Sunday, April 6, 2008

One on One with Kurt Busch

Finally, as promised, here are some of my thoughts about the time I spent with Kurt Busch during the last three races of 2007. Just so we are clear, I didn’t start out a big fan of Kurt’s. Not that I didn’t like him, I just never paid much attention one way or another, but Kurt and his crew won me over quickly. Not only were they awesome hosts, but I finally really watched him race and he can wheel a racecar with the best of them.

Kurt made an effort to spend one on one time with me every race weekend and included me in as many other appearances as he could. As many of you know, I did get to "officially" interview Kurt for the video FOXSports shot at the Phoenix race as well as ask him “on the record” questions in the media center. I also had the opportunity to interview him after hours at the Penske Racing Museum event announcing Sam Hornish, Jr. I was able to be out on the track when he arrived at the Miller Lite Dodge after driver introductions each weekend and lined up with his crew during the National Anthem. I got a bird’s eye view from atop his pit box during the Texas race and watched the other races from his pit area. I toured his hauler, talked with his mother, and shadowed his crew. I truly had all-access!

The first time I met Kurt was before Qualifying at Texas. I was led into the hauler all the way to the front room where Kurt was hanging out watching the Atlanta race. I was told I had about 5 minutes with him and wasn’t sure to what to expect given he had just drawn the first qualifying position and I knew he wasn’t thrilled with that.

I was pretty nervous meeting a NASCAR Champion and felt uncomfortable starting off a 3 week “relationship” by sticking my new digital recorder in between us and taking notes. I fell back on my skills as a psychologist and went into “interview” mode to calm myself down. I knew Kurt had attended the University of Arizona, my alma mater as well, so I started there. Kurt was there a few years after I was but we knew several of the same haunts. From there, we talked about playing Corn hole ( ), which I read about in his blog (being from Ohio, I come from a long line of Corn hole players). Kurt laughed when I challenged him to a game and we tried to figure out how to get a Corn hole set to the Miami track where there was plenty of room to play. We never did get in a game…but by then our conversation was rolling.

I never did turn on my digital recorder nor did I ever take notes when met with Kurt alone. One of the first things that struck me was how guarded all of the drivers were around the media, and Kurt was no different. Once he learned about the contest AND he saw he wasn’t “on record” with me, those 5 minutes turned quickly into 20 minutes. He spoke freely and was open about racing and his personal life. Every single time I figured I would only have a few minutes with him and every time I got a lot more time than I had ever hoped. As a result, I don’t have a perfect record of our time together, but I had a meaningful exchange with him.

Here are a few things that I observed and found interesting as well as a “hot tip” right off the presses…

  • Kurt is just as disappointed with the race (TV) coverage just as we are. Primarily because they don’t show any of the racing further back in the field and he knew what he was doing at the time (passing a lot of cars on the way to the front). He said he didn’t notice much about the pre-race or actual coverage because they always watch with the sound off. Hmmm, sound familiar?

  • Kurt was very careful with his choice of words when asked about the COT, the rules or NASCAR’s decisions, suggesting to me that NASCAR keeps their drivers on a tight rein. It will be interesting to see if NASCAR’s newfound idea to let them show “personality” will also apply to their opinions about NASCAR itself. For the record, I don’t think Kurt was a big fan of the COT at the time…but that’s just my gut talking.

  • Image really does count for a lot. It seems Kurt has to work twice as hard and be twice as careful as some of the other drivers because of things that have happened in the past. He has definitely had some negative press in the past, but when you think about it, who hasn’t. Consider this...after Texas there was a big “to-do” about how he spoke to his spotter during the race, which resulted in him and his spotter doing interviews on camera the following week explaining how they are great friends from childhood, which allows them to speak that way to each other and forget it. Now, doesn’t Dale Jr “get into it” with his crew chief all the time? Yet, when he does it, it is seen as funny, “family”, and part of his charm. Kurt was frowned upon for doing the same thing I know there are a few other drivers who get the negative spin in a neutral situation. I can’t imagine how frustrating that is.

  • Kurt is funny! Check him out on MadTV…he has some great one-liners. He is really making an effort to meet and be available to his fans. He is looking to do more fan friendly media, even maybe “Cribs” to show off his new home in North Carolina and give us a peek into his personal side. Many of you know he is one of the only Cup drivers to sign autographs nearly every Sunday before the race at his merchandise hauler. It really is very impressive given his crazy media/PR schedule each weekend. Give him a chance and you might be surprised at who he really is.

  • Kurt’s team is on the rise. With Pat Tryson’s solid leadership, Kurt’s considerable driving talents, a young, capable crew, and Mr. Penske’s unwavering confidence in Kurt and his ample resources, they will be the class of the Dodges and fighting for the Championship. Being able to watch them so closely AND compare them to others in the garages, it was obvious this team has chemistry. You heard it here first…

  • And hot off the presses! If you’d like to make a little money off Kurt…The Palms in Las Vegas just announced today it will have a special “Battle of the Beers” betting line between Miller Lite and Budweiser. You can bet the results of the entire season, (the current line is that Kurt will finish 8.5 positions ahead of Kasey), or you can bet whether Miller or Bud will finish best each race. For all the details, go here:

I am happy to expand on any of my experiences with Kurt or answer any questions you have about him or his team. For folks who haven’t been around in the off season, continue reading my blog for more on my experiences in the garages. Thanks for reading!

Peek Inside the Miller Lite Hauler

NASCAR is a funny sport. While it is one of the most fan friendly sports - how many NFL or NBA players can you get an autograph from just hours before the game?- there are still many secret areas where few fans get to take a glimpse.

One such area is the home away from home for all NASCAR teams: The team hauler.

We have all seen these massive haulers lined up only feet apart on the infield of each track. Outside their shiny reflective doors,we have seen many driver interviews, but rarely do we ever get a glimpse inside.

On race weekends, the haulers are lined up according to the current points standings and as you can see, they are parked within 5 feet of each other. Cindy and 'Stump' drive the hauler for No. 2 Miller Lite team of Kurt Busch. They tend to arrive to the track on Thursday and leave as soon as they are able on Sunday evening. Usually most races are within a two-day drive, so they will get home by Tuesday and leave again on Wednesday. However, some times during the season (like following the Texas fall race this year), they wait on a second hauler to bring them another car and on Monday they switch out the cars and equipment and travel directly to the next event without heading home. Along with their driving responsibilities, Cindy and 'Stump' (as well as the majority of other hauler drivers) are also responsible for getting all the food and drinks for the crew (hello Costco!) and keeping the uniforms about multitasking!

A few facts to take note of: Your typical NASCAR team hauler measures 72 feet in length, with the trailer itself being 53 feet. They hold a 150 gallon fuel tank on each side. Which comes in handy as they get a horrific 5.3 miles per gallon! As noted above, most teams have two haulers and two sets of drivers. Taking into account the sheer size of the haulers, the most impressive fact is that 'Stump' is able to BACK out of that parking spot and not hit anything! Not surprisingly, he and Cindy teamed up to win the 2007 Freightliner Run Smart Hauler Challenge, a contest that pits hauler drivers against one another in a test of skill and control. Congrats to them!

Each team usually has tires and equipment lined up outside their hauler, as well as some chairs, sometimes a barbecue and the all important drink cooler. The tailgate flips up and becomes a "lift" literally that lowers the primary car from the top of the hauler down to the ground. You can also see the ladders that go from the ground to the tailgate and from the tailgate to the roof of the hauler. There are usually several computers up there for the crew to monitor the cars during practice, qualifying, and the race.

Above is Pat Tryson (crew chief), Roger Penske (in white), and Brian (team engineer) watching practice at Homestead. I was lucky enough to sit up there for a short while watching the Busch race in Texas. I was 5 feet away from Richard Childress on the next hauler over and had quite a view!

Cindy was kind enough to lead us on a hauler tour.p>

Entering the sliding mirrored doors, you have a long hallway flanked on either side with cabinets. Immediately upon entering is the "kitchen" where Cindy usually has snacks and lunch set up for the guys.

On the left are the cabinets for the crew. Each team member has a "locker" where they store their uniforms, helmets for pit road, radios etc. The counter on the left behind Cindy is a work area:

Across the aisle from this area is the shock dyno and spring rate machines. In this picture, the crew had put a shock in the dyno to demonstrate how it works for me. The machine that does the spring rates is the yellow one in the back. These machines are both hooked up to computers to the right that analyze the data. The shock dyno moves the shock up and down incredibly fast, mimicking race conditions.

Of course, the shocks:

and springs:

are kept nearby in a cabinet, neatly organized and individually labeled. Luke, the shock specialist for the No. 2 team, said organization is the biggest key to being able to quickly and correctly set up the car at the track. The cabinets all along the aisle hold every conceivable piece and part for the car from tiniest screws to a complete engine, organized in a mannar so that each piece can be found quickly if needed on race weekends.

At the end of the long hallway in the hauler, there is a ladder and roof hatch that leads up to where the cars are kept. Of course, I had to crawl up there to get a peek at the back up car.

My nose and the car's nose were practically touching!

As you might remember from one of my articles, the team is not allowed to touch the back up car without a NASCAR official present and it is NASCAR, not the teams who decide if the back up car is to be used.

Back down the ladder and around the corner is the the entrance to the front room. Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of this room so let me describe it. Two sides of the room are made up by a huge leather wrap around couch (this is where I first met Kurt and Pat). The other side has a desk with several computers set up. Across from the couch are the TVs mostly tuned (no sound) to the race coverage and football. This is the room where Kurt and the crew hang out and eat lunch if they are not outside. It is also where they hold team meetings, catch a nap, and work (PR releases, analzying data etc.) The entire hauler has speakers that are tuned to the team radio's so you can hear what is going on anytime Kurt is in the car.

Looking back down the aisle, you can see Luke heading to the shock dyno (and the food) and Bill cleaning Kurt's helmet.

It is a pretty tight squeeze down the aisle, especially when you get 10 or more crew guys in there! Also, notice how easy it is to see out the mirrored doors...keep that in mind if you ever get to the garages, they can see you fixing your hair and doing anything else silly! (as I learned from personal experience...) Hope you enjoyed this sneak peek!

Meet the Miller Lite Racing Crew

NASCAR owners, drivers, crew chiefs, and over the wall guys get 99% of the media coverage on race weekends. I found a group of guys essential to the race team’s success who are rarely known by even the biggest fans. The mechanics and shop guys responsible for setting up the race cars are the unsung heroes on race weekend.

I had the honor of meeting the #2 Dodge Miller Lite crew. They took me under their collective wings to show me the ropes in the garage. Let me introduce you to them! Their fearless leader is crew chief, Pat Tryson who has only been with the team since June but is already very popular with the guys and clearly returned the team to its winning form.

To protect the rest of them from oodles of fan mail they will likely get as a result of this blog, I won’t reveal their last names…Second in command is the car chief, Corey T., who is responsible for everything on the car until it rolls off on race day. Specifically, he is in charge of the front-end suspension. Brian is the team engineer and “data” guy. Darin is in charge of tuning the engine. Luke is the shock specialist. Steve’s domain is the rear suspension. Bill looks after the interior, as he says laughing “I do windows” and also takes care of keeping Kurt’s helmet clean.

“Stretch”, aka Eric, tends to the fuel cell. Corey is the tire guy all race weekend and is helped by Ron. There were also one or two fabricator guys each weekend in charge of the body and has spare front ends, fenders, etc in case bad things happened on the track. Other notables include Cindy and ‘Stump’ who are in charge of the hauler and seem to play the role of “team parents” all weekend, Jesse the spotter, and Paul who drives Kurt’s motor coach.

These guys have a very hectic life. They travel to the races Thursdays through Sundays every race weekend and work in the shop during the week. On race weekend they don’t rest until the car is pushed out onto the starting grid and then they work in the pits! Their day starts early on Friday setting the car up for qualifying practice and getting the car through inspection. They usually practice about a half an hour in qualifying trim and then switch the car over to race trim which takes about 10 minutes to do.

There are three NASCAR inspection area’s (Fuel/Engine, Templates and Scales) the team must clear every time. The crew then pushes the car (they are ALWAYS pushing the car) out to their qualifying spot on pit road. If Kurt qualifies in the top three that day, they have to remain with the car as it goes through post qualifying inspection. After qualifying, they have until the garage closes to work on changing the car over to race set up for practice on Saturday.

Saturday, there are two practice sessions usually separated by at least an hour. They have the car set to go in race trim first thing in the morning and again have to pass through all the inspection areas. Most of the crew climbed high a top the hauler to watch Kurt’s laps and discuss on the team radio what changes needed to be made. Some of them stay out on pit lane to check tire wear. They would climb down and run across to the garage to make those changes and then head back up top the hauler

They have about an hour to adjust on the car before “Happy Hour” begins, which is the final practice before the race. During Happy Hour, the intensity is obvious. The crew works at a frantic pace as Kurt comes in and off the track to fine tune the adjustments. It takes them just minutes to make the changes and get Kurt back out on the track. When Happy Hour is just about to finish they had Kurt cut the engine and coast/be pushed into the Sunoco station which enabled them to check the spark plugs and establish their fuel mileage for the race.

When Happy Hour ends, the crew has about two and a half hours to tear down the car and build it back up again. They move swiftly and expertly as they tend to their specific areas of the car. Every crew member has a checklist of parts that they personally need to inspect before the garage closes.

Steve crawls under the car like a cat as he drains the oil and takes apart the rear axle and rear gear looking for wear. If there is any concern of wear on any of the parts, the crew will replace it with a new one. There was no visable wear on the axle so he repacked it.

All I see of Bill is his backside as he is bent over inside drivers window checking the dash and getting that interior clean! “Stretch” is inspecting the fuel cell and making sure the hoses are tied down well and all the air bubbles are out of the lines. Corey and Darin have their heads under the hood checking off the extensive engine checklist. Luke has removed the rear shocks and has to take them over to NASCAR who will hold them until Sunday morning when they pass through inspection. NASCAR does this so teams cannot tamper with the shocks.

The crew informs me they try to get as much done today before NASCAR closes the garage so they can be one of the first through inspection tomorrow, making their race day a lot less hectic. When NASCAR closes the garage, of course this team toasts themselves with an ice cold Miller Lite at the hauler.

As promised the Miller Lite crew was one of the first cars through inspection on race day. Luke assured me they had the rear shocks back in the car. After the car was cleared on the scales they pushed it immediately out to their starting spot for the race. We usually see the cars hooked up to equipment on pit road. The crew said that was to get the oil up to temperature before the race and they usually turned it on about one hour before race time. Finally, the crew has some down time. They hang out at the hauler eating lunch, prepared by Cindy and resting up for their duties on pit road. I took Luke and Brian up on their offer to demonstrate the shock dyno to me and show me their work space in the hauler. Their research and knowledge base is quite impressive, as is their organization. (I will post another blog about the hauler and its contents.)

Most of the over the wall guys are also around helping on Sunday. They are responsible for setting up the pit box and getting all of the equipment out onto pit road. As race time approaches, the crew changes into their pit road uniforms which are more protective and fire resistant. Cindy heads up to the grandstands to be the team’s official scorer. Corey T. heads out to watch over the car on the track along with Corey who is checking tire pressures. At this point, Corey T. hands off responsibility of the car to Pat Tryson and Kurt.

After the crews line up for the National anthem, they get to work organizing their pit box and warming up to help during the pit stops. Brian climbs up on the pit box and is ready to collect and analyze the data based on the information they obtain throughout the race. Steve dons fire protective gear and is ready to go over the wall as the catch can man. He makes a great team with his son, Chris, who is the gas man. Luke and Stretch will be catching tires. Bill’s job is to make fuel runs pulling a gas wagon that holds 3 gas cans to the Sunoco station.

Corey is in charge of making air pressure changes. He also uses a blow torch to melt away the rubber build up from the track so they can accurately assess the tire wear. Ron stacks the used tires and removes them from the pit box. Watching these guys in motion along with the over the wall guys is like watching a well oiled machine. They are under tremendous pressure during the stops but the great chemistry on this team keeps them smiling even under pressure.

If Kurt wins the race or finishes in the top three they will stay after and tear down the car under the close scrutiny of NASCAR. This adds another 2 hours to their night, but after a win, no one complains! Most of the pit box is empty by the closing laps of the race if Kurt is not in contention for the win. Back at the hauler, Cindy and Stump have most of the equipment packed and the hauler is now full to the gills.

If they are not picked to be inspected, the crew finishes up packing their equipment and the race car and heads to the airport as quickly as they possibly can to enjoy their only well earned day off.

I would like to personally thank each and every one of the Miller Lite Crew for taking time during their very busy work days to give me a rare glimpse into their world. NASCAR would be nothing without these guys!