Tranporter drivers make the wheels turn

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Without question, drivers are the central piece of the entire NASCAR equation, making sure the show goes on each of the 36 race-weekends spanning 43 weeks between early February and Thanksgiving week in November. Drivers like...

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Without question, drivers are the central piece of the entire NASCAR equation, making sure the show goes on each of the 36 race-weekends spanning 43 weeks between early February and Thanksgiving week in November. Drivers like Bill Davis Racing (BDR) drivers Mark Parrish, John Pounds, Steve Jarrell and Mark Metcalfe.=20

Oh, sure. The guys like Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth or Ward Burton and Dave Blaney -- the BDR's Winston Cup drivers -- get all the attention of the NASCAR publicity machine but none of the 40-plus drivers who turn the wheels of their Winston Cup Series cars each Sunday could find the spotlight if not for the transporter drivers who get the trucks to the tracks each week.=20

The NASCAR consumer never sees them, nor rarely hears their names mentioned unless one such as Parrish -- the regular over-the-wall gas man for Amoco Ultimate Team 93 -- augments his "day" job with a crew responsibility on race-day. Rest assured, however, that if any of the transporter drivers failed to meet the extreme demands of his job description, their names would be on everyone's tongues.=20

What would happen, for instance, if Peter Jellen, driver of the #18 transporter for points leader Labonte, failed to get the rig to Michigan Speedway for this weekend's Pepsi 400? A devastating chain-of-events would ensue to ensure that a season-long championship effort would not be sabotaged in one race-weekend. The circumstances surrounding his problems would place Jellen at the top of the weekend's storylines, a cruel irony considering the truckers' critical role in NASCAR's bigger picture.

Facing the prospect of two less weekends and 5,000 more miles on the road in 2001 with the addition of WC events in Chicago and Kansas City, teams are rethinking strategies to make sure the essential arrival of their equipment at the race-track each week. No owner is more aware of the perilous edge his transporter drivers teeter on than Bill Davis, whose Arkansas-based Bill Davis Trucking business has hauled refrigerated goods over millions of miles coast-to-coast in its 25 years as a midwestern staple of the industry.

At the start of the 2000 season, Jarrell and Metcalfe -- each veterans of a decade-plus of service as truckers tethered to the NASCAR schedule -- were the drivers of the #22 Caterpillar/Polaris and #93 Amoco/Siemens transporters, respectively. Each has since yielded to Pounds, who joined BDR in July after a part-time post at Bill Elliott Racing, and Parrish, who moved to BDR this spring after four years at Sports Marketing Enterprises. But all -- including Jarrell in an in-shop capacity and Metcalfe as motorcoach driver--now share the increased demands of what lays before owner Davis with the expanding Winston Cup Series road-show for 2001 as well as a huge off-season Dodge testing agenda at BDR.=20

"We have the worst job in the sport and nobody -- except the owners and crew -- even knows it," said Jarrell, who's never been happier after moving back to a shop-job 14 years into his NASCAR career. "Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed my time in this sport on the road but the expanding schedule for next year hurts us more than anyone else involved because we leave home long before the team and get home long after they're back. Owners like BD are already looking at how to help cut back on our 'gone' time and make sure we keep getting to the track safely each week. If we don't, the show stops right there."

Beginning with the first race at Dover (DL) Downs in early June and ending with this week's race at Michigan, Winston Cup transporter drivers reach 10 race-destinations in 12 weeks, including one stretch of consecutive weekends that connected races with over 12,000-miles traveled to Central California, Florida, New Hampshire and a test in Indiana. The early-season and fall segments center on mid-south tracks and demand less of teams and truckers but the general lack of down-time takes its toll as the season progresses,

"There's a cumulative affect once you get past this summer stretch that stays with you long into the fall," said Parrish. "The truckers all have a special fraternity because they all share the same sort of extreme expectations. We try to travel together, especially on these long hauls, to make sure we keep each other sharp, even with the back-up drivers we're required to have.

"Most people don't know that all the NASCAR transporter drivers also are responsible for making sure that all the parts and pieces used during a previous race-weekend are replaced on the transporter before you take off for the next week. It's not just about turning the wheel and covering the miles safely. And as hard as this sport is getting on the crews and their families, we're gone proportionately more than even they are so your time with your spouses and children is really slim. Next year's schedule -- with 20 races in a row at one point -- will just not work for most guys in our position."

One NASCAR Winston Cup transporter driver -- Rodney Pickler of the #12 Penske-Kranefuss team -- keeps track of his total hours committed to his job and estimates that long-haul weeks reach the 100-plus-hours mark, at least one-third more than his fellow crew members who fly to-and-from race destinations while Pickler and his wife/co-traveler are covering the distance in the dark late after a Winston Cup event.

Car Owner Davis now has the luxury of flexibility within the framework of demands for his transporter drivers, with ex-full-time drivers Jarrell and Metcalfe on the sidelines and in the shop, but available for spot road-duty in cases such as this week's aerodynamics test in Daytona.=20

Jarrell -- fresh and rested after a month off the road -- was excited again about taking the #93 Amoco/Siemens truck to Florida for the one-day NASCAR test because it represented a singular event, not the crushing cumulative demand of the complete Winston Cup schedule. Metcalfe, in addition to his new role as motorcoach driver for Davis, is also helping build a new BDR trailer scheduled for heavy use during the team's substantial Dodge testing program with drivers Burton and Blaney later this fall.

"It's hard to project what owners will do in our area next year but something will look different, I'm sure," said Parrish. "This season, we've used a guy like Bill Wilson, who's traveled over 2 million miles accident-free in his regular job with a furniture company in Conover (NC), as a back-up driver for the #22 truck for 6-8 of our races. Most teams have guys just like that but in the future a person like that might become full-time.=20

"Many teams are talking about another transporter altogether, that will allow more travel time after one event while a second full-time driver prepares the other truck for the next event. But again, there's another line-item for an owner that represents big money. Bill Davis is lucky because he really already has four guys already full-time who can have done this job and can call on them if he needs to. I guess if it came down to it, BD could also do the job since he's probably traveled more safe miles in one of these rigs than any of us and also knows better than any of us what's involved and what's at stake.

"The average fan just tunes in each weekend and expects to see the cars and the drivers and the green flag and never thinks of how it all comes together on our end. That's probably good because it means we've all done our job safely, gotten there on time and without incident. But the whole equation starts to fall apart if one or two trucks don't make it to any of our races. It's worth thinking about."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Ward Burton , Bill Elliott , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Dave Blaney , Steve J
Teams Bill Davis Racing