Gentlemen, Start Your Diesels!

On May 2, Keith Jones arrives for his load early – well before 7 a.m. He spends some time going over last minute details and rummaging for items he might need for this haul. He double-checks the trailer and the garage a dozen times to make sure he has everything.

For Jones and his fellow driver, Dave Meggers, who also arrives early to take their Kenworth T-2000 for a bath, this run is the shortest of the year. It’s also the biggest.

By 9 a.m., Meggers and Jones are ready to leave. On this rainy day, they put their black and yellow rig in gear and haul their load a scant 20 miles up the road to one of the most sacred places in all of auto racing – the Brickyard. This hallowed place will be their unofficial office and home until Memorial Day and the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Meggers and Jones aren’t just truck drivers. They’re team members for Pennzoil Panther Racing, the top Indy Racing League team, and have crew and mechanic jobs to take care of as well. Their goal is to help the team’s ace, Sam Hornish, win races.

“It’s a dream job – within reason,” says Jones, who hauled a different kind of car for a decade when he was an over-the-road truck driver. This job, which started for Jones when he joined the Panther Racing Team five years ago, is much more than driving a truck from one race to another.

Like NASCAR, teams in the Indy Racing League rely on seasoned truck drivers to haul their cars, tools and equipment to races throughout the United States. The coveted jobs offer the truckers a chance to rub elbows with racing legends, drive late model equipment, travel with a professional sports team and see big-time racing up close. When they deliver the cars to the track and their driving work ends, their other duties begin.

Most drivers who haul Indy transporters are an integral part of their racing team. “This is a complete team effort,” Meggers says. “You can’t be just a truck driver. You’ve got to have a specialty.” For Meggers, that specialty is tires, a key ingredient in the team’s success.
Meggers worked for Goodyear before joining the team, so he knows a lot about tires. His job also requires expertise in other areas.

Meggers says, “We do everything. We change motors. We even keep the car clean.” “We change diapers,” Jones jokes. “We’re even homemakers and we get the wrenches.”

While Meggers makes sure the tires are taken care of, Jones actually goes over the wall to service the car when it comes into the pits. He works in the most dangerous spot on pit row: the right rear tire. In that position, his legs and posterior are in line with the front left tire of the driver exiting the pit behind him. At a race in Miami this season, Eliseo Salazar, one the drivers in A.J. Foyt’s stable, clipped Jones’ pants leg.

Wayne Selman can sympathize. A truck driver for 26-years, with 10 of those hauling racecars for IRL and CART teams, Selman says he does whatever it takes to help Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing win. “I’m a fueler for the pit crew, but I also drive transport. I even get lunch.” And he cleans up after the rest of the team.

“These mechanics are like slobs. I feel like a mom all the time picking up after them,” he says.

Driving a transporter for an Indy racing team combines lifelong passions for racing and truck driving for Selman, who joined the team at the beginning of the season. Before hauling racecars, he was an over-the-road truck driver. He pulled tankers, dry vans and reefers, but the tug of racing was strong. “I’ve always been into racing,” he says. “I used to race motorcycles. Once age sets in, you start looking around for some other way to be involved.”

Selman found a job hauling racecars in California, then began hauling for Rick Galles’ IRL team in Albuquerque, N.M. and left long-haul trucking for good. Over the years, he’s pulled cars for racers such as Al Unser, Jr., Eddie Cheever and Jeff Ward. This year he hauled cars to Indianapolis in a 1998 Volvo 770 for Robbie Buhl and Sarah Fisher.

“I love doing it,” Selman says. “It’s a great job. You put in a lot of hours, especially if you have a good team.”

But it’s worth it. Experienced drivers and crew members can make more than $60,000 a year, although starting truckers make as little as $35,000. Team members share in the winnings, so a victory can bring a hefty bonus. Meggers and Jones helped their teams to the IRL Championship last season and are well on the way in 2002. After just four races this season, Hornish, whose parents own a trucking company in Ohio, had won two races and finished third in another.

The team prides itself on its fast turnarounds in the pit. In their garage in Indianapolis, one rafter holds up race victory banners – another holds up pit crew competition victories. Every time the pit crew performs well, they give their driver that much more time to get down the track. Mike “Grif” Griffin, a part-owner of the Panther Racing team, says every second in a pit is the equivalent of 350 feet on the track.

Griffin says his truck drivers are every bit as important to the operation as his crew chief and his racecar driver. “These guys are great,” he says.

Once in the historic garage area of the track, the two drivers help the rest of the crew unload and set up a top of the line mechanic’s shop.

Meggers, Jones and Selman are good at their jobs and their teams are successful. After just the first week of qualifying for this year’s 500, their racers had qualified in the top 10. Buhl was on the front row, with Hornish and Fisher in row three.

Also on row three is racer Scott Sharp, whose transport hauler is Carlos Fernandes. With 10 days to go until race day, Fernandes is taking a break and eating lunch. He’s in the pit area watching sprinkles of rain come down on the 2.5-mile oval. “It’s too cold out here,” he says.

Fernandes, whose team is Kelley Racing, hopes his team can get in some more practice.

Fernandes has been hauling racecars for 16 years and has been driving for Kelley Racing, whose garage includes Sharp and Al Unser Jr., since 1999. On Sharp’s team, Fernandes also is a tire specialist.

“I monitor the tire pressures as the car is running out there,” Fernandes says. “The tires have sensors mounted on them and information is sent back to our computers.” Fernandes communicates with the crew chief and the engineer to maker sure the tires are running within optimum parameters. He also hands off tires to a pit crewmember during pit stops.

“We’re a well-oiled machine,” he says. “We just won at Nazareth, Pa., (the last IRL race before the Indy 500). We started a little slow this year, but now we’re doing well.”

Although he enjoys driving trucks, the time on the road is only 10 percent of his job. “Driving down the road is a big responsibility. I’ve got $3.5 million worth of equipment back there,” Fernandes says. “But being on the race team is my job.”

Selman says his other job, fueling the Purex racer, can be challenging. He puts 30 gallons in during a typical pit stop. He’s the first one to the car because fueling takes about 12 seconds, four more than changing the tires. “It can go in real easy or it can go wrong. If you have a problem, you have to pull out and start over.”

The pit teams are heavily coordinated and practice again and again to make sure they service the car in the least amount of time.

Fernandes says he’d rather drive his Freightliner Century Class truck than fly to events because he gets to see more of the country. A typical race trip begins at the Kelley garage in Indianapolis. The job there is mainly repetition. Fernandes consults with the crew chief to see what parts need to be on the truck and makes sure everything from tools to cars gets in the trailer. And that’s really the trick to doing the job, because if a team leaves an important part in Indianapolis when it travels to a race, the time lost shipping the part – not to mention the expense – can mean valuable down time for the team.

“I go through the truck inspecting it and make sure we’re going to get there,” Fernandez says. “I’m responsible for everything inside the truck and outside the truck. We have a checklist we go through.”

With back-to-back races, the trips can get confusing. Each track has a different configuration and requires different parts. Occasionally, something gets left behind, Fernandes says. “Yes, I have left stuff. It’s usually because somebody took it out of the trailer and didn’t put it back in.” Thankfully, it hasn’t been anything important.

Jones and Meggers say they once left one of the most important items out of their trailer: the set-up tires. The tires are not used for racing, but are important because the crew uses them to balance and configure the car.

“Oh man, did that cost a lot to ship,” Meggers recalls. “If we leave something at home, we have to get it there. We hear hell about it.”

In Gasoline Alley, another team pushes their car into the garage as Jones sets up the Pennzoil Panther Team’s shop. The shop will be the team’s home away from home until Memorial Day, when the team heads to the next race in Texas.

On moving day, Jones and Meggers check the back of the truck to make sure the set-up tires are there, as well as a number of other items, such as computers, fuel tanks, spare parts and pit crew outfits and helmets. But if something is forgotten for the Indy 500, it won’t be a big deal, Meggers says. “We’re only a few miles away.”

Like the Pennzoil Panther Racing Team, Kelley Racing, whose chief sponsors are Delphi and Conteco, has two truck drivers. Fernandes says he and his team driver take six-hour stints. “One sleeps while the other drives,” he says. “Our goal is to get to our destination as soon as possible.”

Once there, they unload the truck, set up the garage and relax until its time to run the car. For a race like the Indy 500, that can mean hundreds of hours of work before race day even arrives. Other races become blurs because the team sets up and tears down several times in a week.

At the track, transport drivers are part of a larger fraternity. “It looks like a trucking convention in the pits,” Fernandes says. “We’re all friends because we travel a lot on the road.”

When they’re on the road, drivers say other truckers ask lots of questions, but one more than others: “How do I get a job like that?” Fernandes says “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. You have to know someone or be introduced. All the experience you get is working on the team.”

Other truckers also ask for hats and autographs of the racecar driver. Some mistake the truck for a NASCAR transport. “During Sam’s first year with the team,” says Jones, “they asked me, ‘ain’t you going the wrong way?’ But Sam Hornish’s name is now recognized more often and they generally know we’re IRL.”

Jones says Hornish may one day drive the big rig. But there’s little chance Jones will get to drive the car. Jones has been in IRL’s two-seat car however, and said the experience gave him a new respect for racing. “I felt those Gs pushing on me,” he says. “I’ve never been around speed like that.”

Fernandes says he’d love to drive the car and has offered to let Scott Sharp take the truck for a spin. “I’ve tried to ask him to travel with it, but he says it’s bad enough shifting six gears instead of 13.”

The job has its other ups and downs. In one respect, it’s exactly like over-the-road trucking: drivers are away from their families. Jones misses his five-year-old son Chase a lot. “He’s about ready for a go-cart,” Jones says. “He loves the trucks and wants to work with his dad. That’s pretty cool.”

Fernandes has two kids and a fiancée who doesn’t always like the schedule. “I haven’t found the time to get married because I’m always on the road,” he says. “She gets lonely when I’m gone. We have a family at home and she’s got all the responsibility. Of course, after I’ve been at home for a while she asks, ‘when do you go back on the road?'”

It’s also hard on the feet. “It’s an extreme of standing and sitting,” Meggers says.

Jones says shortcomings are surpassed by rewards, though. “I like driving trucks, and I get to do that. I like being around racecars, and I get to do that. It’s like a big family.”

Truckers often are attracted to trucking because it promises independence. But transport haulers say the thing they love most about their job is being part of a team. Fernandes says his team is finally starting coming together. “It takes time for a team to gel,” he says. “But it’s worth it.”