The Frontstretch: Truckin' Thursdays: The Forgotten People Behind On-Track Success by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Thursday November 14, 2013

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Truckin' Thursdays: The Forgotten People Behind On-Track Success

Beth Lunkenheimer · Thursday November 14, 2013


Each and every week that the Camping World Truck Series races, the garage area is abuzz long before there’s any activity on the track and long after everything is done for the day. While much of the race weekend spotlight sits on the driver and the crew chief, who are both arguably very important, it’s the crew members that are hard at work at the shop and in the garage area that allow the driver and crew chief to shine. These often forgotten members are essential to the operation of a successful team, and if not for their work behind the scenes, the sport wouldn’t run like the well-oiled machine that it does.

Miguel Paludo may be a highly skilled wheelman, but he can’t do it alone in order to have success on the track.

At Texas Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to stand with and watch the crew of the No. 32 team hard at work in the makeshift garage area used when all three series race at Texas (read: fenced in section of infield parking lot), preparing Miguel Paludo’s ride for the Friday night event. Everyone from the hauler driver, Will Mallard, who ensures the equipment arrives to each track promptly all the way up to crew chief Jeff Hensley play an important role. For obvious reasons, the crew chief is the guy that everyone looks to when setting their expectations, and he’s in charge of nearly what the crews do to the quick decisions made in a split-second while preparing to bring their driver down pit road for a stop and everything in between.

Meet the No. 32 Chevrolet Crew:
Crew Chief: Jeff Hensley
Truck Chief: Chad Rainey
Rear-End / Underneath Mechanic: Alex “Animal” Yonchuck
Mechanic: Brandon Hylton
Interiors / Tire Changer: Jerad Hewitt
Tire Specialist: Brian Honeycutt
Engineer: Troy Turnage
Hauler Driver: Will Mallard

I had the opportunity to speak with Rear End / Underneath Mechanic Alex “Animal” Yonchuck and Interiors / Tire Changer Jared Hewitt. Just like the position name says, Animal’s primary role is to work on anything to do with the underside of the truck.

“For the most part, I’ll do any of the adjustments underneath the truck, be it the housing, truck arms, spring adjustments and things like that along with the fuel cell area,” he said when asked to describe his role. “So when they say ‘Underneath Mechanic’ you pretty much do everything under there. We help out anywhere possible when it comes to being at the track. We all know our roles, but if anyone needs help in any other area, we know how to do it all.”

While the mechanics of the underside of the truck are vital in ensuring that the truck runs and handles properly, the interior part of the truck allows the drivers to race safely and comfortably. Jared explained what his job entails week after week.

“I do everything from the seats to the wiring to brackets and pieces inside the truck. That’s mainly what I do at the shop,” he said. “At the track, it’s a little bit different because everything is already built and we don’t make any changes inside the truck. So I handle the things that Miguel needs like helmet adjustments, seat adjustments, a drink bottle, a diaper (laughs). When that’s not going on, I try to give Animal a hand with things he does because some of the things going on under the truck takes two people.”

While both Animal and Jared came from different backgrounds and got into NASCAR differently, they still work together for one common goal. Animal “grew up racing, so [he] did have any other career choice besides that.” Meanwhile, Jared didn’t have quite the same entrance.

“Racing was something I got into later in my teens and then, as I needed a job full-time, I moved on to NASCAR about seven years ago.”

When it comes to the interiors, perhaps one of the most important safety aspects is the seat that protects the driver from hard impacts, and each seat is typically molded for the specific driver to provide the best possible buffer between their bodies and the crashes.

“Getting a driver fitted for a seat isn’t that bad, but to get him fitted for the insert, have the insert poured and get molded for the seat and to get the seat mounted can take almost a day,” Hewitt explained. “But once it’s done, it’s done. We just move it from truck to truck.”

Long before the drivers are in race conditions, teams are hard at work building the trucks are the shop, repairing damage and even taking care of the smaller details that most wouldn’t think about. Jared took me through a typical race week from Monday at the shop all the way to race weekend at the track.

“We usually get Sunday off before we check in on Monday morning. The first thing we do is attack the truck that we just raced. We take the truck down, and I strip off everything from that truck that I’m going to need the next week,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s the seat, air conditioners, mirrors, any fans he might have, seat belts, helmets, all that kind of stuff. Then I go and transfer that over to the upcoming race truck and put all that stuff in. The rest of the guys do the same thing, and we checklist it to make sure everything is safe and nothing is going to fall off and take the truck to the next track.”

While there is plenty of glory in having a strong run or a trip to victory lane, there is a substantial amount of travel involved for the crews that often have to leave their families behind. Jared told me how much he enjoys traveling to other parts of the country, but he also pointed out that unlike Animal, he doesn’t have children.

“It’s terrible [leaving the kids to head out of town],” Animal explained. “I think that’s the biggest aspect for me where traveling needs to die down for me soon. I’ve got a six year old and an 18 year old. One’s racing and one’s in college, and of course my wife. I’m just at a different point in life with kids where it makes it harder.”

No matter what anyone thinks about a driver winning a race or a championship, in the end, NASCAR truly is a team sport where everyone involved basks in the glory of victory and experiences the disappointment of a wreck or a mechanical failure. Aside from the obvious of a trip to victory lane, these crew members want fans to know the same things.

“Just that we have a role,” Jared said. “People always ask what we do during the race or why we go out to each track three days early. They don’t understand the hours and hours of preparation we do before a race.”

Animal had much of the same thoughts when asked what he’d like fans to know about the crews.

“The time and effort that we put in to make these drivers safe and go out there and get them their careers that they have.”

While not on the roster, little Oliver Paludo plays an integral role among the team as well…

Unofficially, the No. 32 crew also is involved in entertaining and wearing out young Oliver Paludo, who is an absolute ball of energy wherever he goes. In fact, I watched Truck Chief Chad Rainey play blocker in the hauler while Oliver ran at him to the best of his two-year-old linebacker abilities, all while both of them giggled uncontrollably. And when Oliver wasn’t busy trying to tackle Chad, he would visit with Animal, who was engrossed in videos on his tablet. It’s times like those, witnessing the crew members while they weren’t busily at work, that demonstrate just how much of a family sport NASCAR truly is.

News & Notes:

  • Miguel Paludo has been named as one of the three finalists for the “Capacete de Ouro” (Golden Helmet) award. The Brazilian award includes nominees from auto racing across the board, with the exception of IndyCar and F1. Paludo won the award in 2009 when he also took home the “Porsche Cup” title before coming to the United States to race in NASCAR.

“I have won the Golden Helmet in the past when I ran in Brazil, and being a nominee this time at a very competitive category, Top Internacional, is a great recognition in this moment of my other career, competing in the U.S. in the NASCAR Truck Series,” Paludo said. “This is the main prize of the Brazilian motor racing and it is very rewarding be a finalist in a category as important.”

In 72 career Truck Series starts, Paludo has 25 top 10s (11 this season) and eight top 5s.

  • Sharp-Gallaher Racing announced on Wednesday that 2011 Truck Series champion Austin Dillon will pilot the No. 6 Chevrolet for the organization this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 23-year-old has two other starts in the series this season. He won the inaugural Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway in July and posted a seventh-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway while subbing for an ill Brennan Newberry.

“I’m a racer so when Sharp-Gallaher Racing presented me with the opportunity to race the No. 6 Chevrolet at Homestead-Miami Speedway I jumped at it,” said Dillon. “I love the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and my record in the Series is pretty good this year (one-for-one with the Eldora win). Racing in the Trucks will help me determine exactly what my Nationwide Series car needs as I try to battle for the Nationwide Series Championship, and Richard Childress Racing has an alliance with SGR. They run ECR Engines in their trucks. They put solid, competitive trucks on the track each week and won the race last year. I think we can put them in Victory Lane there again.”

In 76 Truck Series starts, Dillon boasts two wins, 31 top 5s and 53 top-10 finishes.

  • As we reported in Tracking the Trucks earlier this week, Ron Hornaday, Jr. is out of the No. 9 Chevrolet for NTS Motorsports, however he will pilot the No. 34 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet, one of six entries the team has for this weekend. Regular drivers James Buescher, Jeb Burton and Miguel Paludo will be joined by Hornaday, Cale Gale and Ben Kennedy. TSM Nationwide Series driver Nelson Piquet, Jr. was officially named as the driver of the NTS Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet this weekend.

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