NASCAR's car haulers serve a critical role in keeping the sport afloat each week.
It was right around the journey's halfway point when the tractor-trailer carrying Josh Wise's No. 35 began to show signs of distress. The hauler, one of three in the Front Row Motorsports weekly convoy between NASCAR tracks, began to sputter and slow just north of the Ohio-West Virginia border.
The timing was awful.
Each of the three Front Row haulers—one for each entry campaigned by the multi-car team in NASCAR's 38-race schedule—was expected back to the team's headquarters in North Carolina by 8 a.m. ET Monday morning after the previous day's race at Michigan International Speedway. That would leave just enough time to unload, check and restock the 80,000-pound rig before leaving by 8 a.m. Tuesday for a 40-hour, straight-through haul to the opposite coast in time for Friday Sprint Cup Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.
"You can always circle the days on the calendar around here where there are going to be some frayed nerves and some arguments during the day," said Jerry Freeze, Front Row general manager. "One is always the last day before you go to Daytona, and one is always the day before you leave for Sonoma."
And that's before one of the trucks decided to throw a wrench in the whole plan.
Two of the Front Row haulers made it back on time, while Wise's sat waiting for repair. The first mechanic diagnosed the issue in the truck's engine as a bad oil-pressure sending unit, fixed the part and sent the driver on his way. Thirty miles later, the truck stopped again: same problem.
"That was a huge curveball coming back from Michigan," Freeze said.
With the cross-country haul looming, Front Row sent a truck from North Carolina to pick up the most-needed part of Wise's rig: the trailer, loaded with two race cars, loads of backup parts, consumables and plenty of dirty laundry.
Finally, by 4 p.m. Monday after the 400-mile race in Michigan, all of the components except for the broken-down semi had arrived. Many in the 65-person shop—an extremely tight ship compared to the hundreds employed by NASCAR's top teams—stayed until nearly midnight to get the hauler flipped.
By 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, all of Wise's cars, refreshed equipment and more—towed by a temporary replacement semi—left the Front Row shop with the team's two other haulers, Sonoma bound and hopefully with all of their problems behind.
The stranded hauler was eventually fixed when a second mechanic found the issue was related to a fuse. Of course, the issue was made even worse when one truck stop prohibited any work on truck, forcing it to be towed.
On to the Next One
A key spoke of the ever-traveling road show, NASCAR team haulers are the ever-running workhorses of the industry. They make the logistical nightmare of hauling cars from race to race possible.
Unlike standard professional sports, NASCAR's most critical parts can't just jet to the next city for the next contest. Teams build race cars and parts specific to individual tracks to maximize performance, and then must swap cars at their home base (typically in Charlotte, N.C.) before heading to the next event.
Sonoma is perhaps the toughest trip of the season because of the incredible distance between North Carolina and northern California that has to be completed after a 15-plus-hour trip back from the race in Michigan. Rain delays or truck issues only add to the stress.
"The obvious question is 'Why not just go to Sonoma?'" Freeze said. "All contents on the truck, not just the car, have been tailored for racing at Michigan. That includes spare suspension parts, brake parts, everything."
Sonoma, a road course, requires completely different equipment in all aspects.
The Checkered Flag Is Only the Start
With about 15 or 20 laps left in a race, the process of getting everything to the next event starts in earnest. Pit crew members start disassembling the pit box and preparing used or unused tires for transit back to the garage area. The haulers have their lift gates lowered.
Once the race finishes, the garage area becomes a frantic area of hot race cars, sweaty drivers and focused crew members. Some focus on preparing and loading the garage-area components—the tool boxes, crash carts, generators and more—while others get to work on the car.
The driver, crew chief and engineers perform a debrief and look at various components on the car to see if they changed during the race. Other crew members start to remove NASCAR-owned equipment for data collection and other purposes. Even the race tires have to be changed because of rules that prohibit race teams from taking tires from the track. Grooved, non-race tires go in their place.
"And then, the car doesn't fit on the hauler," Freeze said.
Teams have to make huge adjustments just get the NASCAR machine in a transportable condition. The rear suspension is lowered well beyond NASCAR on-track specifications just so the car can fit in the hauler's upper section.
Meanwhile, team members use the bottom section of the hauler to change from fire suits and team apparel before the carts and supplies fill its space. Most days—when a car doesn't go through an extensive post-race NASCAR inspection process—those crew members will head to the airport within 40 minutes of the checkered flag to catch a jet back home. The hauler's door shuts, and the journey back home begins—first, amidst race traffic.
Turning the Truck Around
Back at the shop, the hauler conversion for Sonoma is a one-day show for Front Row. Typically, it's a two- or three-day job—based mainly on the total distance the team has to travel for the next race.
Once the haulers arrive, each department at the team's shop is responsible for unloading their respective parts and pieces. Most pieces are stored in an easily accessible cart system that is simply wheeled off, checked back in to the respective parts rooms and then restocked with pieces designed specifically for the next race.
The hauler drivers handle restocking the trucks consumables, like soda, water, shop towels, lubricants and more. There's also the responsibility of getting the crew uniforms washed after a weekend of use in varying weather—ranging from hot and humid to wet and rainy. For the post-Michigan turnaround, the team had to call ahead and make special plans with a laundromat to ensure same-day service.
Before the truck leaves again, the hauler driver has a list of things to check to make sure all necessary components are on board, though the specifics of at-track needs are left to the team's individual departments.
"They make sure the right shocks, the right rear ends, the right of everything is on the cars," Freeze said.
There's also a preventative maintenance regimen that the team undertakes with the hauler, checking and replacing various parts and pieces as needed.
"April and May is a nice little break," Freeze said of the shorter hauls that the NASCAR schedule permits in that period. Front Row does a lot of hauler scrutinizing ahead of a grueling June and July stretch with runs to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Indiana.
Rock Stars on the Road
Once the hauler is loaded, the back door slams shut and the truck pulls away, life for the hauler driver (and co-driver on long trips) is much the same as any over-the-road trucker with the exception of one thing: no anonymity.
"The truck is basically a rolling billboard," Freeze said, referring to the team's sponsors and other logos adorning the often-gleaming vehicles. "They're so recognizable out there, and (the drivers) have to be conscious of it."
That means no aggressive driving and plenty of public relations work. Front Row's haulers, thanks to a sponsorship agreement, typically only stop at Love's Travel Stops for fuel and food. Inevitably, a crowd of the curious asks questions, takes photos and seeks driver hero cards. Even when driving, the CB radio is often noisy with other truckers asking questions and talking racing.
"They're kind of the rock stars of the road," Freeze said.
But, as the tight turnarounds and intense responsibility of carrying a team's most valuable race asset from track to track show, it's not a posh job, said Freeze. Most trips are straight through with the only stopping coming for a driver change or a fuel stop.
There are a lot of truck drivers who aspire to have that job, and view it was a glamorous one," Freeze said. "But I think they saw how it was (during Sonoma) week, they might feel a bit different."
It All Starts Again
For Sonoma, the teams needed to have haulers in a designated staging area near the track by 6 p.m. local time on the Thursday before the event. That's when NASCAR will coordinate the process of track-entering parking—all determined by point standings.
But because Front Row and other teams leave extra time in a schedule, the team's haulers hope to arrive early. Hauler drivers can then seek out a truck wash—remember, these rolling billboards need to present well—or grab some rest. Some tracks offer mobile truck-wash alternatives.
Once in the track, the hauler drivers are permitted to merely unload a tool cart and some other supplies from the rig on the evening before garages officially open. When complete, the hauler drivers catch a ride back to a hotel where they're joined by the rest of the team who fly in from across the country.
It's the final downtime before NASCAR revs up again with garage gates opening at 7 a.m. It's not a leisurely process, either, getting more supplies and the cars off each hauler. Teams compete to get the cars ready earlier than others because that means they'll get through inspection sooner. A faster inspection process more time both for fine-tuning in the garage and getting out on track.
Unexpected and impossible-to-plan-for mechanical problems are a regular part of the 40,000 miles that the Front Row teams and others ask from their haulers each season. Without those haulers and drivers, the sport comes to a halt. With them, NASCAR is able to cris-cross the country at seemingly great ease.
Moving race cars from race to race is a hidden side of NASCAR, but certainly one it so greatly needs.
Geoffrey Miller is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via interview.