MARTINSVILLE — It’s rare to find members of the NASCAR community with Lulu Lemon jackets, pink Reebok sneakers, and a manicure, but that’s exactly the case for Christmas Abbott, NASCAR’s pit crew pioneer.
When you first look at Abbott, a native of Lynchburg, it’s obvious that she’s forging a path that could potentially change NASCAR as most fans know it. However, what’s less obvious is what exactly that path is.
Yes, Abbott is a woman, but there have been women on pit crews before, something Abbot is quick to point out.
“There’s been other pit-crew women in the (Sprint) Cup Series,” Abbott said. “Just as far as we know right now, there’s never been one hired full-time for a full season. There’s a little media hype right there.”
While it may seem like she is a mere novelty, to Abbott, her gender isn’t what makes her unusual to NASCAR. It’s what she does when she’s not at the track that makes her unique.
“It took me years to get to where I am now,” Abbott, who is currently under contract with Michael Waltrip Racing and works on Clint Bowyer’s pit crew, said of her CrossFit training. “I think it’s overlooked. People who start CrossFit won it that year or they won it that month that they start. I was deconditioned completely when I started CrossFit, and CrossFit’s developed me into an athlete now that it’s brought me to NASCAR. People just need to realize that it takes time and it doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re working towards it then that’s amazing, but don’t expect it in a year.”
Abbott, who owns and operates Invoke CrossFit in Raleigh, N.C., has been active in CrossFit since 2006. CrossFit is a fitness company founded by Greg Glassman and Lauren Glassman in 2000. The CrossFit exercise program is practiced by members of close to 4,400 affiliated gyms and by people who complete daily workouts posted on the company’s website. When you look at her in her uniform on race day you may not be able to tell, but Abbott is pound-for-pound one of the strongest people in NASCAR, and that’s because of her training. Abbott, who is 5-feet-1 and is listed at 115 pounds on the CrossFit Games website, can dead lift 255 pounds, more than twice her weight. If Abbott is any indication, the days of pit crew members smoking cigarettes in their down time and warming up for races by working on radiators is a distant memory.
“The pit crews now are becoming so competitive where if you have a half-a-second advantage during your overall stop to another team they’re going to take you,” she said. “Now it’s getting to a point where these guys are looking around and they want to keep the jobs that they have so they’re starting to step up their game in the gym and their eating habits. So I’m hoping it makes the sport even more competitive than it is, but you definitely need a physical ability. You can have the skill, but you won’t have the longevity or stay at the top if you don’t have that physical fortitude.”
To Abbott, being a woman in a male-dominated world isn’t new. She spent time working as a civilian contractor during the Iraq war. Abbott’s time overseas impacted her so much that she got a tattoo, one of many that she has, to remind her of her time there.
“I wasn’t very into shooting or liked guns before I went overseas. I realized, for me not knowing how to use a weapon, if something went down I was a liability,” she said of the gun inked on her hip. “So I came home and somebody taught me how to use the gun properly and educated me on proper handling and I started to shoot. So now I love shooting. So it’s two-fold. I like to shoot; second it reminds me of going overseas, and third to always protect myself.”
It may be surprising to know that Abbott is relatively new to the sport. While she grew up watching races with her family, she didn’t have a vested interest in NASCAR until she started training to be a part of the pit crew.
“My whole family watched racing growing up, and I watched it because they watched it,” Abbot said. “So I’m familiar with the concept but I really didn’t understand that there were so many different layers to it until I got into it. I have a new respect and a completely different understanding of how the sport is run. That’s what’s cool about this, too. People are taking interest in the sport and realizing it’s not just driving. There’s so much more technical aspects of it to look into.”
2013 has been a big year for the women of NASCAR. With Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to take the pole in a Sprint Cup race when she started in the lead position at the Daytona 500 to start the season, and now with Abbott it may not be long before NASCAR sees a jump in its female population.
“There are other female drivers that I think are overlooked a lot,” Abbott said. “I just want there to be more attention across the board. This is a sport that anyone can get to, whether you’re male, female, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter. This is an open-door opportunity for anyone who wants to take it.”
Abbott says the welcome that she’s received has been nothing short of spectacular, from both people within NASCAR to fans.
“It’s been awesome. The people that I work with, MWR and NASCAR themselves as the entities, have been really, really supportive and really excited about it,” she says. “The fans have also been really excited about it. And the fans will be the first to call you out. They’re die-hards and they don’t take any crap. They’ll tell you if you’re not doing your job. It’s been a positive response across the board, I’m really pleased with it.”
Hainsfurther is a sports reporter for the Danville Register & Bee. Follow him on Twitter: @HainsfurtherGDR