From Touchdowns to the Track - An Athletic Journey

September 21, 2021


"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

A native of Snow Camp, North Carolina, Chris Conklin grew up in the heart of NASCAR country.  For the man who has become Team Penske’s winningest active over-the-wall pit crew member with 49 combined career victories, however, that didn’t seem to make that much of a difference growing up. Outside of the NASCAR races that were on TV during Sunday afternoons at his grandfather’s house, Conklin knew nothing of the racing world until a new path on his athletic journey led him from the NFL football field to Mooresville, N.C. and onto pit road.

“I was a stick and ball kid through and through,” said Conklin, the gasman on Team Penske's No. 12 Ford Mustang. “At Southern Alamance High School, I played football, basketball, baseball and ran track, which got really touch and go with the overlap in baseball and track schedules. But I played varsity from my sophomore year forward, and honestly, I thought I was a better baseball player than football player. But at 17 years old, I was 6-4 and 240 pounds so I was pretty big to be a baseball guy.”

Conklin didn’t actually start to focus on football until his freshman year of high school but he remembers how his first football experience in seventh grade placed a chip on his shoulder that he carried with him into adulthood. Conklin recalls attending a conditioning practice in seventh grade and after a particularly intense workout in the heat, he threw up following the practice. The coach of the team informed his father that “football wasn’t a sport for everyone.” Conklin decided at that moment he wasn’t going to play for that coach, but he was going to set out on a mission to prove him wrong about his dedication to the game.

“I played outside linebacker in high school primarily, and it wasn’t until a few games into my senior year that I made the move to tight end,” said Conklin. “I had 10 catches and nine touchdowns that year. Not sure why they waited so long to move me to tight end, but life is about finding opportunities and making the most of them, so that’s what I did.”

Conklin’s prowess at tight end provided an opportunity to workout at Wingate University, where he’d already been offered a partial scholarship to play baseball. Following a diving sideline catch during his workout, he was offered a full-ride to play tight end as he committed to the permanent transition to football.

At Wingate University, Conklin played for Coach Joe Reich, the brother of then Indianapolis Colts tight ends coach (and now head coach) Frank Reich. “Frank mentioned on multiple times that I had the physical ability and the work ethic to make it to the next level,” recalled Conklin. “The night before my pro day at Catawba College, he called and tried to get me to come to Eastern Carolina in the morning for a pro day where they had 40 (NFL) scouts in attendance. We didn’t know who we had coming to Catawba, but I’d been working with my quarterback and I felt like it was in both of our best interests if I only did the Catawba pro day.” Unfortunately, only four scouts came to Catawba that day, and Conklin admitted he still wonders how things would have developed if he made different decision that day.

Conklin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 20 times on his pro day, while measuring in at 6-4 and 260 pounds. Wingate held its pro day a few weeks later.

“We didn’t have a single scout show up,” said Conklin. “There were seven or so of us standing around, 30 minutes after the pro day was scheduled to start, and finally someone comes walking up and asks who Chris Conklin was. I responded, ‘that’s me’ and he introduced himself as Coach Geep Chryst from the Carolina Panthers. He immediately dismissed everyone else and gave me a private workout. I hated it for the other guys – they were my friends, they’d worked hard and then they didn’t get a chance to workout, only I did. That was really my first introduction into how tough the NFL world is.”

After signing with an agent, Conklin bypassed his final semester at Wingate University to train full-time, seven days a week in order to prepare for the NFL draft. His training routine consisted of running, weightlifting, water aerobics, yoga and karate. During the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, two phone calls opened the door for the Snow Camp, N.C. native to begin his NFL career.        

“Coach Chryst called with (Head) Coach John Fox and asked my agent if I was still available,” recalled Conklin. “They told me they were planning to draft me in the seventh round at No. 249. A few minutes later, they called back and offered to sign me to the same contract I’d get at that pick if I’d sign as an undrafted free agent. At 20 years old, the home team is calling and making you a job offer, so I took it. Maybe I shouldn’t have. That took me off the board because as soon as the draft was finished the Colts, Packers and Jets all called to ask about me.”
 

After signing with the Panthers, Conklin took his training to the next level as he prepared to make his professional debut.  He recalled his next lesson on the toughness of the NFL when he found himself in the huddle for his first live action, full-speed play. “I’m in the huddle with Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith Sr. and DeAngelo Williams – guys I’ve watched play on TV – and I’m thinking, what the heck am I doing here. To make it even better, my first blocking assignment was on (All-Pro defensive end) Julius Peppers. He hit me so hard he bent the 84 on the back of my helmet all the way down to my butt pad. It was next level in a hurry.”

Following the third pre-season game of the 2008 campaign, Conklin was cut from the Panthers roster. “I was a 50-50 guy and I was really close to making that roster. I’m thankful to have gotten the chance,” said Conklin, who then spent a week with the Green Bay Packers before he had a workout for the Indianapolis Colts. Though he was unable to secure an NFL roster spot, Conklin signed with the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League. Before the season got underway in 2009, however, the Arena League folded and Conklin found himself looking for a new opportunity. His former strength and conditioning coach from the Panthers, Sean Powell, had taken the same role at Team Penske, so he called Conklin to see if he was interested in joining a new kind of team.

Sean was a great guy. He called me in, I met with the coaching staff and (VP of Operations) Michael Nelson and signed a deal that day to become a development pit crew member,” said Conklin. “It was actually funny, they felt like my NFL career was over and this was the next step. On the two-hour drive home from Mooresville to Burlington, the New York Jets called and offered me a futures deal so I had to call back and delay my pit crew career for a little bit. But I came back in 2010 and served as the catch-can man on the Xfinity Series Championship team with Brad Keselowski. The next year I moved to gas man when they eliminated the catch can position, and the following year I found my way into the jackman position.”

When pit stops went from six- to five-man stops, Conklin’s height – once considered a major advantage for the jackman – became a disadvantage due to having to install tires. After winning the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Championship with the No. 22 Ford team and driver Joey Logano, Conklin continued to work with crew chief Todd Gordon, transitioning to the No. 12 Cup Series team as the gas man prior to the start of the 2020 season.

In addition to his role on the No. 12 Menards Ford Mustang pit crew, Conklin also works full-time for Team Penske’s parts department. In this role, Conklin touches virtually every piece and component that is part of each race car. This includes processing purchase orders and monitoring the process from start to finish to ensure the proper pieces reach the correct department and are billed properly. It is a detailed and important job with many of the team’s projects featuring well over 100 different components that span multiple departments.

Though Conklin has a lot more he’d like to accomplish in racing, he also has goals and dreams to achieve after his motorsports career takes the checkered flag. He and his wife April want open a training center someday with a dual focus in adult strength and conditioning along with youth athletics. Chris, April and their two daughters Carmen (8) and Claire (5) are deeply involved with The Cove Church, serving as volunteers and leading small groups.

“As a believer, I feel like everyone is born with certain gifts,” said Conklin, who said his life experiences have put things in the proper perspective. “For me, I was blessed with athletic ability and the ability to work with kids and make a positive impact in their life. Everything happens for a reason and every fork in the road got me to where I am today. I’ve got a wife and two daughters and I’m a very blessed man, that’s what I’m most proud of at the end of the day.”