Editor's note: This article was first published in the July 1-14 issue of The Trucker newspaper on stands now.
When NASCAR fans sit down to watch the races on any given weekend, preparation is typically light — maybe grabbing a beer, a Coke, possibly a bag of chips, a couple hot dogs and settling in for the next few hours to cheer for their favorite driver.
All the while, NASCAR hauler drivers Chris "Pickle" Hamilton and Larry "Joe" Allen have been preparing for this moment for the past week.
"We sacrifice a lot, but we also get a lot out of it, especially when you run well," Hamilton said in an interview with The Trucker on a cold, rainy day at Talladega Superspeedway, Ala., May 4. "There are days when you’re at the track for 12, 14 hours, all day long. It’s a really long day if it’s hot, if it’s cold or like today it’s rainy, miserable. Then when you run well, like when we won at Las Vegas this year, third race of the year, it kind of makes it all worth it."
Hamilton and Allen, who drive for Penske Racing’s Nationwide Series racecar driver Sam Hornish Jr., sponsored by Alliance Truck Parts, both hauled freight before breaking into the racing circuit.
"It’s a lot better than being a freight driver like we used to be just because, I mean, we don’t make any more money than a freight driver does, but it’s just we get the convenience of being home a couple of days pretty much every week. And when we get to a place, we aren’t living in the truck, we’re at a hotel and so that’s worth the money; it’s like a benefit for us," said Hamilton, an Indiana native who resides with his wife and four "four-legged kids" (all rescue dogs) in Mooresville, N.C.
Hauler drivers are a "jacks-of-all-trades," Allen said, with Hamilton adding, "We’re maid, mother, sometimes cook, psychiatrist."
"When they’re [the racecar drivers] having a bad day, we pat them on the butt, tell them it’s going to be OK," Allen laughed.
While there are benefits, the work makes for a long week.
MONDAY/TUESDAY: "Turning the truck"
At the beginning of the week, hauler drivers are already looking forward to the weekend.
"We go in and we call it ‘turning the truck around,’ which means you take off the gears from the week before, the transmission and put all new ones on for the next week," Hamilton said.
Ironically, Hamilton said his name "Pickle" came from his first time on the job with NASCAR five years ago (before that he hauled racecars for IndyCar), a fictitious jab at being lazy.
"They said, ‘Well we have to get the new truck driver a nickname,’ and they threw around a couple of them and one guy says ‘Well they don’t do anything, all they do is drive down the road and spend all their time in the pickle park’ which is a rest area," Hamilton said. "And they said, ‘You’re pickle.’ And I’ve been stuck with it ever since."
Besides replacing parts, Allen said haulers "clean it all out," making sure the hauler is in pristine shape, which usually takes "a good day, sometimes a day and a half."
WEDNESDAY/THURSDAY: On the road
Most of the larger NASCAR teams have two hauler drivers that will typically switch out the driving responsibilities to abide by Hours of Service regulations, Hamilton said.
"Our transportation manager Chris Yoder, he is pretty on top of it … he can kind of tell these guys need this off, and they need this to make the Hours of Service work," Hamilton said. "Sometimes on a far race like Phoenix at the end of the year, usually he’ll take one guy out of each truck and fly them home on the plane. And the guy that flies home will get home earlier, about a day and a half, two days earlier, and so he’ll be at home and he can reset his hours. And then when the other driver goes to the shop, he immediately goes home to reset his hours while the other guy comes back in and turns the truck around and then you meet and head to the next race … it’s pretty much 50/50."
Both Hamilton and Allen said they spend more time together than they do with their own families and just like true families they look out for each other.
"The one thing that works out good for us every year, is his [Allen’s] little girl’s birthday is on Phoenix [racing] weekend, the second Phoenix weekend and that’s one of the races where [our transportation manager] flies one of the truck drivers back and so I make him fly back so he doesn’t miss her birthday," Hamilton said. "And then he makes me fly back from the last race at Homestead [Miami]. Everything we do, we try to keep it fair."
FRIDAY: Arriving at the track, the fans
Around 5 or 6 a.m., Allen said it’s a hurry-up-and-wait kind of situation at the racetrack.
"There’s a couple of different companies that follow us around to wash the trucks," Allen said. "We have to get here early enough because there’s 43 trucks, 44 trucks; all of them are needing to be washed."
After the trucks are washed, it’s time for Allen and Hamilton to start wiping everything down and setting up all the necessary equipment. Most important — getting the racecar to the garage.
"We unload the hauler, get everything out of it," Allen said. "We’ve got the car, we’ve got a toolbox, a utility cart we call a mule. It holds like tents, a spare radiator, an engine tuner box. Just different odds and ends, hauls all our drinks."
"It’s kind of our catch-all," Hamilton added.
When everything is in tip-top shape in the hauler, Allen said they follow the racecar to the garage and make sure the pit box is set up on the track. However, whoever is going to drive the truck away from the track when the race ends rests until the race starts, Hamilton said.
"We go with the car and start helping the guys with the car," Allen said. "We aren’t repetitious enough to be considered true mechanics but we do help out with the car."
Another key job for a hauler driver is being an ambassador for the team.
"A lot of tracks when you go in to park the haulers, people [fans] that are camped here, they’ll come out just to take pictures and little kids wave," Hamilton said. "And after the race you’ll see a few of them. You know they give us hats to give away and stuff and you throw it out to the kid and it’s made his day. It’s not a big thing to you, but to them, that might make their month or their week."
SATURDAY/SUNDAY: "Drivers, start your engines" and the checkered flag
When the green flag drops, the work is still going strong for hauler drivers, particularly those that assist with the racecar. As one of the biggest guys on the team, Allen said he’s in charge of passing along the fuel can, which weighs about 100 pounds.
"I’m the one who hands our fuel guy the can" on pit road, Allen said. "There’s a lot of little things that go on on race day that we’ve got to do."
Both haulers agree that the team is "a second family," with racer Sam Hornish Jr. very much a part of that.
"He comes in the hauler and he’ll mess with us, give us a hard time just like he does everybody else," Hamilton said. "We basically just joke around."
For Hamilton and Allen, when Hornish crosses that yellow line, a week’s worth of work has to be packed up for the next track.
"We’ll kind of get stuff ready before we go to pit road to get it ready to load and then they’ll bring stuff back from pit road and bring the car back, load it," Hamilton said. "Usually within 60 minutes after the checkered flag drops, our back door is shut and we’re ready to go. And we drive home and start it all over again."
For freight haulers interested in breaking into the sport, Allen said it takes hard work and a little luck. It’s better to start out small, like with an Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) racing team like Allen did while hauling freight for Kroger full-time.
"I worked for them for free on my days off from Kroger for like six months," before being hired full-time, Allen said. "You got to start small and you’ve got to sort of flood the market with resumes because sooner or later if you try hard enough and it’s really in your heart that this is what you want to do, you can do it. You just got to really want to do it because you’re going to give up a lot."
Case-in-point: Allen said he was going to miss his four-year anniversary with his wife, spending it instead at Darlington Raceway, S.C.
But giving back to people, whether it’s for charity or talking with fellow truckers on the road, makes it a special job, Hamilton said.
"We’ll get people that come up to us at truck stops when we’re getting fuel and they’ll ask us about it … it’s really nice when you have some guy that comes up and says, ‘Oh man that’s a really beautiful truck you guys get to drive,’" Hamilton said. "They’ll start to walk away and we’re like, ‘Hey, do you want a hat?’ and we give them a hat and they walk away and you can just tell, they smile. They might have been on the road for three or four weeks and not been home; it’s just something to brighten their day."
For all the equipment Hamilton has hauled over the years, his most precious cargo was his first year of driving a hauler for Dale Earnhardt Inc. during a Make-A-Wish Foundation charity event at Bristol Motor Speedway, Tenn.
"I got to have a Make-A-Wish kid ride with me through the parade route and that was really cool just to think that this little boy has a serious disease and might not have that long to live and to think that he could have gone anywhere," Hamilton said. "He could have gone to Disney World, he could have gone to Hawaii or wherever he wanted; but he wanted to ride in a NASCAR hauler and I got to be the one to take him around."
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