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Elon alum on NASCAR team pulls driver from fiery car

Eric Ludwig '10 has drawn praise for his quick action during a recent NASCAR Sprint Cup race. But the pit crew member and former Elon football player has responded with humility.

Eric Ludwig '10 (center, blue uniform) helps driver Reed Sorenson from his burning race car during the NASCAR Sprint Cup race on April 26, 2014. (Image from FOX Sports/NASCAR)

In Eric Ludwig’s line of work, every second matters.

The 2010 Elon graduate and former nose tackle on the Phoenix football team is a jackman in NASCAR's top two racing series. That means he’s the person on a driver’s crew responsible for hoisting a race car into the air during pit stops so other team members can change the tires. Even fractions of a second determine whether Ludwig’s driver gains or loses positions on pit road – something that can easily mean the difference between a trip to Victory Lane and going home in second place.

Ordinarily, he serves as jackman for Chase Elliott's No. 9 car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Justin Allgaier's No. 51 entry in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

But during the recent Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, Ludwig was filling in for an injured jackman on Kasey Kahne's No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports. And that night, his most important race against the clock had nothing to do with getting Kahne out of the pits and back onto the track. Instead, it was making sure a driver on an entirely different team got out of his burning race car without getting hurt.

Just past the race’s halfway point, driver Reed Sorenson’s Chevrolet SS blew a right-front tire. The damage from the blowout sparked a fire in the car’s engine compartment that quickly spread. Soon enough, the entire race car was engulfed in flames.

As smoke and fire filled his cockpit, Sorenson tried to drive back to his pit stall. The car stopped short, though, and wound up on pit road near where Ludwig and his team were stationed.

“Our crew chief came over the [team] radio and told us to help Reed if we could,” Ludwig says.

So the Burlington, N.C. native ran to Sorenson’s aid, and with the help of a NASCAR official he pulled the driver out of the car before emergency workers could arrive with fire extinguishers.

“He was kind of panicking a little bit,” Ludwig says of Sorenson. The driver’s seat belts and a safety harness called a HANS device kept getting stuck, so he was having a hard time getting out of the burning car by himself.

For his heroics, Ludwig received an on-air “atta boy” on the national FOX Sports broadcast from play-by-play man Mike Joy. Racing-related blogs and social media accounts quickly offered accolades. And Ludwig says that in the days that followed, friends and family members have been overwhelming him with texts and Facebook posts commending him for his actions.

Even Pete Lembo, who was Ludwig’s head football coach at Elon at the time he played for the Phoenix, tweeted his admiration. “Very proud of Eric Ludwig, a former player of ours @elonphoenix,” Lembo wrote. “He saved a @NASCAR driver from a burning car [Saturday]. Eric defines toughness!”

Ludwig has been doing his best to shrug off the attention.

“[The reaction] was a little more surprising than I thought it would be,” he says. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. It happens. People I know tell me they’re proud of me, but it’s all the same to me.”

Many of those who have saluted Ludwig have focused on the fact he was willing to help a competitor from another team. But he says that’s just what you do when someone’s in trouble.

“I don’t actually know Reed Sorenson, but anybody would’ve done it. … If somebody needs help, they need help,” Ludwig says. “In racing, our community is only so big.”

Despite not knowing Sorenson, Ludwig received a text message from the driver the day after the race.

“He told me he really appreciated it and that he owed me a dinner,” Ludwig says. “But I told him he didn’t.”

Philip Jones,
5/1/2014 11:35 AM