wall, a soaking wet wall with soaking wet shoes because I’m not trying to get ran over. So, when we’re in situations like that, you get as dry as you can. And then, you have to be mindful of the situation and mindful that things are slippery.

So you can’t go 100%. You might have to back down to 90%, 80%, which in turn will keep things smooth. Because if you do 100% and you slip and fall, that just slows everything down. So you just always have to be mindful of the situation and read the situation and just do what you need to do to adjust to it.

Tiongson : That’s true. Sometimes you have to go a little bit slower to go a little bit faster out there. So, it’s not always the most ideal situation. But I’ve always wondered about that. At Martinsville, when they had the race restarted that Sunday, I was like, “Man, I can’t imagine being a tire changer going over the wall.”

O’Leary : Well, I did do that XFINITY race actually. And that was, yeah. You’re just on the wall, dabbing it with towels. You don’t want to wipe it all around, you’re just soak it up. Soak it up. (laughs)

Tiongson : Well, at least as long as you’re not accident prone like somebody I know, me, then I think you’re going to be just fine in that situation. Racing is a pretty intense for it. With all the weekends you do, even in the Truck series, it’s 22 races a year.

How do you balance the demands of racing with your life, so you’re not burned out? But you’re also not too hyped up? Or like “Yea! I did a great job in this race?”

O'Leary enjoys a brief respite during the XFINITY race in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Breanna O’Leary enjoys a brief respite during the XFINITY race in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

O’Leary : Just to make it through a whole season, a whole NASCAR season, as a tire changer, you have to maintain and take care of your body through the week. So I like to make sure every night I get my eight plus hours of sleep.

And I make sure I’m working out and keeping my body healthy and in shape because that also helps prevent injury and it helps you prolong your season and your life in NASCAR as well as just fueling my body.

I just think to get through all weekends of NASCAR, it’s just a matter of maintenance and taking care of your body. So, I try to do the best I can.

Tiongson : Yeah, I mean, [with] the wear and tear of the long season, I’m sure you have to keep as nimble as possible. And if there’s a little bit of pain, you have to manage through it. So, I imagine you have some certain workouts that you do and for those who are kind of curious about the routine that you do before a race, what are some of your pre-race exercises?

O’Leary : Before the race, I try to, especially on hot days, I try to get all my stuff done and go find some shade and just be cool for the time being. We get there a few hours before the race and we’re setting up and gluing up [lugnuts for the] tires.

I just kind of chill out before race time. Then, when it’s race time, it’s when I’ll just kind of stretch everything and get ready to go. It’s hard to warm up because you do a pit stop and then you’re waiting for however long it is until the next one. So, I just try to stay loose and limber the whole race.

Tiongson : You have to have a little bit of understeer than oversteer because if you’re a little too tight, I have to imagine it’s not going to be a great situation. (chuckles)

Now, in terms of pit roads, I know you’ve talked about this with me off the record. But there’s got to be some pit roads that are a little bit more trickier or challenging than others. As we all know, racetracks are all not built the same way.

Of all the tracks that you’ve been to so far, at least in the top three NASCAR series, which one still presents the most challenge to you?

O’Leary : I would just say Indy just because it’s just long and skinny, right? It’s not necessarily designed for NASCAR stock cars to go to be pitting in. Pit road is just long, the stalls are long. Pit road is thin.

I would definitely say Indy just is the one that sticks at the top of my mind. I’m sure there’s others, but just even just the thought of walking all the way down pit road at Indy, I’m exhausted thinking about it. (laughs)

Tiongson : You’re just like “Seriously, can we just make it a little bit shorter?” I’m sure going through Gasoline Alley, if you know about the history there, it’s still a cool feeling. But once you’re in the race, you’re like, “Seriously, come on.”

O’Leary : (laughs) Yeah.

Tiongson : Now with all the accolades you’ve earned in racing, because of your amazing journey, you’ve gotten a lot of attention and publicity over the years. You were on Good Morning America getting to do a little pit stop challenge against Michael Strahan with Brehanna Daniels, which I thought was a really cool thing to see a couple years ago.

But what’s perhaps the most unique opportunity that’s happened to you as a result of being this tire changer whose story is still going on?

O’Leary : Oh, that’s a good one. On Easter weekend, I went home and I was able to drop the hockey puck at our hometown’s hockey game. Stuff like that is things you don’t ever think of, I guess.

That was pretty cool and it was unexpected. And I had a lot of fun doing that. Aside from getting to meet and interact with really cool people in this sport, gosh. I don’t even know. That’s a good one. (chuckles)

Tiongson : There’s a lot more I’m sure that will happen as you keep on progressing with your career, of course, aside from us at The Podium Finish. I mean, going home and getting to drop the puck, I can’t imagine how exciting that is. Being a hockey fan myself, when I saw that you got to do that, that had to be like, “Whoa, like, seriously, this is happening to me?” It had to be a really humbling experience.

O’Leary : Yeah, it definitely was. I mean, it’s just kind of like, yeah, it’s really cool. But yeah, I was like walking like so slow because they were like, “It’s carpet, but it’s still slippery. So be careful.” So I’m like walking like, “Oh my gosh.”

Like talk about humbling. Just trying to make sure you don’t make yourself look silly out there. But it was a lot of fun.

Tiongson : I’m glad you didn’t end up on an ESPN SportsCenter Not Top 10 List because of that. (laughter) It would’ve have been an understandable situation because you’re not wearing skates. You’re walking on this really thin carpet and do all of that. So I wouldn’t have laughed. But hey, it happens. I’m sure if I was in that position, maybe that would happen to me.

Now, I know we’ve talked a little bit about this. And I know in this situation, it only applies to the Cup series. Well, we’re gonna be seeing a new car come up with the Next Gen car. And there’s been little bit of talk about how the tires are going to change and there’s only going to be one lug nut per wheel.

Have y’all been practicing for that situation in terms of actual pit stop practices? Or are you just kind of discussing how [the crews] would be going about [these]?

In other words, O'Leary takes a page from Oasis with some changes in NASCAR. She rolls with it. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

In other words, Breanna O’Leary takes a page from Oasis with some changes in NASCAR. In other words, Breanan O’Leary rolls with it. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

O’Leary : We’ve kind of tinkered around a little bit. It’s kind of hard because you want to focus on this season and you want to do well this season. So we don’t want to like just fully jump in the deep end with the one lugnut.

But we have played with it. Also, they don’t know the exact configuration of how the wheel’s going to be and how everything’s going to be set up.

So, you can’t fully plan for it anyway. But we have played with a single lug hub in the gun. And [we’ve] worked on taking the lug nut on, putting it up, taking it off, putting it on, taking the wheel off, the carriers hanging it.

So, we’ve got to mess around with it a little bit and get like a little idea and see what it’s about. It was interesting. And it’ll be interesting when we make the switch.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Breanna O’Leary for taking the time to talk to us on The Podium Finish! You can “Follow” Breanna on Twitter along with content on The Podium Finish for the latest information about this talented tire changer!

Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with Breanna O’Leary, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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