When William Sturgill's senior year at Hanover College began in 2004, his path forward seemed clear.
The ex-Paul Laurence Dunbar offensive lineman would play his final year of college football for the Panthers, then finish his undergraduate degree from the Indiana school. When that was all done, the grandson and namesake of one of the best known businessmen in Kentucky history, William B. Sturgill, would come home to the commonwealth and take a position within one of his family's business concerns.
Yet, on Sept. 24, 2004, a heartbreaking event eventually led to Sturgill re-evaluating his life goals. That day, his father, Paul, died after suffering a brain aneurysm.
"After my dad died, it did somewhat affect my (life plan)," William Sturgill said Thursday. "Something inside me, I don't know, I wanted to go out and see what I could do on my own."
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Which is how the scion of a prominent Kentucky family came to be based in North Carolina and working as a jackman on the pit crew of an underdog NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team.
Sturgill jacks the No. 34 car driven by David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports, a scrappy but underfunded team (that also fields the No. 38 Cup car for driver David Gilliland, the one-time Kentucky Speedway hero).
"I came here trying to get into the business side of NAS-CAR," said Sturgill, 29. "When I first moved here, I never dreamed I'd actually be part of the (NASCAR) races."
A meeting at a wedding
In Kentucky, the name "William Sturgill" carries immense business cachet. The elder William Sturgill, usually known as Bill, played basketball for Adolph Rupp at UK (lettering in 1945 and '46). The native of Lackey then went back to Eastern Kentucky and eventually made a fortune as a coal operator.
To some, Bill Sturgill, now 87, was a controversial figure. The primary reason for that, as John Ed Pearce once wrote in a Herald-Leader column, was that Sturgill's coal company "mastered the tricky business of mountainside surface mining." That put him at odds with many environmental activists.
Eventually, Bill Sturgill's influence spread wide in Kentucky. Among many posts, he served as energy secretary in the administration of Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown as well as chairman of the state horse racing commission.
A generous benefactor to the University of Kentucky, Bill Sturgill had a stint as chairman of the UK Board of Trustees. The Sturgill Development Building on the UK campus is named for Bill. In 1989, the head of the search committee that eventually recommended Rick Pitino to replace Eddie Sutton as UK head men's basketball coach was Bill Sturgill.
The younger William Sturgill worked in his family's varied businesses while growing up.
"I always thought he would go into business like his dad and his grandfather," said Mike Meighan, the former Dunbar football coach for whom William played.
Not too long after his father died, William Sturgill ran into Chuck Hughes at a wedding. Hughes is a Prestonsburg native with ties to the old Ranier Racing operation that won back-to-back Daytona 500s (1983 and '84) with Cale Yarborough. At the time he bumped into Sturgill, Hughes was based in North Carolina and in the business of putting together NASCAR sponsorships.
"We got to talking and I said, 'You ought to come down to Charlotte and work with me,'" Hughes recalled Friday. "I think William beat me back to North Carolina."
Help from ex-UK Wildcat
Sturgill's initial foray into the business of NASCAR was sidetracked when Hughes opted to change professions and return to Kentucky. To make things more challenging, the economic downturn that engulfed the United States late in 2008 was especially painful in the corporate sponsorship-driven world of NASCAR.
That made it that much harder to break into the sport. Yet Sturgill stayed in North Carolina.
"He's been willing to stick with it when things were not going his way, and he hasn't seemed to get too up or too down," said Tobey Sturgill, William's mom. "I love it that he was willing to strike out on his own and that he didn't quit when things got tough."
While William looked for ways to break into the business of NASCAR, a connection to former University of Kentucky defensive lineman Mark Jacobs gave him an unexpected point of entry into the sport.
A Hal Mumme-era defensive tackle at UK, Jacobs is a longtime jackman in the Sprint Cup Series. He works on the pit crew of Juan Pablo Montoya.
"I ran into Mark down in Charlotte and he was telling me how the pit crews were all looking for former college athletes," William Sturgill said. "He told me that, being a former offensive lineman, I'd be perfect for a jackman."
Jacobs got Sturgill a place in the pit-crew development program at Chip Ganassi Racing. After earning his spurs in some low-level races, Sturgill got a chance to jack the car — literally be the guy who lifts the car so tires can be changed during pit stops — for Dario Franchitti's No. 40 team in the Nationwide Series.
William's first entree into the big leagues of Cup racing came with driver Sam Hornish Jr. on the No. 77 car for Penske Racing.
"One time at Dover with the 77 car, I dropped the car and the left rear wheel was not installed," Sturgill said. "Our rear wheel beat our car out of pit road. That was bad, the worst mistake I've made."
That's the kind of miscue that ends careers in NASCAR's pits, where the margin between success and failure is milliseconds and where tolerance for bad performance is nil. "A lot of people never get another chance after that," Sturgill said.
Luck was with Sturgill, who was picked up by Roush Fenway Racing and was the jackman for driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last season in the Nationwide Series (NASCAR's Class AAA) during what became a championship year.
"I did, I got a championship ring," Sturgill said.
Back into Cup Series
Sturgill is married to his high school sweetheart, the former Hillary Woods. Besides his work in NASCAR, he has a printing business; she works in pharmaceutical sales.
In his football days, the 6-foot-3 Sturgill says he weighed around 318 pounds. Now, as a jackman, he is "down" to 280.
"As a football player, he was a good center, strong, very strong, and he was smart," said Meighan, the former Dunbar head coach. "I'd guess what made him a good football player back then helps him in what he's doing in NASCAR now."
This season, Sturgill moved back into Sprint Cup as a jackman. If Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon) is the New York Yankees of NASCAR, then Front Row Motorsports is the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Owned by Bob Jenkins, a Tennessee restaurant entrepreneur, the team started in 2005 and has survived on a shoestring budget. Yet for Sturgill, FRM's small size means opportunity. In addition to his duties with the pit crew, he also works three days a week for Front Row in marketing and business development.
"I'm getting to do what I came here to do at last," he said.
Before this season's Daytona 500, Sturgill was part of an effort by Front Row Motorsports that induced the Republican presidential campaign of Rick Santorum to sponsor a car driven in the 500 by Tony Raines. That success led to a story about the team's business efforts on the Web site of Forbes magazine.
Another business achievement for FRM has been the decision by sports supplement firm Maximum Human Performance to sponsor Ragan's pit guys — the No. 34 MHP X-FIT pit crew. Even in the hyper-commercial world of NASCAR, a pit crew with a sponsor is unusual.
The Sprint Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway on June 30 and Sturgill is stoked about it. For last season's inaugural Quaker State 400 at Sparta, he was not with a Sprint Cup team.
"It is exciting to think about working a Cup race in your home state," he said.
Still, the guy whose name would open doors for him in Kentucky doesn't seem to regret choosing to try to open them on his own in North Carolina.
"He told me after he came to Charlotte that, in Lexington, people always asked him if it was his name on buildings at UK," Hughes said. "He said what he liked about working in Charlotte was that it was about what he did, what he could do, and not who he was."