It’s easy to get lost in the superstars behind the helmets, which is why thousands of men and women working countless hours behind the scenes are often overlooked across NASCAR. Although far and few between, motorsports aficionados who hail from Arizona are playing some of the most pivotal roles within the sport.
Tucson’s John Gianninoto (right) had a brief stop in the NFL before transitioning to motor sports. He soon earned the “fastest fueler in the world” title by Guinness World Records after he fueled 148 cars in one-hour at a Sunoco station in Queens, New York. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PHOENIX – A Guinness Book of World Records holder. A clothing brand owner. A 24-year-old living the dream. These are a few of the titles highlighting NASCAR crew members representing Arizona.
Since NASCAR’s inception in 1948, perceptions have led many to believe organized stock car racing isn’t a sport. Sport, by definition, is an individual or team-wide execution of competition and camaraderie among athletes. Admittedly, it’s easy to get lost in the superstars behind the helmets, which is why the hundreds of men and women working countless hours behind the scenes are often overlooked across the sanctioning body.
The reality is the drivers who compete on the track are a direct representation of the hard work and dedication put in by the crew members. Without them, NASCAR wouldn’t be possible. Engineers, mechanics and area-specific specialists are just a few of the job titles in the vast departments of stock car racing. While these unrecognized talents mainly reside in the shops in North Carolina, they come from different parts of the globe.
Although far and few between, motorsports aficionados hailing from the Grand Canyon state are playing some of the most pivotal roles within NASCAR. These three have advanced to the playoffs in their respective series, with one out-dueling the rest and having a shot at hoisting the Bill France Cup come Sunday in their return to Phoenix Raceway.
For Phoenix native Dylan Cappello, a career in racing had been a dream deeply embedded in his heart from a young age. The Northern Arizona University alum would race quarter-midgets in the parking lot at Phoenix Raceway and even secured one of the first victories of his career there. As he grew older, the hunt for funding became increasingly difficult and he had to put down the driving helmet in exchange for a degree in mechanical engineering.
“Growing up racing, it was always my dream to keep racing and eventually getting to NASCAR was my goal,” Cappello told Cronkite News. “Second best, in my opinion, was to go to school, get an engineering degree and move out here (North Carolina) to see it from the other side.”
In 2017, Cappello took a chance and traveled to the Tar Heel state, where we would go on to intern at Stewart-Haas Racing. After making countless connections, a friend put in a good word for him and he received a call from David Gilliland, 21-year NASCAR veteran who offered him a job as a race engineer at Front Row Motorsports.
“I got the opportunity to come out here and kind of jumped on it in February two days before the season started and never looked back. It’s been an awesome experience,” Cappello said. “It was a big risk, but I’m glad that I did it, because I love what I’m doing here. It’s a huge thrill going to the track each weekend. There’s a lot of problem solving and stuff that takes part in the shop and you kind of lay it on the line each weekend. It’s a lot of fun.”
As a race engineer, Cappello works closely with the crew chief and other members of the team to prepare the No. 38 truck for race day. He also builds trucks with simulator software with help from Ford Performance and thoroughly inspects equipment after the race to find areas of improvement. This all gives him the chance to apply knowledge he attained throughout years of schooling as it pertains to aerodynamics, machining parts and setting up the trucks, among many other things.
In a profession where precision and perfection is everything, 2020 proved to be particularly stressful for him.
When COVID-19 struck and abolished the typical customs of practice and qualifying, it forced teams to prepare race-ready cars immediately, because what you unload off the hauler is what you’ve got to start the race. This was challenging for the new engineer as he joined the team days before the season and had no prior notes to work off from last year, due to new rules packages.
At 24, Cappello has exceeded expectations masterfully and was able to help guide the No. 38 team of Todd Gilliland to a playoff berth in his first year as a race engineer in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. It’s safe to say that his dream has been achieved and the young Phoenix native has a bright career in the sport for years to come.
Born and raised in Tucson, John Gianninoto makes a strong case for one of the most illustrious and enticing journeys from Arizona to NASCAR. Hailing from a large Italian family who’d been in the restaurant industry for 25 years, he jokes that many years of being well fed prepared him to be an offensive lineman for the Catalina Foothills High football team and later at UNLV.
Following success as the starting center for the UNLV Rebels, Gionninoto was signed as a free agent by the Carolina Panthers. After he was cut from Carolina’s final roster, he tried to prolong his football career in the United Football League, until Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crew coach, Chris Burkey, caught a glimpse of the six-foot-three lineman and wanted to test his athleticism.
Gianninoto landed a role as both a jackman and gasman on the infamous No. 24 NASCAR Cup Series team as part of Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crew developmental training. Almost nine years later, he solidified himself as an integral part of Chase Elliott’s No. 9 team.
The Tucson native has gone from shoulder pads to strapping on his fire suit and displaying his athletic prowess each weekend at the track. There aren’t many differences between the positions, he said.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Gianninoto revealed. “The number one thing is the athleticism. Pit stops rely heavily on how well you can move, how quick your feet are and all that stuff really related to football. If you’re a defensive end, you know how quickly you can get around somebody — that’s the jackman; how quickly can you get around the car, good footwork, keeping a strong base and it’s a short burst of speed. You have to always be on your game and make sure you’re mentally prepared.”
Since making the transition to gasman over the last three years, “Gio,” as he’s called by his teammates, has become a popular figure among the prestigious organization owned by Rick Hendrick because of his skill and character. Most notably, Gianninoto was given the title “fastest fueler in the world,” by Guinness World Records after he fueled 148 cars in one-hour at a Sunoco station in Queens, New York.
It’s a fair assessment to say the gasman for Hendrick Motorsports has proven his ability to perform under pressure, which is why Gionninoto was a perfect fit for the No. 9 team. Chase Elliott has not missed the playoffs since racing full time in the Cup Series, and as a young driver on a fast ascension to superstardom, he needs only the best talent around him in order to become Champion someday.
“I’ve always looked at pressure as a privilege,” Gianninoto said. “When you’re in that position and you make it to the playoffs, a lot of people wish they could be in the playoffs, so that’s something you have to use to drive yourself and go ahead and compete to the highest of your abilities.”
While the task at hand hasn’t changed, the emphasis on winning the series title has been heightened to new levels for Gianninoto in 2020. On Nov. 8, a new champion will be crowned in the Valley of the Sun for the first time in NASCAR history, just hours from where he grew up.
“That’s kind of a dream come true right there — to compete for a championship in front of your hometown and home crowd,” Gianninoto said. “It would mean everything [to win the Championship at Phoenix]. That’s where we want to be, that’s where we believe we should be and knowing that it’s a track where we have a pretty good record, we just have to show up and compete. We’re looking forward to it and that would be the cherry on top of it all that it’s at Phoenix in my hometown, if we can go out there and get that Championship.”
The Tucson native will have the chance to achieve that dream after his driver, Elliott, won his way into the Championship 4 following a dominant performance at Martinsville Speedway.
For Glendale native Michael Madill, his journey to working full time in NASCAR is deeply ingrained in his family’s love for racing. After moving to Arizona from Colorado at a young age, Madill grew up watching his uncle race street stock cars and spent his Sunday mornings watching NASCAR races with his grandfather.
After graduating from Cactus High in 2006, Madill attended the Universal Technical Institute for two years. In 2008, he decided to take the next step toward working in professional racing and transferred to the NASCAR Technical Institute.
When Madill was 19, he landed a job through a friend at a transmission shop for NASCAR teams in North Carolina. Madill got his first job working on a NASCAR Cup Series team in 2011 when he was hired by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Fast forward nine years, and Madill is winding down his 12th season in the sport and third as the rear suspension mechanic for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team of William Byron. Although Byron is not competing for a championship this season, Madill is looking forward to NASCAR hosting its championship race in Phoenix in November.
“I love going to Phoenix. I get to spend time with family and friends when I’m not at the track, so that’s always a plus,” Madill said.
Although he’s a huge racing fan, Madill revealed that he never attended a NASCAR race at Phoenix Raceway until he was a freshman in high school, but he is very impressed by the track’s latest renovations.
“I think for the Phoenix fans, that place packs out every year and it’s so cool to see, because just the way the garage area is now, I get to see a lot of people that I’ve known just from racing out there years ago,” Madill said.
This past March during a practice session in Phoenix, he saw a kid in one of the newly-renovated garages wearing a William Byron jacket and a hat with a logo that looked very familiar. After further examination, Madill deemed it was a Cactus High Cobras hat.
“I think I totally made this kid’s day, because I told him I went to high school there and graduated back in ‘06,” Madill said. “You never know who you’re going to come across in the garage and especially when you go home. You get to see a lot of familiar faces and stuff like that. Everyone wants to say ‘Hi’ and cheer for you, it’s pretty cool — and we’ve got a lot of William Byron fans out there.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down racing across the country, Madill turned to his passion for T-shirt design and his personal clothing brand to get him through it.
“During the offseason, I spent a lot of time drawing up some T-shirts and stuff, and during COVID I had actually printed my first batch of shirts,” Madill said. “There’re so many people — especially the drivers — who do their shirts separate from their cars and what not, and this was kind of more to give back to the mechanics.”
Madill named his clothing company the Filthy Mechanic Clothing Company, playing off how the mechanic is usually the filthiest person in the garage.
“It’s been a new adventure for me, like a little side hustle of learning marketing and stuff like that,” Madill said. “You don’t see a lot of guys behind the scenes grinding it out all the time …You take your car to get fixed, but you’re only talking to the white-collared guy at the front of the service station, versus the guy that’s actually getting greasy and working on the car. That was kind of my thought process with it.”
After spending his whole childhood around racing, Madill is right where he wants to be. What started as a dream for Madill has become his everyday reality and he is hoping he can inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
“Don’t let the distance of the country hold you back from chasing what you want,” Madill said. “If you’re a true racer and you want to chase that, don’t let that hold you back. That’s all I needed was somebody to just come say you can be a professional race mechanic and travel the country. If that’s your passion, then go after it.”