There’s never been a time in his life that Mike Metcalf, 35, wasn’t an athlete.
He grew up playing sports. He played football at Appalachian State University and, right after graduation, went straight from the field to the track when he joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a member of Kyle Larson’s (No. 42) NASCAR pit crew. For 13 years, he’s been the team’s fueler, a.k.a. Gas Man.
“The fueler carries a 95-pound fuel can on his right shoulder,” Metcalf explained. “You’ve got to get the can hooked up while the car’s still moving. You’ve got to hit a moving target.”
And the clock is ticking. A five-member pit crew is expected to change four tires, add a full tank of fuel, wipe the grill and make any needed adjustments to the car. The fastest pit crews can make the magic happen in 12 seconds.
NASCAR pit crews are made up of athletes – a number of them, like Metcalf, who were college standouts. Being in peak physical condition is a job prerequisite.
So, when Metcalf jumped for a rebound in a December 2017 pick-up basketball game at the gym – the one he’s gone to since middle school – and heard something snap, he knew it would impact not just his lifestyle – but also his job. It was his right knee, which he’d injured before as a college football player.
“I hobbled to the parking lot,” he said. “What I didn’t know is that a patella tear makes your quad muscles useless. My knee gave out, and I fell over completely.” Someone saw it happen and rushed to Metcalf’s aid.
As it happens, Novant Health cares for the Chip Ganassi NASCAR racing teams, based in Concord, North Carolina. Dr. Marcus Cook, an orthopedic surgeon at Novant Health, confirmed the torn patellar tendon in his knee and operated the next day.
“I knew I wouldn’t be at the first race of the season in Daytona,” Metcalf said. “I haven’t missed a race in about 12 years, so the thought of missing one was pretty surreal.”
He did miss the February season start as well as the next five races. But he was back in action at a race in Dallas in April.
"Mike rehabbed great, partly because he started with so much muscle," Cook said. "It takes three months post-surgery for the injury to heal. But it takes much longer than that — six months to a year — to get back to where you had been."
Metcalf is used to doing things in a hurry. And healing from an injury (not to mention surgery) can’t be rushed. The guy who’s used to doing his job in seconds now needed to allow time to regain his strength.
Daryl Palmer, Metcalf’s physical therapist at one of two Charlotte-area Novant Health Sports & Performance Medicine powered by EXOS facilities, said Metcalf is a compliant, hard-working patient. (The fact that he was already in excellent physical shape made his recovery easier.) “The surgeon had to reattach the patella tendon to the bone,” Palmer explained. “There’s a strict protocol after surgery. You have to wear a brace and ease back into normal activities. The initial phases of therapy are designed to promote healing. Later, we focus on strength.”
“It takes six months of rehab to get back to feeling 90 percent,” Metcalf said. “But it takes another six months to get that last 10 percent.” It involves physical therapy, following doctor's orders and plenty of patience.
And Stephanie Nenebor, the Novant Health athletic trainer embedded with the Chip Ganassi teams, is there on a daily basis, helping Metcalf stay on track with his rehab and supporting him and the entire team during practices and on race day.
The process has made Metcalf, whose job demands speed, appreciate that, sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race.
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to get world-class care for your sports-related needs. Download our guide on common sports-related injuries.