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Haulers become teams' home away from home

September 25, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Today's haulers are jam-packed with everything from primary and backup cars to canopies and food. (Getty Images)

Multipurpose rigs serve as storage, workshops, conference rooms and more

Hershel McGriff remembers when it wasn't that unusual to drive the car to the track, tape up the headlights, race 500 miles and if you didn't wreck it or blow the engine, drive it home.

McGriff did that in 1950, when he drove cross-country from his home in Portland, Ore., to compete in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. He finished ninth in the race, and photos from that day show McGriff's car racing with Oregon license tags.

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In today's NASCAR, state-of-the-art tractor-trailer rigs transport cars and equipment tens of thousands of miles each season. Haulers are the teams' home away from home each weekend, serving not only as a place for storage but also, in some cases, as a workshop and even conference room.

Tow trucks and flat-bed haulers were the standard means of transportation in NASCAR's early days, but a revolution began in the early '90s. By then, teams were using repurposed freight trailers to tote their cars and equipment to the tracks. However, the management team at a Midwest-based trailer manufacturing company had a better idea.

In 1992, Featherlite Trailer owner Conrad Clement and his staff traveled from Cresco, Iowa, to Charlotte, N.C., with hopes of enticing NASCAR team owners with a novel idea: creating a purpose-built, custom-made racing hauler to each teams' unique specifications.

Eric Clement, Conrad's son, said the initial meetings were fact-finding missions to see if Featherlite could provide the best fit for the job at hand.

"What are your problems, and do we have what it takes to solve it?" Eric Clement said. "And is there a fit? They wanted stronger, bigger, lighter-weight trailers that could haul more equipment, that were more durable and would last longer, would work when you wanted it to work, therefore requiring less maintenance.

"They wanted them to be nicer. Too many times people complain about getting things cheaper. They actually wanted nicer and realized it would probably cost more to do that."

Richard Childress was intrigued, having dealt with the company through their horse-trailer division. He ordered the first one -- which is still on the road today -- and within three years, Featherlite had built and sold 100 NASCAR transporters.

With a federally mandated weight limit of 80,000 pounds, today's haulers are jam-packed with everything teams might need at the track. That includes the obvious: primary and backup cars, tools and toolboxes, spare parts, communications equipment, uniforms and personal gear. And perhaps the not so obvious: canopies, food and "hero cards."

For Furniture Row Racing, keeping track of the more than 10,000 items -- large and small -- that belong on the team hauler each weekend is Charlie Krauch's job. Because the team is based in Denver, the primary hauler will travel more than 100,000 miles a year. Forgetting something important is a very big deal.

That requires organization and prioritization. When the hauler returns to the shop after every race, the cars and equipment are removed, and the hauler is cleaned from one end to the other. At the same time, each department in the shop -- engines, transmissions, brakes, shocks -- is preparing individual carts with fresh equipment to be reloaded.

It's a well-orchestrated dance, as important overall as a quick pit stop, because any delay can create havoc down the road. Krauch is well aware of the importance of preparation.

"You want to cover your bases as much as you can," Krauch said. "And you have to do it in a timely manner, because the time frame that you have to deal with is tight. And our time frame is usually a lot tighter than everybody else's.

"I try to get the hauler out of here as quickly as I can. I'd rather have the hauler out of here early and get there early -- and let them chill out for a day -- than to get there at the last minute or even miss the roll call to get into the race track.

"That's a bad scenario."

The worst-case scenario already has happened to Furniture Row. Two years ago at Phoenix, the transporter was severely damaged in a multi-car accident on an icy road. No one was hurt, but the team's equipment was all but useless.

The team had no idea how it would be able to get to the season finale at Homestead, but Childress came to the rescue. He offered to bring his test hauler and some spare parts to Florida.

The team was able to load its two cars and tow them to a truck stop north of the track, where everything was transferred to the RCR hauler. NASCAR even got into the mix, using one of its tractors to help park the replacement hauler in the garage area.

It's a situation that Krauch would rather not revisit, but it's always in the back of his mind.

"When you're running the trucks up and down the highway, the unknown is the big thing because you still have to park the truck at a certain time," Krauch said. "If you have a breakdown, you have to scramble to get another tractor or [figure out] how long it'll take to get it fixed."

It's definitely a far cry from a time when drivers were responsible for getting their cars to and from the track, and avoiding speeding tickets in the process.

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