Pictured at the Talladega Superspeedway, Rick Johnson (left) and Jack Kurtzner haul Ryan Newman’s car and equipment to Nextel Cup races.
Hauling for NASCAR star Ryan Newman gets these drivers plenty of attention
Truckers Jack Kurtzner and Rick Johnson admit they have a dream haul that pays well, gives them access to some of the coolest equipment on the road (and off) and a front-row seat to one of America’s most popular sports.
But that doesn’t mean their job hauling rising NASCAR star Ryan Newman’s gear and cars around is without its challenges. Remembering, for example, which of your driver’s racing uniforms is the correct one can be challenging when they are all black.
“We forgot the trophies once, too,” Johnson says.
All kidding aside, Kurtzner and Johnson are two key personnel on the ALLTEL/Mobil1 racing team that finished in the top 10 in the 2004 Nextel Cup – amassing more than $6 million in winnings – and appears headed to another successful season in 2005. Their job is more than pulling a load of auto parts, cars and equipment from race track to race track. They are the packers, organizers and team members for one of racing’s hottest young drivers.
Each week the team loads the truck with motors, gears and all the parts (right down to the uniforms) necessary for the next race. There are 36 races each year, and the duo is responsible for getting gear to those races as well as all the tracks the team tests on in the course of a season.
“The easiest part of our job is driving,” Kurtzner says. “We have a checklist we go through, and it changes depending on the race. Road course races require extra stuff, for example.
“Our job is to put everything in the truck we’re going to need,” Johnson says. After each race, they return to the team’s headquarters in North Carolina and unpack the truck. During the races, the pair helps support the pit crew, running for tires, among other jobs. They don’t go over the wall when Newman’s Dodge is in the pits, but their work is essential to the team’s success.
The job comes with some fairly substantial perks. Each team member – “even the janitor,” Kurtzner says – receives a portion of Newman’s winnings. Last year, the team had a banner year, winning two Nextel races and eight poles. The team also finished in the top 10 of more than a dozen races and earned $6,354,000. Other perks usually include a nice hotel room when Johnson and Kurtzner arrive at a race site, although they occasionally use their 2004 Freightliner Coronado.
They interact with truckers on the road, giving out hats and other ALLTEL/Mobil 1 gear. For their part, truckers constantly ask them questions about Newman and their job. “Most want to know, ‘How do you get that job?’” Johnson says.
The answer to that question is fairly easy: who you know helps. Kurtzner, originally from New York, is a truck driving veteran who hauled groceries for 20 years for the same company his father drove for. He got to know the late John Nemecheck hanging around his Craftsman Truck Series Team. Johnson, who is from Maine, got his NASCAR start driving a motorcoach for NASCAR magnate and team owner Ray Evernham. A friend who worked with another team passed along Johnson’s name.
Other popular trucker questions: “‘Is Ryan in there? Is the crew in the back?’” Kurtzner says. “It’s like they just got back from watching ‘Days of Thunder.’ Those people fly to races.”
Kurtzner and Johnson are already back on the road hauling Newman’s gear from track to track. For his part Newman is back in the spotlight with a top-10 finish after just two races of the season and a top-15 Nextel Cup ranking. 2005 looks like another banner year for the team.
THE STAR OF THE SHOW
Ryan Newman finished in the top 10 last year, one of the drivers to compete in the inaugural Nextel Chase for the Cup. That brought a lot of fame to the young driver, who has a penchant for winning poles and finishing in the money. Truckers News caught up with Newman before the start of the 2005 series.
TRUCKERS NEWS: You guys absolutely dominated pole positions in 2004. Any guesses as to why it didn’t translate into more victories?
Ryan Newman: There are so many more factors that go into a race than there are for qualifying. It’s definitely easier to perfect one or two laps than it is to try and dominate 300 to 400 laps. We had a great car in the majority of the races this season, but factors out of our control happened to get the best of us.
TN: Knowing the formula for the Nextel Cup, what, if anything, will you do differently this season?
RN: Absolutely nothing. The ALLTEL/Mobil 1 team approaches each race as if it was just as important as the one before and as the next one. We want to lead every lap, win every race, each and every weekend. If winning races remains our main objective, and if we can accomplish that, the points will work themselves out.
TN: Many of the drivers who did not qualify in the top 10 are complaining they’re not getting any attention from the media. As a result, neither are their sponsors. What, if any, changes would you like to see to the Nextel Cup format?
RN: Honestly, I wish they would change it back to the way it was originally.
Everyone kind of knew there would be kinks in the system, especially the first season, and this happens to be one of them. In my opinion, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. The original point system just needed a little tweaking. I can see, from a marketing perspective, where the “chase” is going to be very beneficial. But, from a racer’s point of view, I don’t think it was the answer.
TN: You have an impressive educational pedigree. Do you get involved with car design and building on your team? If so, how?
RN: If I do get involved with the actual structure of the car, it’s very minimal. Each team hires professionals to do this job that are very qualified. I leave it up to them.
TN: What’s your favorite Nextel Series track?
RN: Darlington, hands down. This track is not just physically challenging, but mentally as well. You have to have an absolutely perfect day to win at Darlington.
TN: Do you like racing the superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega? Why or why not?
RN: I’m not a big fan of the restrictor-plate race tracks, but not necessarily because of the restrictor plates. I don’t believe in any racing that has an “out-of-bounds” line, and both of these tracks do. That’s just not racing to me.
LADIES, START YOUR ENGINES
NASCAR ranks now include two accomplished women drivers.
When NASCAR began its Drive for Diversity program a few years ago, some wondered if the move to add more women and African-Americans to the sport’s ranks was simply a show.
Obviously the stock car governing body was serious, and former Indycar competitor Sarah Fisher is a prime example.
Fisher announced in January that she will participate in the Drive for Diversity program for the 2005 season, driving with the Bill McAnally Racing/Richard Childress Racing Development Program in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series.
“The Drive for Diversity program gives talented drivers and crew members an opportunity to prove themselves as members of the NASCAR community,” says Fisher. “Above and beyond this, I am very excited to begin my stock car racing career with a West Coast-based team the caliber of Bill McAnally Racing is and be in association with Richard Childress Racing.
“It’s an indescribable opportunity for me as a driver.”
Fisher, 23, will pilot the No. 20 BMR/RCR Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the NASCAR West Series. Aside from NASCAR, Fisher has competed in four seasons of Indy Racing League competition, earning Most Popular Driver honors three seasons in a row.
In 1999, after winning five features in the midget car series, she joined the IRL. By 2000 she was driving for open-wheel veteran Derrick Walker’s IRL IndyCar Series team, and she ran eight races in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.
In May 2000, she became just the third woman and one of the youngest drivers ever to compete in the Indy 500. Later in the season Fisher made history yet again at Kentucky Speedway, becoming the youngest person to lead laps during an IRL IndyCar event and the youngest woman to ever stand on a podium with her third-place finish in that event.
In 2001, Fisher logged a second-place finish at the IRL’s inaugural race at Homestead Miami Speedway – the best finish ever by a women in Indycar action.
“When the Drive for Diversity program started, I thought right off that Bill would be someone great to work with because of the first-class operation he has,” says Richard Childress, president and CEO of RCR. “We worked together in the past with Clint Bowyer and Kerry Earnhardt, so we decided to run Sarah in a race in Phoenix last year to see if that was a direction we wanted to go.
“[The]feedback was that she has a lot of potential in a stock car. I have a lot of hopes on her doing well, and we might run her in some Busch races this year.”
“It’s great to be a part of the Drive for Diversity Program and be in partnership in this endeavor with Richard Childress Racing ,” says Bill McAnally, owner of Bill McAnally Racing. “Sarah Fisher is an incredible talent and brings a lot to both our race program at BMR but also the NASCAR Grand National Division West Series. We look forward to a very successful race season.”
Joining Fisher on the McAnally and Childress team will be another woman, NASCAR driver Allison Duncan, who is participating in the diversity program for a second season, in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series (NDWS).
With a top-five finish in the Hickory Motor Speedway year-end points standings in 2004, Duncan will drive the No. 20 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in NDWS events at Stockton 99 Speedway in Stockton, Calif.
“It’s every driver’s dream. I’m excited about the upcoming season and plan on winning the championship at the Stockton 99 Speedway,” Duncan says.
The San Rafael, Calif., native was chosen by BMR/RCR team representatives at the 2005 Drive for Diversity Driver Combine Testing and Evaluation, held last fall at the Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va.
“We’re taking a look at Allison in the Late Model Series, and we think she’s going to do a great job,” Childress says. “She already has a great deal of experience with road racing and sports cars, and she obviously adapted quickly to stock cars with her performances at Hickory Motor Speedway. Running Allison in a full season of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series with Bill McAnally Racing should give us an even better idea of her potential.”
PETTY’S TAKE ON THE CHASE
Love it or hate it, the new NASCAR Nextel Cup “Chase for the Championship” playoff system appears to be here to stay – at least for a while. During the preseason media tour, seven-time series champion Richard Petty weighed in on the new format.
Is it simply part of the sport’s evolution?
“Well, yeah, I guess,” Petty says. “You talk about having five different championship points, and they started with one when my father won some championships; and they didn’t like that, so they changed it; and didn’t like it and changed it again. So really, I don’t know whether they are trying to modernize or look for something that will work and that everybody understands.
“You know, every time we change, everybody always said, man, we liked the last one better or whatever, and they are doing the same thing now. So once we run the first year with the new championship points, then you know you’ve got the believers and the non-believers that it’s going to work or that it’s better. After the first year, then next year, you’ll hear less of it. By the third year, they will be the champion and they won’t be comparing with anything.
“I was fortunate to win no matter what, because going into the season, you know what you’ve got to do to win the championship. You know how the points are. So it was the same thing this year, and it will be the same thing if it changes again.”
MIDDLE E RETURNS
His father is a legend, and his half brother has found Victory Lane to his liking as well. Now Kerry Earnhardt hopes he is on the road to big league racing glory.
Earnhardt is driving the black No. 33 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet for Richard Childress this season.
“We’re just working on (superspeedway) stuff right now,” Earnhardt says. “We found bits and pieces at different times that helped the car (during testing) at Daytona, and we just went back to the shop and put it all together in one package. Now, we’re trying all of that out here.”
For the first time in his career, Earnhardt looks to have solid financial backing with the Bass Pro Shops deal in Nextel Cup.
A franchise is opening in Leeds, Ala., and Earnhardt wants to be part of the grand opening.
“I just can’t wait,” he says. “We went down for the groundbreaking, and I can’t wait for them to get it open and see the whole thing. They couldn’t have picked a more beautiful location. Just driving down there for the ceremony was impressive