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O-line to fuel line: Former NFL player makes Indy 500 pit debut

INDIANAPOLIS. (WISH) — Ben Braden has to be in the right position at the right time.

When Conor Daly’s car comes into the pits, it’s Braden’s job to plug in the fuel line and hold it steady as fresh racing fuel pours into the tank. He has only a matter of seconds to get this done from start to finish. He’ll be in the pits for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At first glance, it’s a far cry from his last job. Braden spent six years in the NFL, playing guard for the New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos. He met Ed Carpenter at the gym during the offseason. When the time came to change careers, Braden, a longtime racing fan, said he called Carpenter.

“I asked if he knew of any opportunities in the racing world and he said come by the shop and we’ll see what you might be interested in,” he said. “That’s kind of where it started. It’s been a lot of fun so far.”

Braden said running the fuel line felt immediately familiar to him when he tried it. In football, he said he always had to make sure his hands and feet lined up properly to make the play and he had to watch the center. Refueling a race car uses many of the same movements. He said he uses a modified football stance to line up with an incoming car’s fuel receptacle and move his body with the car as it enters the pit stall.

“You’d be surprised at how your feet are set up really help with your hands, especially with fueling,” he said. “That’s something we talked about in football, your feet and your hands will mirror each other.”

Braden got to practice those movements late Tuesday morning. He and a team from Ed Carpenter Racing spent nearly an hour doing pit stops over and over again, using one of Carpenter’s old cars for realism. Braden said perhaps the most important similarity between the pit crew and his old football teams is the team mentality itself. Like a football team, he said racing teams go into the week leading up to a race with a set of goals and a plan to meet them, adjusting throughout the week as needed. He said the Indianapolis 500 itself even has parallels with the NFL’s postseason. Braden has watched the race on TV but has never had a chance to attend in person until now. This will be his Indianapolis 500 as a member of a pit crew.

“Definitely take it all in and enjoy the crowd and the atmosphere but at the same time, I have to still keep in mind, it’s still the same fuel hose, same car, try not to get too overwhelmed with it,” he said.

Back on pit row, the crew begins towing the training car back to the garage. Braden and his teammates will have another chance to practice on Wednesday before competing in the Pit Stop Challenge on Carb Day. Then, it will fall to them to help one of their drivers make it to Victory Lane on Sunday.

Braden said any professional athlete looking for a career change should consider joining INDYCAR. He said having good hand-eye coordination and being able to move quickly and adjust on the fly are critical skills for the crew members who go over the wall.

“It’s been awesome to feel like I can transition smoothly out of a career that I thought I would be in for a really long time,” he said. “You never know when the NFL is over.”