Chris Clayton grew up with two passions in life: military aviation and racing. The first was from listening to his grandfather’s stories of working on P-51 Mustangs during World War II, and the latter from spending countless summer nights at racetracks with his father.
He recalls his father giving him a choice between attending other sporting events or going to the local speedway. There was never a question in the young boy’s mind — Chris always picked racing.
“If it went fast, I loved it,” he said with a smile.
But the dream of somehow being involved in racing would have to take a temporary backseat to make room for another calling…
His grandfather’s stories, and the respect he had for the family patriarch’s military service, inspired Chris to join the U.S. Army in 2007. He served as a CH-47 crew chief with the 160th Special Operations Aviation unit and deployed six times to Afghanistan during his 6 years of service.
Flying over Afghanistan in a Chinook helicopter, Chris was as far away from an oval track as could be, but he never forgot about the father-son time spent in the grandstands. He believed someday he would make it into the racing world, he just wasn’t sure when or how.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he said. “My love for racing never went away.”
Chasing the Dream
Chris was attending a marriage retreat in North Carolina with his wife before his last deployment when the couple decided to make a stop at the Hendrick Motorsports complex near Charlotte. While they were checking out the museum, trophy cases and engine shops, a chance encounter with Hendrick Motorsports’ head pit-crew coach Greg Morin got him thinking again about his boyhood dream of being in racing.
Chris walked right up to Morin, who was in the middle of pit crew practice, introduced himself and asked him what he needed to do to in order to pit for Hendrick Motorsports. It was a bold move, partially spurred on by his wife, but it got the attention of the coach.
“I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to ask him what it took to be a part of the team,” he said, “but I wanted to show him that I was serious.”
Morin gave him his card, told him to stay fit and come back when he was out of the Army…no promises, but that’s all the sergeant needed to hear to keep the dream alive. From that point on, all his free time was dedicated to reaching his goal. Prior to leaving for his last deployment, he regularly showed up at the Hendrick practice facility to watch and take notes on everything the coaches said. He bought a lug-nut impact wrench to practice and he changed his workouts to focus on the movements needed as a tire changer. He watched as many internet videos as he could find, always paying close attention to the “choreographed chaos” of pitting.
His peers in the Army didn’t know what to think of Chris’ new routine, but he kept working at it until just months from getting out of the military he got his chance to try out for Hendrick Motor Sports. It was a big leap of faith to not reenlist and continue his military career, but all the hard work and dedication paid off when he made the team.
He walked over to his wife, who was watching the tryout from afar, and told her the good news. “We made it!” he told her.
“It was a big personal goal, and it was so competitive,” he said. “Now that I’m here, we’re just going to make the best of the opportunity.”
Nothing is Impossible
The roar of the engines was deafening as Chris ran fuel and tires back-and-forth from the team hauler to pit row – vital tools for the 88 team during the NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina on May 17, 2014. Chris was back in Charlotte, where this journey started, and living his dream as an integral part of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team on pit road that night.
The path wasn’t easy, but Chris is certain it was worth the sacrifice to fulfill his lifelong dream. He credits the Army and his training for much of his success – from the discipline to follow through with goals and his eagle eye for details developed through years of working on mission-essential aircraft to the high value placed on teamwork. He’s convinced he wouldn’t be working for Hendrick Motorsports, one of the most successful teams in NASCAR, if it weren’t for the skills he gained while in the military.
Understanding that the goals are different, “there are a lot of similarities between the military and a [racing team],” he said. “It’s all about integrity in the little things. One loose lug nut can cost the entire team, just like one missing part on a helo can affect the entire mission.”
He cautions other Veterans who might think their dreams are too far-fetched to “never set limits” for themselves.
“When you get out [of the military] there is always a mental battle,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘what if I don’t make it’ and ‘what if I can’t do it?’” But the message Chris wanted other Vets to remember is that, “… you are good enough.” And he is proof that setting goals, believing in yourself and hard work can truly pay off.
VA News did a video story on Chris … watch it below.