T.J. Semke almost wasn’t here on pit road, working as a jackman for Chase Elliott’s team in the NASCAR Cup Series. Instead, he might’ve been in the NFL as a defensive end.
During his junior year at Lee’s Summit (Mo.) North High, Semke fractured a vertebra, and was left with a fork in the road—keep playing and risk having surgery at an earlier age or step away from the game and have surgery later in his life. He competed during his senior year, even played in the Kansas–Missouri high school all-star game, before stepping away from the game. Semke didn’t know it at the time, but it was only a temporary hiatus.
In summer of 2011, 18-year-old Semke started working as a part-time bounty hunter with his mother’s boyfriend, Mike Ippolito. When Semke walked onto the University of Kansas football team during his sophomore year, his side hustle was put on hold so he could focus on football.
However, word got around that Semke was a former bounty hunter, and when he was given a scholarship in 2014, the head coach had one condition. “When I got my scholarship from Charlie Weis, he kind of told me, ‘Alright, I’m gonna give you a scholarship, but no more bounty hunting,’” Semke says. “I said, ‘I’ll take that deal all day, every day.’”
Semke had his eyes set on graduation and training for a shot at a pro football career. That is until the Hendrick Motorsports coaches (some of who are former football coaches) met with the Kansas football coaches at the Kansas Speedway for the race like they do once a year. Hendrick said they were looking for someone similar to Semke, and his coaches replied that they knew the perfect fit and would reach out. “They said, ‘Would you be interested in doing any of this NASCAR pit crew stuff if the NFL thing doesn’t work out?’” Semke says. “I’m like, ‘What is that? They get paid? Is this like a real job? What does that mean?’”
Growing up, Semke knew next to nothing about NASCAR. As he did more research into what it takes to be a part of a NASCAR pit crew, he realized they weren’t just mechanics. They were athletes.
Semke had already been training for his NFL Pro Day when he agreed to go to the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew combine during summer 2016. The timing worked out because it was soon after he went to the New Orleans Saints’ mini camp. Semke described the pit crew combine as a physical job interview. Close to 200 people tried out, all of whom faced a thorough examination by a doctor and an assessment by coaches on a variety of physical qualities like how fast they can run or how high they can jump.
Next was minicamp, and only roughly 35 people were called back. This time, tools were placed in their hands, and their knowledge of how to handle the equipment was tested. This part, Semke said, was harder for him.
“There’s little kids you’ll see run around with a football or playing baseball or playing catch with their dad but I’ve never seen a little kid running around with a jack in his hand, or run around with the air gun in his hand,” Semke says. “It’s something that you can’t really train for or practice for. As athletic as someone can be, it’s an unnatural job.”
From there, Semke and four other guys were brought onto the Hendrick Motorsports team.
It was the perfect environment for Semke because he was still competing and able to continue to improve his athleticism. Things moved fast during those few months, which worked out for Semke because he and his now-wife packed up and moved to North Carolina before his lease was up. He hadn’t signed anything before they packed up their three dogs and two cars.
He started working on lower budget cars in September 2016 to gain experience. Normally, it takes six months until they put the new members into a live race scenario; however, Semke was only there a month before he was thrown into the Xfinity racing scene.
“I’m not a racer,” Semke says. “No one told me that all the cars come down at one time. So I’m like sitting there, and I’m like, ‘Wait, which one is which one’s my car?’ No one told me this. And I thought it was gonna come one at a time or something. No, they all come rolling in.”
To make matters worse, his car was one of four red cars at Charlotte Motor Speedway that weekend. All made by the same company, all pitting right next to each other. “I jumped super late and it was just a terrible pitstop,” Semke said. “And that’s kind of when it kind of clicked in my head like, ‘Wow, this is really hard.’”
As terrible as that moment might have been, the coaches and crew chiefs started to notice how quickly Semke was learning and picking up the skill, and he ended up on Chase Elliott’s team quicker than most people, joining in 2018 when Elliott switched from No. 24 to No. 9.
“My first win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ 250th win, which was a big milestone,” Semke says. “It was also Chase Elliott’s first win in the Cup Series. So that was just all kind of one big cool moment.”
From that point on, Elliott and Semke have won and grown alongside each other. And Semke even had one of his biggest “uh-oh’s” while working for the No. 9 team at Talladega in 2019. It was the first pit stop, and the right side went really well. The left side, though, was a different story.
“I went to put on the left rear tire and I touched the jack handle just enough to where the car dropped with no tires on it and the left front tire was about halfway out,” Semke said. “So this beautiful car that they spent all week working on getting it all perfect I just destroyed the left front fender on it.
“That was one of those moments where I’m like, ‘Well, that’s the end of my career. I better go better go pack my things now.’”
Luckily for Semke, the No. 9 team won the race once the damage was fixed. However, he doesn’t get to live that moment down. When a driver wins a race, a small replica of the car is made. On the left fender of Elliott’s Little Caesar’s car, there is a big black piece of tape because of Semke.
Throughout the years, he’s learned how to rest and prioritize his body, adjusting to the long season that sharply contrasts a year of football. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and having to stay home during the off-period, Semke’s diet became cleaner, and he picked up YouTube workouts, losing close to 20 pounds.
“It definitely helped my body feel good because I’m not in there trying to squat 600 pounds or put all this weight on your shoulders and bench press as much as you can,” Semke says, admitting he first started doing these workouts with his wife because he had nothing else to do. The workouts consist of bodyweight exercises, focusing on flexibility and core stability.
“It’s kind of like a football player doing ballet or something that kind of seems silly,” Semke says, “but then you’re like this actually works.”
From afar, most people see Semke as a big guy with tattoos, but deep down, he’s a “quiet sweet guy from the Midwest.” At his core, this jackman is momma’s “baby boy.”
“My mom said, ‘Don’t do that football stuff. You’re gonna hurt your back and whatever,’” Semke said. “I said, ‘Okay, Mom, I’ll go do NASCAR and go play in traffic for a living and jump in front of cars. That seems a lot safer.’”