In the Crease, Covered in Grease
Oct 18, 2018 11:44AM
By Shane Monaghan
Haaland would surprisingly (and luckily) walk away from the incident almost completely unscathed. But the mishap drove home advice he got from his coaches a few years earlier: Despite what he may think about the straightforward nature of hitting lug nuts into a race car, it would take him at least three years to see everything he might possibly experience as a pit crew member in the wild world of racing.
Eleven years later, it is now Haaland’s job to impart such wisdom as a pit crew coach for Team Penske. His journey toward becoming one of the best coaches in NASCAR began long before he met the front end of Kasey Kahne’s car, though. It took root during his time playing goalie for the University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey team in the early 2000s. Around that time, his burgeoning interest in racing—and a fortuitous relationship with the Mavericks’ team psychologist—would eventually lead him to trade his professional goalie ambitions for a full-time job changing tires.
Haaland grew up playing hockey in Minot, North Dakota. After progressing through the youth ranks and graduating high school, Haaland played for multiple teams in the United States Hockey League, the country’s premier junior hockey league.
UNO would eventually ask him to join their squad beginning with the 1999 season. Haaland redshirted his freshman year and played behind eventual NHL star Dan Ellis for much of his career with the Mavericks. “My claim to fame in my college hockey career was that on a few occasions coach thought we had a better chance of winning with me in the net, instead of Dan,” Haaland says.
Despite the sparse playing time, one of the most consequential relationships in Haaland’s life developed while at UNO. Jack Stark—a longtime performance psychologist for many Nebraska-area teams, including the Nebraska football program and Creighton basketball—served in a similar capacity for the Mavericks at the time. Stark immediately noticed something special in Haaland.
“I was impressed with how hard he worked and his ability to control his emotions while playing the mentally exhausting goalie position,” Stark says. “I also always thought he was just the nicest kid.”
Other than Haaland’s good nature, the pair also bonded over Stark’s new project—serving as a psychologist for NASCAR drivers and the pit crew teams at Hendrick Motorsports.
Haaland saw his first NASCAR race while visiting his older brother Blair in California during the summer of 2001. “I thought this is loud, and it was actually kind of boring just watching the cars go round and round,” says the former Maverick goalie. “But I saw the cars go down pit road, the athletes jump over the wall and change the tires so quickly, and I thought that part was awesome.”
Stark would make sure that Haaland got to see just how awesome being a pit crew member could be. Shortly after Haaland’s graduation, Stark—thinking the flexibility and mental toughness that made Haaland a good goalie would translate to changing tires—helped get him get a tryout with the Hendrick Motorsports team. Haaland would make the team as a tire changer in 2004, but he worked mostly in a backup role for the racing behemoth’s most notable cars.
He did, however, come to see that there are few more intense settings in sports than pit road at a NASCAR race. Amidst roaring engines and zooming cars, a missed lug nut or a slow fueling job could cost a car 10 to 20 spots as pit crews battle to beat other teams by just hundredths of a second.
Out of a desire to perfect the razor-thin margin associated with pit stops and to hopefully have a long career in the sport, Haaland eventually accepted the job as a pit crew coach for Team Penske.
“He’s become one of the best coaches in the sport,” Stark says. “He could go to any team he wants. Penske is lucky to have him.”
Hockey is still a part of Haaland’s life as well. For the past 10 years, he has been a goalie coach in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. He sees 30 to 35 goalies a week and some of them come from as far as Augusta, Georgia.
But whether he is mentoring former Division I athletes trying to make NASCAR pit crews or young goalies, he constantly draws on advice from the litany of incredible coaches he learned from during his time in Omaha—including Stark, who remains one his closest confidants.
Haaland owns and operates Old School Goal School, a goalie camp in Charlotte, North Carolina. Visit oldschoolgoalschool.com for more information.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.