During the 2009 NASCAR season I made it to forty Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events with Joe Gibbs Racing. This meant giving fans unparalleled access to the garage, pit road, the haulers, the motorhome lot, and especially Victory Lane! I have been a dedicated follower and fan NASCAR for over twelve years, so I know a thing or two about the sport. There were a few things, however, that surprised me about being on the road with the best team in the business. I think you’ll enjoy this glimpse into life on the traveling NASCAR-circus.
The One-Day Show
On a typical race weekend the transporters carrying the race cars arrive to the track on the Thursday (and sometimes the Wednesday) before the big race. The A-team is next to arrive and usually includes drivers, crew chiefs, engineers, mechanics, specialists, and public relations personnel. They usually fly in on the evening before the first practice begins and have been preparing their notes and a game plan for the weekend ahead. The A-team and the truck drivers obviously spend a lot of time on the road, in hotels, and away from families (though JGR does a good job of respecting and being mindful of an employee’s family-time). Every member of the A-team has an important job when it comes to winning the race on Saturday or Sunday and though I shouldn’t be surprised, I must say that I had no idea about the level of talent, professionalism, and dedication it takes from each member of the team in order to win a race, much less a championship. My hat goes off to them. The same goes to our Nationwide teams.
For the over-the-wall crew members, pit crew coaches, sponsor representatives, executives, scorers, and myself, race days begin early. We are the B-team. Joe Gibbs Racing operates two turbo-prop airplanes that seat roughly 40 people each. Any race from the Mid-West to the East-Coast means one of those planes is waiting for the B-team on race morning, bright and early. Some flights leave as early as 4:00 am, others around 5:00am. Of course, the good thing about a private plane is the absence of a long line and wait. You can show up 5-minutes before take-off (if you don’t care about a good seat). But don’t be late! The plane will wait for you, but you’ll probably be met with a sarcastic applause as you board. We follow strict TSA guidelines, but check-in amounts to a walk onto the tarmac and an identity check. Our friendly stewardesses, skilled pilots, and expert mechanics, give us the peace of mind to catch a few Z’s after we find our seat on the plane. The typical non-West-Coast flight takes 2 to 3 hours, with Bristol taking only 45 minutes or so. We drive to Charlotte, Darlington, and Martinsville.
When we land, a flock of warmed-up Toyota rental cars are waiting for us on the tarmac.
The Mad Rush
After the race our two planes are warmed up and ready to fly as soon as every last man and woman is on board. What you might not know, and what I didn’t know about, was the mad rush that every team makes after the race in order to get the race cars packed up and their behinds in a plane seat. Think about it, if you’re on the team, you’ve either been at the race track for three or four days or you woke up before the rooster and have had a long day of racing. Needless to say, you’re looking forward to the comfort of your own bed. It’s not simply a matter of beating another crew member to the plane or getting the perfect seat; it’s a race to circumvent the traffic after the race. The last thing you want is to be sitting in two to three hours of traffic after a day or weekend of hard work.
Thankfully, we have some experienced navigators on our team (Sprint Navigation on our phones not withstanding). Dirt roads, gravel roads, roads that aren’t roads, are all fair game when it comes to missing traffic and making it back to the airport. Most airports are a 15-30 minute drive from the track. Some are closer, some are a lot farther. If one of our cars wins or finishes in the top-5 it means an extended inspection and
tear-down process. This also means that the second plane could potentially be sitting for a bit longer than the first one was. Didn’t make it onto the first one? Tough-luck bub.
The drivers either charter a plane or have their own and they are in just as much of a rush. The exception being Joey Logano, who flies with us on the turbo-props. A team of motorhome drivers will either spend the night and leave the next morning or wait for traffic to die down and then head to the next track.
When we get to the plane, we are happy to find dinner waiting for us. We usually land back in Concord anywhere from 10pm – 1 or 2 am. Watching the races on TV or listening on the radio left me with no clue about the massive amount of planning it takes to make each weekend run smoothly for the teams – and that’s in addition to actually trying to win the race!
Speaking of traveling, I got the chance to fly to Richmond for Denny Hamlin’s Late Model Race for Charity (www.dennyhamlinfoundation.org). Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch were all entered in the race. What surprised me the most was the hands-on dedication of Kyle Busch, who had his own late model team and crew there with him. Kyle was under the car, under the hood, making adjustments, wielding a wrench or two, and ultimately drove his car to victory that night. In the past I had overlooked Kyle, but watching him work on the car and win that night made me a fan. It didn’t matter if he was racing to win money or racing to donate money, Kyle made sure he was in a position to win the race – and he did.