As a kid growing up in St. Matthews, S.C., professional racing tire changer Trenton “TJ” Gissentanner said he never even watched NASCAR, let alone consider working in the sport.
His first connection to cars was learning how to change tires on a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado with his grandfather, Clarence. The two would work on the farm together as their way of bonding, he said.
“My granddad was my biggest influence,“ the 29-year-old told QCity Metro. “He taught me everything. He showed me what it means to be a man.”
Clarence taught his grandson to never look down on himself and to always strive toward his goals, advice he’s carried with him through NASCAR.
Why it matters: NASCAR has not been known for its diversity. Gissentanner is one of a growing number of Black tire changers in the predominantly-white sport.
Following Charlotte’s Xfinity Race Series Monday, Gissentanner reflected on his journey in the sport. His ultimate goal is to provide a better life for his family back home.
Finding a passion
Before NASCAR, Gissentanner’s first career aspiration was to be a content creator on Youtube. He relocated to Charlotte in Charlotte to pursue content creation full-time.
Youtube and TikTok became his primary sources of income but was inspired by his close friend’s career.
Gissentanner’s friend, Curtis Walls, worked in NASCAR and served in various capacities as a pit crew member. After witnessing his brother’s first win as a pit crew member, he decided he wanted to join the sport.
“I always wanted to be a professional athlete,” he said. “So [Nascar] was my next option [to] still be able to compete.”
Walls connected Gissentanner with Trackhouse, a Concord-based racing brand. He volunteered with the group to gain experience as a tire changer in Nov. 2021.
In January 2022, Trackhouse hired him as a full-time development tire changer in the pit crew.
“I was appreciative of the opportunity,” he said. “My team helped me a lot through this process. Not many guys get the chance to do what I do.”
Gissentanner has worked 72 races so far, working with the likes of Kaden Honeycutt, Brad Perez and Chad Chastain.
Physical and emotional challenges
Gissentanner said the job of a tire changer is “demanding.”
The 5-man pit crew, including two tire changers, has less than 12 seconds to provide the racecar with the proper maintenance to return to the track.
Tire changers have to be quick and precise, with no room for mistakes, Gissentanner said.
“If something happens, the tire could go flying off [and] that’s two weeks suspension,” he said.
The job also causes a physical toll, he said.
Every morning, he gets up for a workout, rewatches film and practices on the race track to prepare for upcoming races.
Tires typically weigh 35 to 50 pounds. Some pit crew members participate in rehab, or physical therapy, to recover after races, he said.
Gissentanner said he quickly adjusted to being the minority in the sport but recognizes that racism does exist. He once had a racist interaction with a fan at a race who called him a derogatory name.
“I shrugged it off,” he said. “I’m from South Carolina. It ain’t nothing out here I haven’t heard before.”
Changing the demographic
Gissentanner said though NASCAR pit crews are relatively diverse, there are only a handful of drivers in the sport.
The more Black drivers participate in NASCAR events, the more Black people will watch, he said.
Drivers like Bubba Wallace have helped the sport make progress, but 20-year-old Rajah Caruth will inspire more Black supporters in the future, Gissentanner said.
Gissentanner, who initially took a break from content creation to focus on NASCAR, said he plans to bridge the two by sharing more behind-the-scenes content. He said he wants to show more of his experience in the sport to help diversify the sport.
Gissentanner said he plans to work as a tire changer for at least another 10 years before he retires.
He told QCity Metro he plans to use his career earnings to support his family back home, especially his father, who has Parkinson’s disease.
“One day, he’ll be at a race and get to be proud [of me],” he said.
His next race is Saturday, June 3, at the Gateway Speedway in St. Louis, Mo.