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Lanier Tech graduate helps Johnson win NASCAR title
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Lanier Tech graduate Kenneth Purcell looks on during a Sprint Cup race this season. Purcell is a member of Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew. - photo by For The Times

Eight years ago, Lowe’s Racing Team pit crew member and former Lanier Technical College student Kenneth Purcell wasn’t even a fan of NASCAR.

Now, in his first full season with the team, he’s celebrating alongside driver Jimmie Johnson and the rest of his crew after winning their third straight Sprint Cup championship with the conclusion of the 2008 season on Sunday.

“It still hasn’t set in yet,” Purcell said. “But that’s the goal (to win a championship) and it happened.”
On race day, Purcell is the team’s “jack,” where his responsibilities include lifting the car so new tires can be changed on pit road. What makes his job exciting is that he is the first crew member on the car when it stops, and all his teammates follow behind him.

“There’s a little bit of adrenaline when you’re the first guy out there,” he said. “Especially if there’s a lot of cars around you.”

Purcell, 26, is also active with the team during the week, serving as a mechanic. With such a demanding job that requires extensive knowledge of racing and automotive technology, one would think it would take a die-hard, life-long racing fan to handle the rigors of being on a racing team.

But that’s not how it happened for Purcell.

Before attending Lanier Tech, he was going to college in his hometown Savannah and was working at a veterinarian’s office. He had never been exposed to anything related to motorsports until he started working with his friends at a dirt track in town.

“I wasn’t really interested in school in Savannah, so I decided to check (the dirt track) out,” he said. “It turned out to be a pretty good idea.”

It was during his time at the track that Purcell found out about Lanier Tech. Wanting to expand his career in motorsports, he entered Lanier Tech’s Motorsports Vehicle Technology program from 2002-2004.

After Lanier Tech, he worked for several smaller racing teams before attending the Five-Off Five-On pit training school in Mooresville, N.C., where he learned how to maintain cars as part of a pit crew.

Following pit training school, he tried out for the Lowe’s Racing Team and joined Johnson’s race-day crew last August.

“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” said Bud Hughes, director of Lanier Tech’s Motorsports Vehicle Technology Program and one of Purcell’s former teachers. “He’s a really soft-spoken, quiet guy, so it’s hard to believe he’s the first of the wall (in the pit).”

Purcell isn’t the only Lanier Tech student to work on Sprint Cup cars. Hughes estimates about 45 graduates of the program are now working in the NASCAR circuit.

But Purcell is the only one that can say he was part of a Sprint Cup championship-winning team.

“I’m pretty fortunate this all happened,” Purcell said. “I’ve had a lot of good opportunities on my way.”

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