Breanna O’Leary makes the most of her opportunities as a tire changer in NASCAR on any given race weekend. From her practice sessions to race day, it’s all about being precise and cool under intense pressure.
Starting this month, O’Leary will provide her perspective and thoughts with life on the road and her progress in racing. In the first of this two part journal, O’Leary takes us behind the scenes on what it’s like to prepare for a race weekend, plus she shares a humorous anecdote from Talladega.
Rob Tiongson : Since Texas, you’ve been at every race between Bristol to Talladega. You’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff in the past month. In terms of your progress as a tire changer, what were some of the positive takeaways? What were some things where you’re going, “Well, I’ll capitalize on that in my next opportunity?”
Breanna O’Leary : Definitely since Texas, I’ve had some first pit stops from some races that I’m like, “Oh no, I’m ready for the next one now” so I can kinda do better. I might have an extra hit or something, and I’m like, “No, I need to go back out there. And I need to have 20 hits, clean off, clean on.” But, I think my progress so far, especially just being at the tracks so much, helps that experience as well. I’m happy with my progress. And I’m happy with where I’m going and how things are going right now.
Rob Tiongson : That’s always a good thing when you feel like you’re making good progress to get to the next level and hopefully become more of a consistent, regular pit crew member. We’ve mentioned in the past that you’re week to week in terms of what teams and what series you’ll be with.
Breanna O’Leary : Yep, that is the case.
Rob Tiongson : There’s always that balance to have to be as positive as possible without being overly zealous or confident. When you were at Alcorn State, I know that was your focus as a graduate student. Having been a college softball player to now a professional NASCAR tire changer, how do you keep positive with your current situation?
Breanna O’Leary : Yea, I definitely think at this point that being positive is the only worthwhile way to be. There’s no fun in just kind of being down on yourself or being negative or not having any faith in the situation. I can put in all the hard work and I can do everything that I can do.
So, you’ve got to take control of what you can control. And then, just to be positive at the reps just because that kind of makes the days easier, even if things don’t go your way. Just having a positive mindset definitely helps.
And then you’re just kind of able to always be ready. Cause that’s a big part of it. Something could happen and then it’s your one chance to shine and get that opportunity. You just always have to be ready. Being positive and working hard definitely helps me to keep that mindset to always being ready to go and being ready for the next big thing.
Rob Tiongson : I can definitely understand and appreciate why you enjoy working out too. Given your busy schedule, do you find you’re able to gain more of that positive energy that helps carry you through the week?
Breanna O’Leary : Yea, I definitely think that just moving and being active, and for me…working out, starting my day with a workout, always makes my day better. It’s like, you get up and you did something with your day. Before the sun’s even up, I’ve already gotten my day started on the right foot. It just kind of helps set the tone for the day.
Rob Tiongson : I also have to imagine that it helps to have good teammates around you, whether it’s your comrades at the Xcalibur Pit School or the Diversity team. How do your teammates make practice fun and keep things loose and interesting?
Breanna O’Leary : Just being around everybody is always fun because everybody has their own personalities. And everybody is joking or rolling off these jokes. Everybody tries to keep it light because at the end of the day, if this isn’t fun, then what are you doing? We all want to get better. But, then we’re able to keep the atmosphere light and it just makes every aspect of it enjoyable.
Rob Tiongson : Quite true. And I know for those with an outsiders’ perspective, you almost have to look at NASCAR from an esoteric standpoint. To them, they probably think it’s simple to just go over the wall, loosen five lugnuts, tighten five new ones to a new tire, and then head back. And of course, some see racing as just a bunch of people going around in circles. However, you made the leap into NASCAR quite smoothly. How do you connect with those who aren’t familiar with racing?
Breanna O’Leary : I guess going the process myself, it’s easy to show that it’s not just cars going in circles. It’s our part of the job, as pit crew member to be athletic and it’s very important and crucial to the race.
It’s easy to translate in terms of showing everybody, “Hey, this is competitive. You just came from competitive collegiate sports. Now you get to transition into something new but something as equally competitive and maybe on an even higher level that you never would’ve thought of.”
Of course, I never would’ve imagined being a pit crew member took everything that it took and that it was a professional sport. I think maybe that’s a way to translate from one to the other.
Rob Tiongson : And for you, as a member of the over the wall crew, you jump over the wall and time it perfectly. It’s not like these drivers are coming in at a pedestrian street speed. They’re going from maybe 165 to 35 or 40 mph. But when you see that car about to come into your pit stall, is it an exhilarating feeling?
Breanna O’Leary : Definitely, every time, it’s really cool. I’m just so appreciative of this job that I have. It’s just so cool. Every time, I’m like, “Wow, I really do this. I jump in front of a moving racing car.”
Once I go over the wall, all of that goes out the door and you just focus on the job at hand.
Rob Tiongson : I know we’ve talked about this in the past. Which track is probably the one that you feel the most comfort and confidence at? And which track do you find yourself going, “Wow, this is a crazy pit road and smaller pit stall than others?”
Breanna O’Leary : I definitely think that Daytona is one of my favorite tracks to pit at but I think that has a lot to do with personal experiences that I’ve had there. Daytona’s always the first race of the season, whether it’s ARCA or the major NASCAR series. Your first two weekends of the new season, I’m spending at Daytona.
Daytona is where Bre (Brehanna Daniels) and me went over the wall together in a Cup series race. Then we did the Daytona 500 together. I think that Daytona’s my track as I’ve grown familiar with it and made a lot of memories that I will cherish forever.
I don’t know about the most difficult track because there’s the smaller tracks and how they have the little bitty pit stalls or rocky, rough pit roads. But it’s fun because it’s challenging, and it makes things different. You have to stay on your toes, and you have to adapt. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it may present a challenge that makes it fun and keeps you going.
Rob Tiongson : In a way, with how you described all of that, you almost sounded like a racecar driver! (laughter) It’s cool to hear your perspective. While the disciplines are different, I think drivers and pit crew members have like mentalities.
As you’ve settled into the NASCAR world, do you almost feel like you are the racecar driver that you and your peers work with?
Breanna O’Leary : Yea, I would definitely say when you’re coming in for a pit stop because just those few seconds of my job are so crucial to the whole race. I have to feel confident and send my driver back on the track so he can drive confidently and race confidently.
I would say a lot of pressure and control falls into the pit crews’ hands with those few seconds of work. You kind of take everything out of the drivers’ hands at that time and that’s when you have to perform and do your best.
Rob Tiongson : You’ve definitely been performing and transitioned very well. I believe when you started, they still had seven members of the over the wall crew. Since last year, it’s just been five members that go over the wall. When the sport made the changes, what were some of the ways that the Diversity and Xcalibur Pit School teams prepared for them? Do you enjoy the current format or do you miss the prior one?
Breanna O’Leary : I think that I came into the sport almost at the right time. I learned the six man stop for a season so I kind of got the hang of things. When they changed it to a five man, I was still in the learning process when the changes were made.
So, I think it was maybe a lot easier for me to adapt to the five man stop. Just the challenges that were presented when that change was made was just choreographing the best, quickest, and fastest way to make that work.
Before the season started, it was a lot of trial and error. I think it played in my favor of me still learning. So, I wasn’t stuck in the old ways of the six man stop and I was able to adapt to the new stop.
Rob Tiongson : I think that’s one of the things that makes you intriguing. You are all as indelible as the driver and crew chief.
Now, let’s go back to Talladega race weekend. You were part of two teams that got top-10 finishes in the ARCA and XFINITY races, which isn’t easy. Walk me through those races and if you could, what in the heck happened in the grandstands on Saturday? (laughs)
Breanna O’Leary : I was with Chad Bryant Racing in the ARCA race with Joe Graf Jr. And he was driving. I believe he got second last year at Talladega, so this was kind of a big redemption race for him. He wanted to do well. And I want to say it was one of the closest margins in ARCA history. It was just by inches. He was looking for those few more inches this year.
And he was racing with what he could but he knew the big wreck was coming so you wanted to be cautious and mindful of that. We were able to miss everything crazy and pull off a top-10 finish. I know that’s not what he wanted but he got a top-10.
Then on Saturday, I was with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 car for the XFINITY race. It was almost the same thing. We were of course running to win but it was about staying in the draft and doing everything you could to keep your nose clean. When one of the wrecks happened, we missed it, and we got another top-10 finish. It was pretty cool to have them back-to-back and be part of two totally different teams and series. That was exciting.
As for what happened in the grandstands, I didn’t see anything. But I was just told by the firefighter next to me that there was some funny business going on right above us. And I was thinking, “You know it’s Talladega, and I’m just going to leave it at that!” It’s Talladega. (laughs)
Rob Tiongson : Oh yea! And I’m not sure if you saw this but some guy was on the big screen and some girl was asking him out. Some thought he might’ve been catfished! (laughs)
Breanna O’Leary : I did see that! He was up there with some flowers to meet some girl in person for the first time in person. And I tried to follow that too, but I don’t think he had any luck. (laughs)
Rob Tiongson : Maybe there was something in the air or people thought it was Valentine’s Day…(laughs)
Special thanks to Breanna for sharing her perspectives, on and off the track! If you’d like to learn more about Breanna and the NASCAR Diversity program, “Follow” them on Twitter! Look for Part 2 of Breanna’s May journal later this week!