Beats from the music overhead are thumping and iron is pumping inside the weight room at Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville one recent weekday morning.
Denny Hamlin’s pit crew was out behind the complex, perfecting the 10-second art of changing tires and gassing a race car, while Kyle Busch’s crew took its turn in the weight room, building up the strength required to compete at NASCAR’s highest levels.
In the midst of it all the machismo, Ashley Muschiatti stands out. A performance specialist and dietitian for Novant Health Sports Performance Huntersville, she is a member of Novant Health’s team of six medical, training and coaching specialists contracted to work with Joe Gibbs Racing.
She works primarily with pit crew athletes, both on the “first team” and in the developmental squad – less experienced athletes vying to make their way onto a Joe Gibbs Racing House Car Pit Crew.
Muschiatti, 26, is the only female in NASCAR doing both strength coaching and nutrition work. As she works her way around the weight room, sanitizing equipment and preparing weights for the next circuit, she stops to chat with pit crew members about their eating habits.
“You can’t expect a car to run well when it’s low on gas,” she says to Lee Cunningham, a rear tire changer for Kyle Busch’s team, encouraging him to eat breakfast.
She has an ease around the guys that comes from being the daughter of a Delaware high school football coach and a former track athlete at Appalachian State University (ASU). Muschiatti is 5-foot-10½ and can squat 325 pounds. She threw the discus, shot and hammer at ASU. She looks perfectly comfortable as a spotter on the bench press for Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ grandson, winner of three NASCAR Xfinity Series races already this season.
“She’s awesome,” said Gibbs, 19, who first got to know Muschiatti as a dietitian and has been working out with her while his usual strength coach recovers from knee surgery. “She works really hard. She does a great job. I feel like I’ve gained a lot from working out with her. It’s been fun.”
Muschiatti had already led Gibbs through box jumps, sled pushes and core work with a medicine ball. But he was making his biggest headway on the bench press. Muschiatti, who preaches “control down and punch up,” while offering words of encouragement, added weight between sets while Gibbs recovered.
Gibbs didn’t know how much was on the bar when he pushed through his final set. He needed a bit of a right turn – “wrong way” joked one of the pit crew guys – to push the bar back onto the safety catches, with an assist from Muschiatti.
A few moments later, after he’d gotten up, Muschiatti told him: “195.”
Gibbs' eyes widened. That was five more pounds than his target weight.
“So close,” he said, not giving himself full credit because of the wobble.
“It was all you,” she said.
Muschiatti has been in and around weight rooms since she was 7 years old, when she would trail her father, Mike Muschiatti, then an assistant coach at Caravel Academy in Bear, Delaware, to his early morning workouts with his football players. She and her younger sister Kelly would match him wearing T-shirts that said “Mike’s Morning Morons” and whistles around their necks.
Get the sports medicine care you deserve.
As she grew up and became an athlete herself, she had the option of taking a two-hour bus ride to school or going to work out in the gym with her dad and then being dropped off at school.
“Working out went from being a chore to being a passion,” she said.
Muschiatti played volleyball and starred in track, earning a Division I scholarship and winning a bronze medal at a Sun Belt Conference Indoor Championship Meet in weight throw.
Her competitive nature carried over into public gyms too, around men.
“I'll just go up to maybe a squat rack, and I'll see what someone's doing next to me and work my way up to (that weight,)” Muschiatti said. “And then I see them go up, and then I go up, and then they go up, and then I go up. Then it usually ends up with one of us leaving.” When Muschiatti visited Rutgers during her recruitment for track and field, she saw a female college strength coach for the first time.
“I didn’t know this could be a job,” she said. “I can get paid to wear sweatpants all day? And work with athletes? And be a female doing it? It was like a light bulb went off.”
Throughout college, as she worked toward degrees in exercise science, nutrition and Spanish, Muschiatti landed valuable internships. She worked with men’s and women’s basketball players at Clemson, Olympic sports athletes at UNC Chapel Hill and varying men’s sports at the University of Delaware and Delaware State.
She had to prove herself at every stop. While working with college wrestlers, her advice was ignored, but the same advice from a male coach was heeded. She finally got the wrestlers’ attention one day by setting an example in the weight room.
One of the wrestlers had put 225 pounds on the bench press before deciding the bar was too low. He was about to pull the plates off the bar to make it easier to raise the safety bar catchers. Muschiatti told him he didn’t have to – and showed him how.
“I got under the bar, squatted it up from a really low position, and I said ‘OK, now fix the hooks,’” Muschiatti said. “I squatted it back down and racked it. I turned back and the entire team had seen it.”
‘Depth of expertise’
By the time she began working at Joe Gibbs Racing in February of 2021, first as a strength coach, and then as a dietitian, Muschiatti said she didn’t feel like she had to prove herself.
She earned athletes’ trust, first by advising them on healthy eating habits. She would catch them while she put out protein bars, shake powders and a rainbow of snack choices, as they came and went from pit practice or in and out of the training room. And as she started doing more strength training, she took advantage of encounters in the weight room too.
“These guys are anywhere from (age) 21 to 42,” Muschiatti said. “A majority of them have kids, wives – lives outside of the sport. I don't know if that played a role maturity-wise and in trusting me and my position, but (the transition) was actually pretty easy.”
She has been free to focus on their needs, on what the demands are on a rear tire changer versus the jack man, or what level of strength and stamina is demanded of the gas man. And she’s thriving.
“She’s done a tremendous job,” said Will Hayes, program director for Novant Health Sports Performance in Huntersville. “She has brought a depth of expertise for us, not just from being a college athlete, but working at some big-time institutions like the University of North Carolina and Clemson. Then also becoming a dietitian and being able to blend those two levels of expertise. There just aren't a lot of people really across the country that have both those backgrounds. We feel really lucky to have her.”
Pit crew choreography?
While Muschiatti has been busy earning NASCAR athletes’ respect, she’s also been in awe of all they have to master.
“I’ve learned that like what you see on TV (with pit crews) is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “There's so much more detail and precision and choreography behind it all, like if a car comes in a certain way, the choreography changes a little bit. The first time they said ‘choreography’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You're not dancers. What do you mean choreography?’ I've learned a lot.”
Muschiatti and the Novant Health team at Joe Gibbs don’t normally travel to races on the weekends, but when NASCAR made a stop in Dover, Delaware, in April, Muschiatti made the trip. She invited her dad to come and watch from pit road with VIP passes.
“It's amazing,” said Mike Muschiatti, who’s out of coaching now and living in Middletown, Delaware. “I just can't stop telling people what she does. I’m very proud. She has worked really hard at it…I get a call every day about how things went and how she loves that job.”
It takes a team
Ashley Muschiatti is just one part of the Novant Health Sports Performance program in Huntersville, which caters to both individual athletes and teams in the greater Charlotte area.
The program includes three full-time coaches, Muschiatti (strength coach/dietitian) and three part-time staffers.
Novant Health contracts out its services to two NASCAR teams – Joe Gibbs Racing and Trackhouse Racing – as well as club sports teams like SwimMAC Carolina, Mecklenburg Swim Association, Charlotte Independence Youth Soccer Club, Carolina Union Volleyball Club and more.
“There are many other hospital systems who are pursuing a sports performance model,” said Will Hayes, performance manager for Novant Health Sports Performance. “We operate on a similar size and scale to other large markets. I am proud of the program we have developed and the impact we have made for our professional and community partners.”
They work with patients rehabilitating from orthopedic operations, but Hayes said when the program was first developed in 2015, it was because they saw a need with club, professional and high school sports, looking for help to improve their strength and agility in general.
“There's a nice gap there that we fit right into,” Hayes said.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Novant Health Team
Lindsay Jones and Jordan Ritchie, athletic trainers
Jordan McLean, performance specialist (strength coach)
Ashley Muschiatti, sports dietitian and performance specialist