He Gave Up Football for NASCAR. Then He Changed the Sport.
CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR had never seen anyone quite like him.
Dion Williams had left behind football, with teammates from all over the country, for the racing track in North Carolina, where some of his fellow pit-crew members had not traveled outside the state except for races in far-flung Southern cities. It felt simultaneously strange and familiar.
“I hate to use this word, but I was a very good code-switcher and I had to be then because I did come in this sport a little rough around the edges,” said Williams, who goes by the nickname Rocko. “I did come in very Atlanta, very ATL, shawty. I was tattooed up. I was a lot bigger. I was very flamboyant, and I was very confident in my actions.”
He was also Black in a sport in which the Confederate flag still flew at some races. He wore Air Jordans on his feet and blasted hip-hop from his headphones. He was an athlete, but he was stepping into a role traditionally filled by mechanics.
Over a lifetime that had taken him from Germany to Georgia to the fringes of the N.F.L., Williams was used to adapting. But NASCAR had come into the picture when both he and the sport were looking to change. Now, nearly 20 years later, Williams’s imprint is all over the sport through dozens of minority pit-crew members whom he helped bring in and a fresh perspective on who belongs in NASCAR.
“Rock was an innovator with his style,” said Richie Williams, a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League who became a jackman for the former NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray. “The way he carried tires, the aggression, and he made it look easy.”
The journey, though, wasn’t that simple.
Williams grew up near a military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his parents, Elmer and Ylonda Williams, served in the U.S. Army. He said he could not remember meeting any other Black children who also spoke English. When he was around 10 years old, Williams and his mother moved to the Atlanta suburb Stone Mountain, nestled underneath the country’s largest Confederate monument. Now, he couldn’t find any other Black children who spoke German.
His father remained overseas and frequently sent Williams the latest sneakers months before they debuted in the United States. The shoes were conversation starters, a type of social currency that afforded him some status among his peers as he adjusted to learning about local cultural touchstones like the N.F.L.’s Falcons and hip-hop’s Outkast.
Williams’s parents divorced, and his mother began dating a man who was a Black Panther and taught him about the civil rights movement. His mother also enrolled him in a Black youth organization that taught him about the principles of Kwanzaa and being proud of his race.
“I didn’t like going,” Williams said. “It was like going to church. But then you started loving it because you started learning.”
Without his father nearby, Williams turned to football for male bonding. As a senior at Lakeside High School, he was named DeKalb County’s defensive player of the year. He accepted a scholarship to play for Wake Forest University, becoming the first in his family to attend college. That’s when he got the nickname Rocko.
As part of freshman hazing, Williams’s teammates shaved his head. Someone said he looked like Rocko, the cartoon wallaby in the Nickelodeon series “Rocko’s Modern Life.” The name stuck.
While he got used to being called Rocko, Williams drifted away from football.
He started as a heat-seeking-missile type of linebacker at Wake Forest for two seasons and estimated he sustained a few undocumented concussions. After college, he learned enough in training camp with the Minnesota Vikings — “Hi and bye,” he described the experience — to know his future in the sport would be bleak and brief.
He said he never loved football. He performed off pure instinct, talented enough to succeed without digesting the game’s complexities.
“I wasn’t anything special,” Williams said. He added: “Yes, to the civilian that might have been cool. But in the N.F.L., you a dime a dozen, so where’s the fun in that?”
When a Wake Forest athletics staffer suggested he train for NASCAR, which was looking for athletes to join pit crews, he dismissed the idea but then reconsidered. He was still in his athletic prime, after all. He thought: What else am I going to do?
Weeks later, Williams moved near Charlotte, N.C., and met Phil Horton, a pit-crew development specialist who had been a strength coach for the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks. Horton needed athletes — stronger and faster pit-crew members to implement a new strategy for changing tires faster. They would take one purposeful step while suspending the tire in the air, move forward and throw it on. Another racing crew introduced the idea a few years earlier, and a pit crew coach had asked Horton to try it, too.
“One guy hurt his back,” Horton said. “One guy blew out his knee. The other one hurt his shoulder.”
But Williams, muscled up from playing football, was ready. He was also brash and cocky. Horton was ready for that.
“A pain, but I’d already seen his type,” Horton said.
Horton, who is Black, grew up in Lenoir, N.C., entranced by the sport in the late 1960s. “It was blue collar,” he said. “It was redneck. We didn’t go, but we were still fans.”
He listened on the radio, rooting for crashes and Wendell Scott, the first Black person to win a race in NASCAR’s premier series. Horton hired Williams to practice putting on tires for a couple of hours a day. Williams stayed for much longer.
“I saw my competition,” Williams said. “I saw the mechanics that I was going against who were doing this and getting paid to do this. And then, I saw how easy it was for me to pick up this tire and do it. I automatically thought I was better than all of them there. I just had to learn how to do it.”
During his first Cup Series team race, the 2005 Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway, his adrenaline surged when the driver Sterling Marlin approached the pit stop.
Everything happened in a blur. Right side. Tires on. Flawless. Left side. Tires on. Marlin drove off only to have a wheel shoot out and sparks fly from the car two stalls later.
“That one mistake,” Williams learned, “could end that race or you could be the hero.”
He settled in as a pit-crew member — he was part of 16 NASCAR Cup Series wins — but fully feeling at home in the sport took time.
In 2014, Williams was laughing and joking with other pit-crew members in a van on their way to a fishing trip on the Great East Lake New Hampshire when, he said, he heard a white crew member casually use a racist slur for Black people. His ears perked up. His body tensed.
He wasn’t sure if the person was just repeating what he had heard others say or if he was trying to get a reaction from him. But a line had been crossed. Williams stared at the man; he wanted him to know he had heard what he said.
That night in his hotel room, Williams pulled out a small notebook to jot down his thoughts as he had done since college. He wrote about the ride, the word, the nonverbal exchange. He owes me one, Williams ended the entry.
In recent years, NASCAR has tried broadening its devoted but mostly white fan base. It banned the Confederate flag in 2020 after the driver Bubba Wallace, who is Black, spoke against it. Michael Jordan, who is Black, co-owns a NASCAR team, 23XI Racing. The rapper Pitbull, who is Cuban American, started a new team, Trackhouse Racing, with Daniel Suárez, who is Mexican, as a driver.
Many point to Williams as a pioneer in efforts to diversify pit crews. Around 55 graduates of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program work for pit crews. Nearly half have ascended to the NASCAR Cup Series level.
Williams, who served as a pit-crew member for Kyle Petty, Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott, retired in 2016 and is now the program’s national recruiter. He manages NY Racing Team, owned by John Cohen, who is Black, and he hopes to go into broadcasting.
The sport, Williams said, has evolved. “I’ve had the personality to just weather those storms a little bit better,” Williams said. “I have thicker skin than most.”