Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: This 'Ryder' hauls Ragan's cars for a living

"Ryder" makes a mean breakfast burrito. Maybe not as good as the stuff "Big John" cooks in the garage, but that's understandable. Big John's been doing this nearly half a century.

Ryder could not tell you Big John's real name. That's understandable, too. Big John probably couldn't tell you Ryder's real name, either.

But I can. Ryder's real name is DeWayne Zirkle. He's a 1979 graduate of William Fleming High School. And he's part of a world where names aren't nearly as important as a good work ethic and a well-rounded set of skills, because he's got one of the most underappreciated jobs in all of auto racing -- driving the hauler for a NASCAR Sprint Cup team.

Why is his role so vital? Each week, he hooks millions of dollars worth of equipment -- including David Ragan's primary and backup cars -- to his rig and drives it to the track.

No Zirkle, no racing for the No. 6 UPS Ford.

And no breakfast burritos, either. Most hauler drivers double as team cooks -- among other things.

"The truck driver's a giant babysitter, more or less," Zirkle said with a laugh Tuesday, a rare day off for the High Point, N.C., resident. "If they want a piece of gum or a transmission, you're the one they come to."

The Roush Fenway Racing folks have only been coming to Zirkle since January 2009, but he's got plenty of experience in the business. He drove a hauler for Petty Enterprises for seven years before that team dissolved. He got his NASCAR start in the early 1990s, driving the transporter for Barry Owen Racing.

Like all the hauler drivers, he's at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, helping Ragan's team prepare for the Daytona 500. That means cooking meals for the crew, managing the truck, fetching parts for the garage on short notice and performing any other task the team needs.

"You've kind of got to be ready to go from one extreme to another," Zirkle said. "Everything's usually really fast-paced, too. To tell you the truth, it's probably one of the most physical jobs I've ever had in my whole life."

And, occasionally, one of the most volatile. Zirkle describes NASCAR haulers as "rolling billboards" -- his has a $40,000 paint job, complete with a Ragan's autograph and pictures of the car.

There's a reason these guys keep a generous supply of NASCAR caps on board. The highway patrolmen love souvenirs, and sometimes hauler drivers need their help.

"Fans can get carried away," Zirkle said. "We've had fans come up and actually write on the trailers, throw things at the trailers. Disgruntled fans try to cut the truck off or whatever. They'll ride by and flip you the bird, and you're saying, 'I just drive the truck, man!' "

Zirkle -- who got his garage nickname because he used to drive a truck for Ryder Logistics -- got started in NASCAR by chance.

After graduating from Fleming, he moved to North Carolina to do construction work. One day, he was called in to refurbish a hauler for Barry Owen Racing. They asked him if he'd like to tag along for a few events, and he agreed.

Soon he was helping out on race weekends -- including working as a member of the pit crew.

Zirkle's race-day activities mostly occur away from the garage now, but his schedule remains tight. Hours after Sunday's race, he and a backup driver will return to the road and head back to Carolina. They'll stop by the shop in Concord, replace the superspeedway equipment with intermediate-track gear, then start the cross-country trek to California.

"You get a lot of attention on the road," he said. "A lot. When we pull in to get fuel, a lot of times there will be a good-sized crowd around the truck when we get ready to leave -- a lot of people asking questions, wanting to see the cars. The biggest question on the road is, 'How can I do that? That's the coolest job in the world.'"

Step 1: Learn to cook. Zirkle has a $500 grocery budget for race weekends, but he knows he's got a ways to go to match the culinary superiority of Big John.

"He cooks for the Stewart-Hass team," Zirkle said. "That guy can cook. He's very creative. He knows what he's doing.

"I'd say I'm middle of the road. I'm not the best, but I'm not the worst. You don't want to be the worst. If you are, your team will let you know real quick."

But at least they won't dress you down by name.

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