A crew of 15 men in matching uniforms stands at the ready, creating an open “U” around a narrow strip of pavement. There’s an insect-like whine of an engine and the sleek car appears, nosing into the center of the lane.
A sign drops down before the driver’s cockpit as the front right tire meets one crewmember’s hand. The horseshoe is closed as the back jack slides into place simultaneously with the front, and the car rises.
There’s the whir of four high-speed air guns, each removing a single wheel nut. Tires are wrenched from their seats, the new slammed into place. The whir of the air guns sounds again. Four hands hover over the tires. When all is clear, the sign pops up and the car screeches off.
The perfect Formula One pit stop takes just three seconds. And those three ticks of the clock can make all the difference in a race that has been won by less than a second.
No doubt, Texans love sports. The state’s legendary past makes no bones about a “bigger is better” pride. So perhaps it was inevitable that Texas would bring the United States back to Formula 1 (F1) racing with the new Circuit of The Americas track opening in Austin on November 16-18, 2012.
It’s even less surprising that Texas would put its own brand on the international sport through innovation and excellence—and into that juxtaposition steps Michael Johnson. What does a businessman, sports commentator, and current world and Olympic record holder have in common with the legendary Williams F1 Team? The answer is surprisingly simple: speed. While a partnership between a Texas sports performance training center and a high-profile British racing car team may at first seem unlikely, the more you know about Michael Johnson, the more logical the partnership becomes.
Johnson is a Texan, born and raised in Dallas. He graduated from Skyline High School and attended Baylor University, where he and legendary coach Clyde Hart went on to capture NCAA titles and set school and American records. Track and field fans know Baylor as “400m U” for the sparkling amount of talent the school has produced in this event over the years, and Johnson is the center jewel in this crown. By the time he received his business degree in 1990, Johnson had had an amazing collegiate career and was ranked number one in the world in both the 200m and 400m sprint. He set the world record for the fastest 4x400m relay split at the ’93 World Championships with a time of 42.93. Known for his incredible work ethic and dedication to goals, Johnson focused on the Olympics.
In his second Olympic games (1996 in Atlanta), Johnson struck gold. Few who watched those summer games can forget the images of Johnson running, his gaze a laser-like focus, striding powerfully in his custom-designed gold Nike shoes, decimating the best in the world in both the 200m and 400m events. He became the first (and only) man in history to win both races in the same year, and Johnson’s 400m time of 43.49 remains the Olympic record.
His records and accomplishments are so many that we list only the most extraordinary: the 1999 Championships in Seville, Johnson set the world record for the 400m (43.18 seconds—or almost 21 mph). Between the world record and his 19.32 en route to his 1996 200m world record (a speed of 23 mph), Johnson became known as “the world’s fastest man.” Over the course of his 11-year career, Johnson won a total of 13 Olympic and World Championship medals…all of them gold.
Johnson took that incredible work ethic, the business degree from Baylor, and his love of sports into a new business: Michael Johnson Performance (MJP), founded in 2007 in McKinney, Texas. MJP has a simple, yet powerful philosophy: “Our training programs are based on proven success and designed to help athletes of every ability achieve their goals and reach improved levels of success in their sport.” The center works with a wide variety of athletes—kids ages 9-18, collegiate and professional athletes, Olympians (current and hopeful), and international groups; they partner with several McKinney-area clubs, including the Dallas Stars (NHL), Dallas Cowboys (NFL), and FC Dallas (MLS). The center employs state-of-the-art technology, such as Dartfish, a form analysis program that incorporates the use of video for athlete training and feedback, and Nike SSP Sport Vision Training, making MJP the only individual-based performance center in the world offering sport vision training. In addition, Nike SPARQ Sensory Performance aids in eye training, sensory profile, and anticipation timing reaction.
More than the technology, MJP has an incredible staff of performance specialists, each with a list of credentials, hand-selected to Johnson’s exacting standards. MJP works with athletes on nutrition, injury prevention, and biomechanical analysis, on site and remotely.
Johnson also provides sports commentary in the United Kingdom, primarily for the British Broadcast Company (BBC), and presents documentaries for Sky Sports. Fans on numerous message boards over the years spread the love, gushing about Johnson’s knowledge and directness. “It’s interesting, [Johnson’s] a big media type over there. He’s kind of like Charles Barkley is here, when he does his NCAA coverage. [Johnson’s] very opinionated, tells it like it is, and everybody really likes it because he doesn’t mince words,” said Lance Walker, MJP’s director of performance. “He spends a fair amount of time [in the UK] and, being in the media limelight, associations develop.” It was just such an association that blossomed at Johnson’s first F1 race.
“I’ve been a fan of F1 racing for a long time,” explained Johnson. “I met [Sir Frank Williams] in ’96 in Belgium, at my first race. Two years ago, we were in Qatar and I was introduced to some of the team.” Williams F1 Team is one of the 12 racing teams that make up the F1 circuit. Led by team principal Sir Frank Williams, the British team has won 113 Grand Prix, nine constructors’ championships, and seven drivers’ titles over its 35-year existence. Some notable moments in the Williams’ annals include a 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix win, signing legendary driver Aryton Senna in ’94 (and, sadly, his death, just three races later), constructor’s titles won by drivers Damon Hill (’96) and Jacques Villeneuve (’97), and Renault’s return as an engine supplier in early 2012.
As Johnson explained, the partnership between MJP and Williams makes an incredible amount of sense from a purely logical viewpoint. A pit crew performs a specific amount of repetitive, physical movements in a team setting. Their success is based on time and outcome. MJP provides training information for athletes after biomechanical analysis and a determination of their goals. The Williams F1 Team had a goal firmly in sight: to move their pit stop times to three seconds, the industry’s gold standard.
Johnson and Walker visited the Williams factory in Grove in January 2012. “The first thing we had to do is what we do with any sport; we look at what the player does within the actual context or situation,” explained Johnson. “We had to look at the pit crew in action.” One of the things that Johnson and Walker were incredulous to learn was that the pit crew was not made up of specialists, per se. “The pit crew is made up of mechanics, and this is their secondary job,” said Johnson. “We were surprised to find out that these are the engineers who build the cars, who have a high level of training and who also, then, function in a secondary capacity as the pit crew.” The MJP team had expected to find a dedicated crew, much like, for example, what Americans know from NASCAR racing. NASCAR pit crews are often made up of ex-athletes, specifically recruited for the job; they are so specialized that there are even competitions between NASCAR pit crews with sizeable monetary purses (the 2011 NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge awarded more than $260,000 in prize money).
Walker recalled meeting the crew: “We showed up for the first practice, and we’re standing by the car waiting to meet all these great athletes, and in walk the mechanics from Williams shop; they’re literally taking their greasy gloves off and putting on the gear to become the pit crew. It’s very interesting to us that these guys are building the car 12 hours a day and then they’re practicing this pit exchange, so they have a huge responsibility. The thing to understand is they’re not necessarily what you’d call an athlete because their dedicated job is a mechanic.”
Johnson clarified Walker’s comments by explaining that it wasn’t that the crew wasn’t made up of athletes—what was lacking was their perception of themselves as athletes. “What they’re doing during that pit stop is physically demanding, not just in the practice but in the coordination among the team,” he said. He drew comparisons between the pit crew’s “sport” and sprinting. “The similarities between the two are, naturally, less physical than mental,” Johnson explained. “A sprinter knows what has to be done to succeed and is ready for the moment, for that extremely short period when he is tested. When it’s race time, there’s tremendous focus. There is no ‘do-over’ and so the athlete must be supremely in the moment, so much so that movements must be practiced to the point where the activity is almost automatic.”
On the second day of the visit, Walker actually rolled up his sleeves and worked the pit stop to get a physical understanding of the movements specific to each crewmember’s role. “I need to feel what is physically demanded in each of these positions on this pit crew,” Walker said. “You’ve got guys who are running guns, guys who are ‘wheel-on,’ guys who are ‘wheel-off,’ so those three positions make up each of the corner pieces on the car as the driver pulls in. Then you’ve got the lollypop guy, and a front jack guy and a rear jack guy.
“Each of these guys has a very specific performance that’s got to happen in a very quick amount of time, and it’s very repetitive in nature, so you’ve go to imagine this wheel-on guy—he’s doing this same motion in 40-50 practices a day, over and over again, and he’s got to be dead-on accurate every time. And this motion is all choreographed with his teammates’ motions.”
In addition to the site visit, the MJP trainers collected recorded data from the pit crew’s practices and races, such as times and hours of video footage. “Michael is extremely good at leveraging technology to find out ways of providing as much as you can in this environment,” said Walker. “We do a fair amount of remote coaching with these training modules…because, let’s face it, not everybody can live in McKinney and train here.”
“It immediately became apparent that consistency at the first level was a primary focus,” said Johnson. Walker was more specific: “What we found when we studied the times from Williams [was that] they had some fast times, they just weren’t consistently fast. Unfortunately, they’d occasionally throw a real whammy in there, a 20-second stop, like a jack man would get hung up on the back end or a tire would get on there funky—some catastrophic time losses that drove their averages down—but they had some 2.8, 2.9 stops in the tape as well.” The Williams F1 Team was, in fact, ranked seventh in 2011 in average pit stop times, +1.1 seconds off the leaders, Red Bull and Mercedes. This realization drove MJP to more video analysis, including other pit stop crews, much like a football coach studies an opposing team’s game. The MJP performance experts began to develop a guideline of “biomechanical best practices” for each position. “We were actually benchmarking ‘what’s the proper right-front-wheel-off technique?’ from a biomechanical standpoint,” explained Walker. “There’s no textbook on what’s the right way. Everybody’s got their own little secret way, and so one of the things we wanted to do was go back and identify those teams over the last two or three years who have had success and low pit times and then figure out why that is, biomechanically. Best practice is not only the fastest but it needs to be reliable.”
“What we found was that each guy was doing his own thing and doing it a little bit differently each time,” Walker said. “He really didn’t have a routine; he was just doing it by feel.” Johnson and Walker both emphasized that, to improve, the team needed to have consistency in those movements, practicing to the point that they became almost automatic. “We likened it to some of the routines that Michael would go through when he’d get into the blocks for a race,” said Walker.
When Walker tried his hand at a pit stop that January day, it brought home to him how punishing the job could be. “There’s a real physical demand on the body, and I realized that I had to pull back a level [as a trainer] to just make sure these guys were moving correctly as human beings,” said Walker, and part of that determination involved a subjective review of how the crew felt. When asked about injuries, most replied, “We don’t get injured.” But closer examination revealed that many suffered from low back pain, elbow tendonitis, knee problems, and issues with repetitive microtrauma (also known as “overuse injuries”). Johnson and Walker quickly concluded that basic fitness was their starting point. A plan, complete with a video library of preventative and corrective exercises along with other MJP training documents, was created and shared with the pit crew through an on-line community created with the training program, Dartfish. “Let’s say it was a guy with elbow problems,” posited Walker. “He could access the site and get the pre-hab and corrective exercises for this lateral epicondylitis [commonly known as “tennis elbow”] that several of these gun guys were getting.” For the first six weeks of the program, achieving basic fitness became the first building block.
Progressing beyond the basics: changing the culture
MJP’s agreement is to work with the Williams team for an initial 20-week span, and Johnson stressed the need for periodization within that time, just as athletes are accustomed to having specific builds outlined in training programs. If the first block of training consists of six weeks of basic fitness and identifying best practices, what comes next?
“We had to look at the context of the organization—who exactly are these people, when do they have time to train?” Johnson said. Dickie Stanford, long-time Williams’ team member and current team manager, described their typical workload in a podcast after the Monaco Grand Prix. A location like Monaco, for example, with its city course and tight quarters, puts a huge stress on the mechanics. His crew unloads the equipment, some 26 tons of it, from trucks and moves it into the race garage, which can be a mile trek due to Monaco’s inaccessibility. The crew rebuilds the car, works on it during practice runs, qualifying rounds, and pit stops, and then completely tears it down when the race is over. They then reload the equipment, returning to the Williams factory where the process starts all over again for the next three-day racing cycle. “It’s a horrendous grind. Very much an athletic grind,” said Walker. Why not just use another crew for these different, physically demanding jobs? F1 rules limit the number of team members at a race, so Williams’ ability to use their mechanics in a multitude of tasks becomes crucial.
Walker addressed the component of stress. “Think about it,” he said. “If the car doesn’t produce, they’re in trouble, and if the pit stop costs them a second and they lose a spot coming out of pits, they’re in trouble—it’s a huge pressure-packed job.” On top of this pressure is something every eater knows: it’s hard to find healthy food on the road. While traveling, the team eats catered food and the pit crew was not always making the best selections. “It’s not that they’re huge, fat, and out of shape. They’re not. But if you can get these guys just a little leaner,” Walker explained, “it’s going to help them be more functional. These guys get absolutely battered during the course of the season and sometimes who’s the most rested crew is who’s the most effective crew. You know what happens when you get a little bit fatigued; that’s when you make that catastrophic mistake. And a lot of fatigue and recovery has to do with diet.”
MJP set out to change some of the Williams F1 Team culture. Johnson, known for his mental approach to sport training, emphasized the importance of moving the pit crew towards a team fitness mentality. They had to embrace the mindset that they were athletes training toward a collective result rather than simply a group of guys who came in to get the pit stop done. This mind shift in the smaller culture of the pit crew was incorporated into the first six weeks of basic fitness training. The broader culture change required going to management to request a dedicated number of hours in the crew’s schedule each week for fitness training. As Walker aptly put it, “They need to work on their own chassis, because they’re getting beat up.” Without time to build that broad base of fitness, “it’s similar to people who work a 12-hour day, decide to go golfing, and then wonder why their elbows hurt,” Walker explained. “It’s not because they don’t want to work out; it’s because they don’t have the time.”
Part of the culture change, Johnson pointed out, involves building in success. “It creates confidence that you can continue to improve and creates a platform that you can modify and build on,” he said. Determining best practices moved what the pit crew was doing beyond the mundane; providing standards has lead to measurable success. Measurable success leads to continued improvement and rewards, such as the Williams F1 Team’s recent win in Barcelona, their first since 2004.
Both Johnson and Walker emphasized that, when they envision the pit crew’s training, they’re thinking long term—beyond this 20-week micro cycle to a bigger picture macro cycle. “We may not even get all we want to accomplish done in one year,” Johnson said. Walker explained that now, the job is to reevaluate the team and find out how much fitness traction they’ve gained over the first six weeks. MJP will take a look at body fat and waist/hip measurement and review more video of performances, checking to see whether or not those best practices are being put into play. “This next phase that we’re writing right now will be more of a performance enhancement program for each individual,” Walker stated and he went on to flesh out some of the movements particular to each pit crew position. “Wheel-on, wheel-off guys are having to do sort of a quarter squat lunge with rotations…chops and lifts and lunges with rotations. It’s a very dynamic sort of movement,” he described. “And the gunman, he’s on both knees, so you can imagine this kind of tall, kneeling posture that a guy’s having to go into some hip extension and flexion back and forth. Front and back jack guys really power step and slide that jack in there in one smooth motion and push down to elevate the car. Add to those movements,” Walker marveled, “that they’ve got to be ultra-accurate as well. If they have to move two inches to the right or two inches to the left [due to car position], it changes the entire setup, the entire efficiency of the stop.” A part of that accuracy is spatial awareness, which Johnson noted as being extremely important, and he sees some sensory training in the crew’s future complete with testing in visual acuity and ability using MJP’s state of the art technology.
Walker pointed out that some equipment changes could result based on the individual’s biomechanical needs. “We may get to the position where we’re making equipment for the specific players, very similar to what Nike did when they made a specific shoe for Michael’s feet,” he conjectured. “Maybe we create a specific front jack for this guy because that’s the technique that’s best for him and it allows him to do his job better.” MJP has already made several changes in color and contrast to gloves and equipment in order to help the drivers with better visual cues in the pit box, though Walker declined to give specifics to preserve trade secrets.
Taking the new sense of athleticism in the pit crew, Walker talked of creating a future “depth chart” and getting competitive with crew assignments. “Not all the mechanics are in the pit crew, and it’s a big badge of honor to be selected,” he explained. “Now guys will be held more accountable. Hey, if you’re the best, you’re going to be on the team, and if you’re not, you’re going to need to work your fanny off to get on that team.”
In the meantime, Walker said MJP would continue to evaluate those functional movement patterns and adjust training based on feedback from the pit crew. “We do have several who were having some pain and dysfunction who are now pain free, and we have some others who have come up with some things we didn’t anticipate,” he said. Walker would also like to introduce the concept of off-season training. He’d like to take where the pit crew ends up this season, their “offset,” and continue to find the little areas where improvements can be made so that the team starts in an even better position the following racing season. “Just like any good strength training or conditioning program, you don’t just train in preseason and then maintain all season long,” Walker explained. While the pit crew only gets about four to five weeks rest in the off-season, Walker pointed out that, now, at least, they have the video vault to access information and a culture of fitness from which to draw.
The MJP and the Williams F1 Team partnership has brought a breath of fresh air to each of the businesses. Discovering the particular demands imposed on training an F1 pit crew, MJP found they needed to be “laser-guided” in their recommendations. “Let’s be honest,” Walker said. “I can’t detract from what’s most important, which is building that car. With these guys, their schedule is even tighter than the Dallas Cowboys, and yet they have these physical needs that they’ve got to devote some time to.” Walker enjoyed the new challenges. “We didn’t have some sort of piped-in mentality that [training] has got to be this way, or any preconceived notions. We just came in pure sports performance, from an extremely objective point of view, and from that, we were able to draw on our other experiences on how to help them.”
The fresh perspective extended to the Williams crew. As Walker succinctly said, “They’ve been doing this for 25 years. It’s not like Dickie, the head mechanic, doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But the partnership with MJP has given them a look at their craft from a completely different angle, not the “old sage head mechanic perspective,” as Walker called it, but the sports performance viewpoint. And, while other teams have brought in a dedicated expert or two, working with MJP has leveraged an entire coterie of expertise. “It’s a better use of your dollar and time when you can leverage all the resources we have,” Walker stated, listing off dietician, vision specialist, biomechanical expert, and Johnson’s understanding of mental preparation as benefits.
Johnson and Walker both plan to be in Austin for the inaugural Circuit of The Americas and another chance to see the Williams F1 Team in action. They hope to have the pit crew into MJP for a hands-on evaluation either before or after the race, though Walker realizes “it’s very hard to find those margins of time to drag the guys off.” But he talked about the excitement he anticipates “down the stretch as we go back to see how close we get to some of those goals.” He wondered, “Are we going to be able to go back and say, because we’re 15 percent leaner, we’ve got better cardio-respiratory fitness so our hearts aren’t racing like they used to, we’re not injured and sore, and our biomechanics are better, that we shaved one second off our pit stops?”
In a world where three seconds is the gold standard, that one second shaving would be a phenomenal result.
Closest margin in seconds of victory in an F1 race in history (at the US Grand Prix, 2002)
Highest speed in mph (305 kph)
Number of points awarded for first place in a race
Number of seconds that separated Senna and Maldonado (Williams F1 Team’s drivers), who came in seventh and eighth in China this year
Pastor Maldonado’s points as of the Canadian Grand Prix, which puts him in tenth place out of
Total trips through the pit lane for all 17 F1 races in 2011 (25 were penalty laps)
Average number of pit stops per race (2011)
Most pit stops in a race in 2011 (Hungary)
Least pit stops in a race in 2011 (Italy)
Year of the last American Formula One race, the US Grand Prix, run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Mileage of the US Grand Prix track, run clockwise, which contained 13 turns
Austin isn’t the only city in Texas to have hosted a Formula One Grand Prix. On July 8, 1984, Dallas was the site of a temporary street circuit that wound through the Texas State Fair grounds. The race was plagued with difficulties from the beginning, as the road surface was of such poor quality that the 100-degree heat had it bubbling before the race began and, once driven upon, it literally disintegrated. The race was started early in an attempt to find cooler temperatures but this was not popular with the drivers. One of the Williams’ drivers, Jacques Laffite, showed up in his pajamas for the 7 a.m. warm-up and several other drivers attempted to arrange a boycott to no avail. During the course of the race, several drivers had contact with the wall on the tight, hairpin turns, and one driver was overcome with heat exhaustion as he tried to push his disabled car to completion. Williams driver, Keke Rosberg, was equipped with a special skullcap cooling system to combat the extreme temperatures. The race was over when the two-hour limit was reached one lap prior to the full 68 and the Williams F1 Team won. It was Rosberg’s only victory of the season for Williams and the only Grand Prix to be run in Dallas.