Race roadies run, wrench, babysit. NASCAR fans may not see how instrumental truckers are to a race, but drivers like Clint Bowyer and NASCAR officials do.
BRISTOL, Tenn. – The roar of 39 NASCAR Monster Series racecars tops more than 140 decibels as the green flag drops.
Clint Bowyer, driving the No. 14 Peak Lighting Ford, takes off with the field, starting in 20th position. What lies ahead on this mid-August day at the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway is an intense 500 laps around the half-mile short track. All with the hopes of surviving the chaos of 15-second laps, dodging crashes left and right for a good finish.
What many people don’t realize, or think about, is what happens before the race. Or just how instrumental in fielding a competitive race team truckers are.
What you don’t know
Brian Bohlander, director of sports and event marketing with Old World Industries, manufacturers of Peak Antifreeze and Blue DEF, to mention a few products, knows a few things about the behind-the-scenes action at NASCAR events. Old World Industry Peak brands sponsor Clint Bowyer.
“The average fan doesn’t think about the logistics of setting up a NASCAR race from both the series and team perspective. If anyone misses their part in the timeline, the show doesn’t go on,” said Bohlander.
“There is no room for mechanical failures, whether it’s a NASCAR race or a delivery to a local distribution center. Old World Industries strives to make best-in-class products, including Final Charge Heavy Duty Coolant and BlueDEF Diesel Exhaust Fluid that are instrumental in keeping trucks on the road.”
That close connection to both racing and trucking isn’t lost on Bohlander, or the teams competing in the NASCAR events.
“The race teams we partner with, including Stewart-Haas Racing, have close to a dozen transporters. They are owner-operator fleets and have the same challenges as any owner-operator. From the perspective of the everyday trucker, they really are all alike. It’s just the car haulers have greater visibility than a trucker bumping docks delivering everything we need in our everyday lives. No one is truly more important than the other.”
Those sentiments resonate, even with drivers like Bowyer.
A close connection
If there’s a quiet spot around The Last Great Colosseum in Bristol, Tenn., it’s in the lot for the racecar drivers’ motorcoaches.
In the hours before the green flag dropped at the Bristol night race, Bowyer sits casually outside his motor coach signing caps.
As much as he is ready to talk about the race and his life as a NASCAR driver, he is quick to connect to truckers. And it’s not just lip service. Bowyer has spent his fair share of time in and around the trucking industry.
“Clint Bowyer is not only a top driver but a great ambassador for our products. He’s down to earth and grew up in the towing business, so he connects with our core market – in this case, owner-operators,” Bohlander said. “He understands them on a personal level, making it a natural fit.”
“I spent my whole upbringing, you know, helping people in need,” Bowyer said of his time working with his father’s towing service in Emporia, Kan. “I cannot believe it, because I spent my whole life in and out of service centers, you know, with a truck on the back of a hook.
“Now, every aspect that it takes to make my world go around and get to the racetrack (relies on trucks). If you look at those haulers, everything you see put on display tonight came in a truck. That really brings me full circle.”
Having been on the service end of trucking, Bowyer knows the challenges car hauler drivers conquer every race.
“What it takes to keep trucks on the road, and successfully be there from point A to point B – it just blows my mind, everything and how it goes and how it’s orchestrated to get all this stuff that we see on any given Sunday to and from that track,” he said.
It’s not just the to and from the track that Bowyer gives his truck drivers credit for.
“Everybody in the garage area will tell you this: our truck drivers are the hardest-working guys in this show. They’re the hardest-working guys on any given weekend anywhere in the country,” he said. “I mean, you think about the hours that are put in when we go to Fontana, Calif., to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Sonoma.
“When they get there, they don’t just crawl back in the sleeper and sleep for the weekend. They’re running gasoline to the guys. They’re making changes, making food for the guys. Preparation, cleaning, constant cleaning, you got to look good, baby,” Bowyer said. “You’ve got good-looking Peterbilts, got to keep them shined up and everything. Got to look good.”
Bowyer credits the truck drivers with doing everything anyone needs, including “babysitting all of us.”
“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said.
More than one race
To underscore how impressive the task of simply getting trucks in and out of Bristol’s infield, truckers must navigate up to a 28-degree banking in the corner where they enter.
Getting in is certainly easier than getting out according to Scott Robbins, driver of Aric Almirola’s Stewart-Haas No. 10 car hauler.
“It’s definitely a race after the race,” he said. “We want to get it loaded up as quick as we can so we can get out of here because we go back to the shop after every race except for the West Coast swing.
“We want to get on the road and get to the shop. The faster we get to the shop, the more time we have at home with our family, which is very limited. I get maybe a day and a half to two days home with my wife and kids. And sometimes, it’s not even that,” Robbins said.
So, in addition to scrambling to load the haulers and get in cue to leave Bristol, they must once again face the 28-degree bank, this time to get out of the infield.
“Bristol’s tough to get out of, it’s really tough. Because you’re going up over the turn three bank, basically up and out of the track.
“When you’re coming about here you’re looking at the grandstands. You’re not looking at any road or anything. You’re looking at the grandstands. Then all sudden you just transition over the hump,” Robbins said.
“If you’re not going fast enough, you’re going to wheel hop. Every truck driver out here knows that if you start wheel hopping, you better just stop because you’re going to tear the rear end out of the truck.”
Stopped at the top of the bank, what’s the next move? Back down and take another lap?
“No ma’am, you stop. You hold the brake, and they hook up to you, and they pull you the rest of the way out,” Robbins said.
The night before following the Xfinity race, six car haulers had to be towed out, Robbins said.
“You want to be in third gear, and you’re going to have your differential locked in, and you want to hold it right to the floor and just max it out,” Robbins said. “Eventually you’ll get out of here. Eventually, if you don’t get out on your own, you’re going to get out when they pull you out.”
In his 12 years of driving in and out of Bristol, Robbins admitted, somewhat sheepishly, to having been pulled out once.
“And, only once,” he grinned and said with emphasis.
More than a trucker
Robbins job doesn’t stop when he gets to the track. He’s pretty much on the go contributing in a variety of ways.
“I help out the crew as much as I can on the car. If there’s anything that they need me to do, I try to help out because it’s just one extra set of hands. I do a lot of running for keeping everything stocked, keeping everything pretty much rolling for them,” Robbins said.
No job is too big or small for Robbins while at the track. He sets up the observation deck for the engineers, keeps radios ready to go, you name it.
“You can ask anybody in the garage. We would never stop,” Robbins said.
As with most specialty gigs, Robbins said drivers of the car haulers are frequently viewed as having a swank job.
“The big thing is that you know, the guys out there that are running down the road, running freight and everything the country needs them,” Robbins said. “But they tell us we have a great job and a cush job.
“You know, driving our trucks is only about 10% of our job. I would love for them all to understand it’s not all glory and glam. We’re like the roadies of NASCAR, basically. I mean, when we park we set everything up, and then we tear it all down.”
What Robbins and the other car haulers do starts well before the race. And, in the grand scheme of a NASCAR race weekend, they are just one cog in the logistics wheel that someone must steer.
Enter Tim Bermann, senior director of logistics and event management for NASCAR.
“When I first got into this side of it, the boss basically gave me his little spiel of what the job is. And, it was ‘I’m paying you to make decisions. After you make a decision, ask yourself who needs to know you just made this decision and let him know,” Bermann said.
Decisions he makes. And a lot of them.
Bermann said there are basically two phases to his job. On the front side is advanced logistics. That involves a lot of entities and work that go into a track to prep for the race. He said advance notice is key to having a good relationship with the track and providing an entertaining race experience.
Before NASCAR even shows up, the track has set up the infrastructure of tents, rigging and the like, so when it comes time to set up for the race, people arriving on-site can go to work.
Once that is done, Bermann swaps hats and takes on another facet of his job, logistics coordinator for a fleet of trucks about to descend on the race track.
“I become a point of contact for Champion, who is essentially the trucking company that hauls a lot of the pit toolboxes, the tires and wheels for Goodyear, a lot of our equipment that we carry, and they basically run from track to track. There’s another whole crew that hauls our inspection equipment round that also fixes it,” Bermann said.
His job continues on through the ramp-up to race day, coordinating time for televisions crews to set up, the in-car camera teams, the timing and scoring officials, the Environmental Protection Agency to inspect fueling stations, basically anyone and everyone needing time to set up for their role in the race.
With so much information and logistics funneling through one individual, it would seem to be overwhelming. But Bermann explains, there’s a simple reason behind it.
“We don’t need 10 people with NASCAR calling a track for the same thing, because then they can’t operate efficiently. Then it becomes frustrating for them.
“So, one of our folks needs something, it can be trash cans, or we lost power pits. Well, that it goes through me to the track. It’s a legit deal. They can disperse the resources to rectify whatever the problem is. Something comes from me, and I know who it might affect. And I can let them know.”
As Bermann keeps a watchful eye over the logistics of setting up the race, he stays grounded in what it all means.
“What’s unique about the sport is you can be a recovery operator. But here, you’re a star. On the street, you’re an annoyance, so to speak. If you’re going to pick up a race car that’s been wrecked, you’re doing it in front of, potentially immediately right there, 20,000 to 25,000 people plus on camera. If you do that same thing, pick up a wrecked car on the street, you just closed traffic. You’re a jerk,” he said.
“So you get to use talents that you have in the real world, and it translates here. If you’re a truck driver with toolboxes rolling in, somebody is asking you to honk the horn. But if you’re backing into a loading dock and people are honking a horn, it’s just because you’re blocking their path while you’re trying to back a loading dock. Here, it’s like, ‘Hey we’re glad you’re here.’”
Bermann said it’s that sort of realization that keeps him loving the job.
“The reality is it’s there are times it’s just like a job, and it’s aggravating as all can be, but there are times where you pause,” he said. “I’m part of something really special, but I don’t do anything different than somebody who’s doing in a trucking company or running an arena.”
Beyond victory lane
Bowyer battled throughout the 500-lap race. Moving up from his No. 20 starting position to a seventh-place finish. No victory lane for him this warm August night in Bristol. Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag and cruised on over to victory lane for the big celebration.
Eventually, the champagne showers ended, the confetti settled. The car haulers are loaded up. Racecar drivers head to their helicopters or other expedited forms of departure. The car haulers? They head back to that 10% of the job that they do. Driving.
Robbins admits the favorite part of his job is winning. But, ranking right up there is his love for driving truck.
“Winning is my most favorite part of the job,” he said. “The other one is I just like getting in the truck and relaxing, driving the truck down the road and decompressing after the race and all that stuff,” he said.
“Getting out, getting on the road, and just listening to music. It’s one of the best parts. I’ve been doing this 12 years, and hopefully, I get a few more years.” LL