Mark Story: Ex-UK lineman returning to the Bluegrass as a NASCAR jackman

Jacobs finds life after football, 'over the wall'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 26, 2011 

Which is the more pressure-packed moment: Playing defense in the fourth quarter of a close Southeastern Conference football game? Or working on a NASCAR pit crew on the final stop of a race when your driver comes in with the lead?

Hang with us, Mark Jacobs will tell you which is more nerve-racking. The ex-University of Kentucky defensive tackle has lived both.

Jacobs ended his three years (1996-98) as a Wildcats starter in UK's Outback Bowl loss to Penn State on Jan. 1, 1999. Now he is in his 12th year working as a jackman at NASCAR's highest level.

When the Sprint Cup Series at long last comes to Kentucky Speedway for the July 9 Quaker State 400, Jacobs will be jacking the No. 42 car of Juan Pablo Montoya.

Over the years, Jacobs has worked on the pit crews of NASCAR stars such as Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Growing up in Shalimar, Fla., Jacobs dreamed of the NFL, not NASCAR. "I didn't even really follow it," he said.

Believe it or not, the journey that led him to the Cup Series started in the Green Lot at Commonwealth Stadium.

Back in his UK playing days, Jacobs was among some Kentucky football players who befriended a group of tailgaters that included Chuck Hughes, a Prestonsburg native.

After Cats games, the hungry players would stop by the tailgate to eat.

Hughes was a NASCAR enthusiast who had ties to Harry Ranier, the onetime Eastern Kentucky coal operator who started a NASCAR team and wound up winning the Daytona 500 three times (once with Buddy Baker and twice with Cale Yarborough).

Said Jacobs: "Chuck was big into NASCAR. He was always trying to talk me into trying it. I'm like, 'Chuck, I don't know anything about it.'"

When his UK football career ended, the 6-foot-3, then-274-pound Jacobs hoped to keep playing. Yet the 1999 NFL Draft came and went without the name "Mark Jacobs" being called.

Jacobs tried the Canadian Football League but was cut by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He played some arena football for the Tampa Bay Storm but found it unsatisfying.

Without an outlet for his pent-up competitiveness, Jacobs said, he was driving his wife, Stacie, batty. She suggested he get back in touch with the guy in Kentucky who had always been talking about NASCAR.

Jacobs called Hughes.

"You know, I don't really know why I thought Mark should go into NASCAR," Hughes said Thursday. "There were several of the (then-Kentucky) players — Jonas Liening, Jeremy Streck, Mike Webster — that used to stop by our tailgate. Maybe it was just when I talked about NASCAR, Mark always seemed the most interested."

A trip to Charlotte

A phone call from Hughes about Jacobs went out to Harry Ranier's son, Lorin, who has long worked in the NASCAR industry. At the time, Lorin Ranier was in the employ of NASCAR star Bill Elliott's race team.

Three days later, Mark Jacobs, with $200 in his wallet, drove from his home in Florida to the Charlotte area race shop where Elliott was then based.

"I didn't have an appointment. I walked in and asked for Lorin Ranier," Jacobs said. "They threw me out."

Jacobs drove around to the back of the race shop and found that Elliott's pit crew was practicing.

"I got out; they looked at me and were like, 'Whoa, have you ever jacked a car?' " Jacobs recalled. He hadn't, of course. The former football player asked for some "game tapes" of NASCAR pit stops. For three days, while holed up in a Charlotte-area Motel 8, he studied the tapes, Jacobs said.

He came back for a tryout. Afterward, the Elliott team offered him a contract.

Some 13 months after he played his final football game for Kentucky, Jacobs worked as jackman for Elliott in the 2000 Daytona 500.

"The first NASCAR race I ever saw (in person), I was in," Jacobs said.

Jacobs was an early part of a NASCAR trend that saw race teams move away from having their mechanics also work the pits in favor of having actual athletes pit the cars. Many credit Ray Evernham in his days as Jeff Gordon's crew chief for popularizing the idea.

The jack that elevates cars in Cup races weighs about 40 pounds, Jacobs said. The advantage of having a 6-3, now-285-pound former football player as your jackman "is one, leverage," Jacobs said. "That's where my height really helps me. The other thing, obviously, is strength."

Working with Dale Jr.

With a personality almost as big as he is, Jacobs has stories to tell. He says his "welcome to NASCAR moment" came in his first year in a race at Martinsville. The elder Dale Earnhardt was pulling his famed black No. 3 out of the pits, and his car "ripped the jack right out of my hands," Jacobs said. "His fans went crazy."

For the three years before this one, Jacobs worked on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew for Hendrick Motorsports. There are few more scrutinized positions in sports than being affiliated with Earnhardt Jr.

"Junior was great to his guys," Jacobs said. "He'd have us over and even hang out with us. But working on that team, everything you do is under the microscope."

This year, Jacobs returned to work for the organization of car owner Chip Ganassi, for whose teams he has worked for much of his career. "I just wanted to get back where I had the best relationships," he said.

As part of Montoya's team, Jacobs now gets to hear boos. For whatever reason, the former Formula One star from Colombia is treated as a villain at many NASCAR venues.

"Thank goodness for Kyle Busch," Jacobs said of NASCAR public enemy No. 1. "If it weren't for him, man, we'd really get it."

Jacobs, 34, is excited about returning to the state where he played college football to compete in a Cup race. He said he hopes to contact some of his former UK teammates about attending the race in Sparta.

Now, to answer the question we began with: What induces more tension, playing in the fourth quarter of a close college football game or the final pit stop of a Cup race when your driver comes in with the lead?

"It's the pit stop," Jacobs said. "In football, if they run the play away from you, you may not have that big an impact on that play. On a pit stop, if even one of the guys who go over the wall mess up, you're sunk. Every time you go over the wall, it's like all of you are kicking a 40-yard field goal to win the game."

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