Editor's note: This article was first published in the June 1-14 issue of The Trucker newspaper on stands now.
While NASCAR Sprint Cup series drivers Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski and Nationwide series driver Sam Hornish Jr. had a rough weekend of racing at Talladega Superspeedway, Ala., in May, all getting involved in some sort of wreck and losing championship points, it was one of the few times their hauler drivers could say they were the points leaders for the week.
All three of the athletes’ hauler drivers snagged the top three spots in the second leg of five in the annual Freightliner Trucks Run Smart Hauler Challenge: First, Bob “Pork Chop” Hannigan; second Mike “Bama” Williams; and third, Larry “Joe” Allen.
Held since 2006, the challenge puts hauler drivers center stage to show off their driving skills in a series of driving courses that include tasks from backing up to parallel parking with only inches to spare.
“[Hauler drivers] are the unsung heroes of NASCAR,” said Stacey Premo, Freightliner Trucks Motorsports marketing manager. “Of course we want the best drivers hauling the cars and to be able to acknowledge and reward those drivers.”
Any hauler driver can participate and this year, a little more than 40 drivers kicked the competition off in Las Vegas. The road courses, set up by JHE Production Group, are set up at the racetracks where the racecar drivers are racing for the weekend. Talladega is the only time the course is set up on an infield parking lot. The top 32 hauler drivers from Las Vegas moved onto Talladega, where 16 went on to compete in Charlotte, N.C. on May 23rd. The top three from each round get paid: $1,000 for first place; $500 for second; and $250 for third.
The final round takes place again in Charlotte in October, with the top four receiving prizes: $7,000 for first; $5,000 for second; $3,000 for third; and $1,000 for fourth. The overall fan-voted favorite driver on also receives $500, Premo said.
“The last one’s very tough,” said Jeff “Rooster” Craven, hauler driver for Richard Childress Racing for Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, No. 31. “I’ve only been there once.”
On a rainy, 40-something degree day at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, May 4th, at Talladega Superspeedway, people like Bill “Stump” Lewis, were navigating a road course with a 2008 Freightliner Classic XL (which all competitors used) while the NASCAR Nationwide drivers were in limbo on whether or not they would even get behind the wheel of a racecar because of the weather
Stump joked, saying he would talk to The Trucker, right after he got done “knocking down all these cones.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t too far off. It wasn’t Stump’s best round, placing only 21st. Stump, who drives for Michael Waltrip in the No. 56 car, scored 150 out of a possible 250 total points, after knocking over some cones throughout the 5 minutes and 19 seconds running the course. However, the two-time past champion was far from “all torqued up about it and nervous,” the way he said other drivers get about the challenge.
“It’s a fun thing … but I’ve won” in the past, Stump said.
Though Stump was knocked out, fans are able to vote their favorite hauler driver back into the competition after each leg at freightlinerhaulerchallenge.com, Premo said.
This former long-haul trucker who became a NASCAR hauler in 1995 and ran team up until this year with his wife Cindy, can at least say it’s not his worst finish at the competition.
“Two years ago, Stump backed into a fence and ripped the fence. He got disqualified,” Premo laughed.
“It just proves champions have bad days,” added Terry Hodges, JHE senior manager of special projects.
Despite his low finish, Stump’s day was just getting started, prepping the hauler and Waltrip’s racecar for the next day’s Sprint Cup race.
“Everybody thinks you just haul the truck to the track and you get to sit and watch the race, but … it ain’t like that,” Stump said. “We do everything.”
Out of the 16 hauler drivers moving on to Charlotte from Talladega, 11 drive Freightliners, the official hauler of NASCAR for the past seven years. Premo said the company sponsors six teams: Hendrick Motorsports; Joe Gibbs Racing; JTG Dougherty Racing; Michael Waltrip Racing; Penske Racing; and Richard Childress Racing. Freightliner also represents the JHE Production Group and Motor Racing Network (MRN) Radio.
There are five driving skills tested, laid out with a path of orange cones, that generally include things like back-ups, tight U-turns and parallel parking, said Dale “Groundhog” Lackey, with JTG Racing and hauler driver for Sprint Cup Series driver Bobby Labonte No. 47.
“Each zone is worth 50 points,” Lackey said. “If you hit a cone, it’s zero.”
Lackey didn’t realize he’d one day be testing his driving skills against other hauler drivers, but this former trucker since 1983 did know he’d eventually be affiliated with NASCAR.
“I was always a fan of NASCAR,” Lackey said. “Dad used to take me to the races and when I was 15 years old, I told him my dream was to drive a hauler.”
In 2005 that dream became a reality. However, what really laid the foundation of being a NASCAR hauler was his time as a trucker.
“It helped a bunch, driving a truck over-the-road,” Lackey said. “A lot of truck drivers think we just drive the hauler, but that’s only 10 percent of the job. We help the crew out; some of us even help with the mechanics on the car on Sunday … We cook for them.”
With the hauler challenge, Lackey stays on top of his game, despite this round only finishing 13 with a score of 190.
“Usually the pull-throughs I do better on. It challenges your driving skills and gives you bragging rights with other drivers,” Lackey said. “Overall, the whole course helps you pay attention to your surroundings.”
The hauler driver endures not only a rigorous schedule, but is an ambassador for the team, often giving out souvenirs to fans at the track and on the roadways.
“They tell you, ‘I’ve been chasing you for 50 to 60 miles,’” Rooster said. “Some say, ‘We like to see the trucks more than the cars.’”
As Greg Sorber, hauler driver for Joey Logano’s No. 22 car, can personally attest to, NASCAR fans are “crazy.” Typically, hauler drivers are more than happy to hand out team souvenirs like hats and such, but Sorber remembered the weirdest request from a woman who had stepped up on his truck, despite telling her he was out of memorabilia.
“She said, ‘Well, give me the sheets off of your bed then,’” Sorber said. “I said, ‘I need those.’ She said, ‘Give me something.’ So I handed her a water bottle.”
Sorber said he was a finalist in the hauler driver challenge in 2010. This year, he was fourth, scoring 240 points.
“Between the spots on my glasses and the mirrors and windows,” driving in the rain made the competition tough, Sorber said. “They never make it easy on us. They want us to earn it.”
While it’s a fun competition, Sorber said it’s also beneficial.
“Every time you get behind the wheel whether it’s five miles down the road or 500 miles, there’s always learning,” Sorber said. “Any kind of seat time behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle is a learning experience.”
“Bama”– who hails from Alabama – got a perfect 250 score within 7 minutes and two seconds. Williams isn’t new to placing in the top tier, as one of two hauler drivers for last year’s Sprint Cup Series Champion Brad Keselowski in the No. 2.
“It’s a good feeling because everyone that comes into this sport, that’s the ultimate goal,” Bama said of being a part of a championship team.
A former trucker and hauler driver for 15 years, Bama said he also gets behind the wheel of a racecar every now and then for charity, but he’s never raced against Keselowski.
“I think he’s too scared,” Bama said of Keselowski. “They don’t want to get outrun by a truck driver.”
A good ribbing is all in good fun for Bama and other haulers, who tend to have close relationships with the racecar drivers.
“We spend more time out here with the drivers and crew than with our own families,” Rooster said. “My relationship with Jeff [Burton], he’s a racer, just a good old boy from South Boston [Virginia].”
Stump said he’s friends with Waltrip and the others with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization.
“Michael is just crazier than hell,” Stump said. “They’re all good guys.”
Sorber, a hauler driver for 16 years, said drivers like Hornish and Logano, whose fathers own trucking companies, tend to be a little more understanding. However, it’s not always a perfect match, he said, describing his two years with Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch as “painful.”
Ultimately, the Freightliner Runsmart Hauler Challenge is a combination of bragging rights, recognition and the thrill of victory for the behind-the-scenes heroes.
“When you come to the track, everyone is so focused on the race cars, so we’d like to say we’re part of it; it’s our own little competition,” Sorber said. “This is our little race.”
For more information on the challenge and to download the smartphone app to play along on the Hauler Challenge: Journey to Homestead game, visit freightlinerhaulerchallenge.com.
For a video of Stump completing part of the course at Talladega, check out The Trucker Facebook page.
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