Breanna O'Leary: From The Dirt Infield To The NASCAR Track
In February, Breanna O’Leary found herself in the infield. But when she looked it up, it wasn't the infield she was used to. Instead of fielding ground balls at Alcorn State, she was surround by oil, rubber and grease and was changing tires in front of 101,000-plus fans at the Daytona 500.
She took a second to take it all in.
Just five years ago, she didn't know a thing about NASCAR. In fact, the only sporting event she watched regularly was the Women’s College World Series.
So when the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program came to Alcorn State looking for new members, O’Leary was a little hesitant at first.
She started her softball career at Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas, before playing her last two years of eligibility at Alcorn State. She spent a fifth year working as a softball student assistant before taking a position as a graduate assistant under the strength and conditioning coach beginning in 2015. Her strength coach suggested she give the NASCAR program a shot.
“He was like, 'I don't know, it's NASCAR, it's something you can be competitive in…Just do it, it'll take you places,'” O’Leary said.
The program, initiated by NASCAR to increase diversity in the sport, was searching for former college athletes who could perform under pressure as pit crew members. At the initial physical assessment, O’Leary said she was the only softball player among all football players.
But to Phil Horton, the pit crew coach for the program and director of athletic performance for Rev Racing, O’Leary fit the bill for the type of athlete he was looking for.
“The fact that she played softball, she was a top candidate, because, one, she plays outdoors,” Horton said. “Secondly, she, unlike a tennis player or volleyball, you get dirty in softball. Racing is really, really dirty—oily, greasy, gas, smoky. So then I knew she wouldn't have a problem with that…She fit the criteria for somebody that I thought would make a good candidate.”
After the initial combine at Alcorn State, O’Leary was invited to Charlotte to participate in a national combine with 20 candidates. They went through another physical assessment and pit a race car for the first time. A few weeks later, she was selected for the program and moved to Charlotte to officially become a pit crew member.
The training process through the program didn’t come without adversity.
“Learning something new, especially being an athlete, when you don't catch on right away, it's so frustrating,” O’Leary said. “I hit a wall after a couple months of training, and it was just like I wasn't getting better.”
But O’Leary overcame those difficulties and kept competing alongside the men in her program to reach the next level.
“The men that she was competing with, there was a lot of veterans, and they were good,” Horton said. “It took a time for her to realize that, ‘Hey, you can actually reach that level.’ And then, when new recruits started coming in that she was better than, that helped her deal with the competition side of it and pushed her forward.”
O’Leary’s third racing season this year kicked off in about the best way possible at the Daytona 500. She became one of the first two female graduates of the Drive for Diversity program to pit crew the event.
O’Leary’s softball experience helped her to early success in her pit crew career, she said. NASCAR and softball are more similar than people might think.
“You only maybe get a couple opportunities to show what you've got during the [softball] game,” O’Leary said. “You have to learn how to perform under pressure, and a pit stop is exactly the same way. Our job is 12-15 seconds at a time, but those seconds are crucial to the race, and to your driver and to your team.”
Eventually, O’Leary wants to pursue a full-time contract as a pit crew member. Her success to this point has already drawn a lot of excitement from people in her past, including Frank Phillips head coach Lucas Grider.
“It's still fun to share that stuff and let everybody know that she started here, and now is paving a path for female athletes in a sport that's not necessarily female athlete friendly,” Grider said.
For O’Leary, the most fulfilling part of the job is getting to be a role model for young girls who see her in the pit crew and know it’s an option they can one day pursue.
“I know sometimes I get to meet little girls who see me in my fire suit, and I get to tell them I work on cars, and they think it's like the coolest thing ever,” O’Leary said. “They're like, 'Well I want to do that too!' And I think that's probably the most rewarding thing of all of it.”