The need for speed

Quinton Washington, who played football at Timberland High School and the University of Michigan, is the fuel man for driver Will Power’s IndyCar Series team at Penske Racing.

Growing up in St. Stephen, Quinton Washington was no stranger to cars. He attended drag races on weekends, he admired classic vehicles, he even tinkered underneath the hood. It all turned out to be preparation for an unexpected career change, one the former Timberland High School football star could never have foreseen at the time.

And how could he? His world was between the lines of the football field, first at Timberland and then at Michigan, where the defensive tackle appeared in 49 games in four seasons with the Wolverines. It would have required a gigantic leap of imagination to envision then what he does now, which is work as fuel man for driver Will Power’s IndyCar Series team at Penske Racing.

“I was always into cars,” Washington said from Penske’s headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. “I was more into older cars, Chevelles, things of that nature. I never really thought of or had the opportunity to think of this route, or racing.”

Using former college athletes as pit crewmen has become common in racing, since former crew chief great Ray Evernham pioneered the tactic with Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR team. Washington met Penske driver and 2012 NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski, a Michigan native, at football practice one day, and the memory of that encounter stuck with him. When he wound up living in Greensboro, N.C., after college with his son and fiancé, he stopped in at the Penske shop one day to see if there were any opportunities available.

Turns out, there were. Roger Penske had added Simon Pagenaud as a fourth IndyCar driver for the 2015 season, which meant the car owner needed extra crewmen for a stable that also included the teams of Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. “Remembering (Keselowski), I went over to Team Penske, and it just kind of worked out,” Washington said. “I just knocked on the door. One thing led to another.”

And soon enough, he was competing in an arena much different from the one he knew as a football player. Washington made 16 starts over four seasons with Michigan, recording his first career sack and blocked field goal in the 2013 Outback Bowl against South Carolina, a game better known for Jadeveon Clowney’s helmet-popping hit on Wolverines running back Vincent Smith. At Penske, his 6-4, 300-pound frame made him best suited for fuel man, which involves reaching over to the top of the car and attaching a hose to a fuel port located behind the driver’s head.

“You have to be a little taller to see everything at the correct angle,” Washington said. “And the fuel probe, I’m not going to say a smaller guy couldn’t do it, but it’s not the lightest thing in the world. It kind of played out that that was the position for me.”

IndyCar pit stops are typically under 10 seconds, and the fuel man is in one of the more precarious positions, nearly between the two left-side tires. “One wrong move, a lot of bad things can happen, let’s just say that,” Washington said. “It takes trust in the driver and trust in the teammates and everybody.”

Washington’s first race was this season’s opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 29. “Absolutely breathtaking,” he called it, and he means it literally. “After the first pit stop, I couldn’t breathe. It was nerve-wracking, fun, there were a whole lot of emotions going on at the same time. It was an amazing feeling. It was more than a roller coaster. It was an unexplainable feeling doing it for the first time.”

Since then, he’s enjoyed victory at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and the exhilaration of almost winning the Indianapolis 500, where Power finished second to Montoya. “Like nothing else,” he called the Brickyard experience. And along the way, he’s found a career that allows him to again enjoy the competitive thrills he feared he’d left behind once his football career ended.

Washington’s shot at the NFL came when he went to training camp with the Raiders after Michigan, but “that didn’t go the way we planned,” he said. After moving to Greensboro, he searched for another outlet. “I’d been competing for the past 15, 17 years,” he added, “so it was kind of in my nature to always want to compete and get better and see how I stand up to other people, and always have fun with it in a team atmosphere as well.”

Finding that wasn’t easy. “It was a little difficult thinking of different competitive jobs out there in sports,” said Washington, who graduated from Michigan in 2013. “With the help of family and friends, they kind of threw this idea my way — you’re into cars, you’re in NASCAR nation, and one thing led to another. But it was kind of hard thinking of the different atmospheres for competing as a job.”

He found it at Penske, which also owns the NASCAR team of Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano. Washington makes the two-hour commute from Greensboro to the Penske shop, where he works as a carbon-fiber fabricator — building pieces of the race car — when he’s not fueling Power’s vehicle on race days. The feeling of competition, he said, is just as it was in football. The feeling of winning, he added, is the same as it was in football.

The only difference? He’s not running around in 90-degree heat doing summer conditioning drills. “I do not miss the conditioning and the 6 o’clock workouts in the morning,” Washington said with a laugh. “That wasn’t a pleasurable time in my life.”

As opposed to these days, when he’s back to tinkering with cars just like he did in high school — although on a much larger stage.

“It’s unbelievable what I’m involved in, and how much bigger it is than just me,” said Washington, whose next race is Sunday in Milwaukee. “It’s an experience. I feel lucky and blessed to have this opportunity. Just working for Mr. Penske himself, he’s at the race track every weekend, and he’s just like everybody else. It’s a great feeling.”