FROM CHASING TO RACING: Former ASU walk-on to Life in the Fast Lane

From chasing on the football field to racing on the track, hometown athlete Kellen Mills has pivoted his athletic abilities to a whole new career. Mills, who was once an All-State fullback for Mesa Mountain View High School and standout defensive end for Arizona State, traded in his shoulder pads for a firesuit.

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Though his pitstop to motor sports was an unexpected one, his athletic background and drive in the weight room is unquestionably what propelled him. Mills played a variety of roles for the Toros, ranging from fullback to center to tight end. During that time, he developed a passion for Olympic weightlifting, and unbeknownst to him, would
later lift him to his next chapter.

Kellen Mills (No. 85) while at ASU. Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing.

While at ASU, Mills found his calling as defensive end and played a vital role for the
Sun Devils defense. Joe Kenn, ASU’s strength coach, took notice of the 6-foot-3 Mills, who
was not only gifted athletically but ahead of his time in the weight room. Following his tenure at ASU, Kenn assumed the same role for the Carolina Panthers while simultaneously building connections with those involved with motor sports. Kenn introduced Mills to the idea of racing. However, talks were halted as Mills embarked on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Once back, he took on construction. That’s when he received the call that would change
his life. “It was, like, the end of the day, I think on a Thursday, and I got a phone call: ‘Oh, here we go,’” Mills recalled. He was presented the opportunity to once again try out, only this time for a NASCAR pit crew in North Carolina.

Once he got his affairs in order, Mills flew cross-country and began taking practice reps for no pay before attending pit school in the evenings. His accent would quickly accelerate as he transitioned from backup pit members in IndyCar racing to full-time pit school. He later switched to NASCAR, where he was a gasman for Team Penske. Still wanting to climb the ranks as a pit crew member, he switched Team Joe Gibbs in 2019. Gibbs, an NFL and NASCAR Hall of Famer, was well aware of Mills’ aspirations to become a Jack man and allowed him the liberty. Since switching and taking on a leadership role in pit lane, Mills’ group has ranked among the best in NASCAR. But his success has been all in the preparation, and Mills drew the uncanny connections between powerlifting
and operations in the pit lane.

Kellen Mills, with jack in hand, preps for his next stop. Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kellen Mills with the No. 11 crew after Denny Hamlin secured the win at Phoenix Raceway in November of 2019. Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing.

“The mental approach, the gauging of intensity, all that kind of stuff, I think really
aligns very well to pitting race cars,” he said. “You have a lot of downtime, but when the
moment comes, you have just a slight window of time to prepare; then it’s your time to go
execute. You need to go out and you need to have a very high output but very accurate
performance. And I believe the two of them actually have a lot of carryovers that I don’t
think many people realize.

“Even just the level of analysis that we’d have going into a film session, let’s say from
football and Olympic lifting, like “Sit there and both record or list your record practice, and
they’re just like sitting down and saying, ‘Okay, there’s time there. There’s time there. There’s improvement to be had there’…watching stops like, ‘Okay, I could cut that a little tighter,’ or ‘I don’t see why he’s doing that.’”

Mills’ past has been crucial to his success in the pit lane, and his life appears to be going
as fast as the cars he services. From gas-man to jack-man, Mills now leads one of the best teams in the NASCAR Cup Series. The East Valley native made his return for the Phoenix Raceway, where his team, under Erik Jones, placed 31st.

Mills still resides in Arizona with his wife and two children.



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