NASCAR truck drivers endure grueling schedule

The Long Haul

Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2002

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The sunglasses, mustache and cowboy hat makes it difficult for most people to tell a difference between Michael Butcher and his boss, Richard Petty.

The way people take second and third looks at him has become a way to break up the miles between races. Who needs Waffle Houses and weight stations when there are so many games to play with impressionable fans on the highway?

Truck drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series need such distractions, especially during the month of June. That's when the sport enters a grueling stretch of races that includes stops in Dover, Del., Long Pond, Pa., Brooklyn, Mich., and Sonoma, Calif.

For Butcher, also known as ''Cowboy'' in the garage area and on the CB radio, the month of June means non-stop driving to and from the team's compound in Level Cross, N.C. Four races and a two-day test session at the New Hampshire International Speed way will put more than 5,076 miles on the Georgia Pacific truck that hauls race cars and equipment for driver Steve Grissom.

And if that wasn't enough, he also has a fulltime job in the garage area on race weekends, including a 10-hour day before he turns the key Sunday night to start the long ride home.

''The most fun I have every week is driving the truck,'' Butcher said. ''Going down the road is fun. I've been doing it for 22 years and it's still the most fun I have.''

Truck driving on the Winston Cup Series is a thankless job of all night runs, stale coffee and speed traps. Race teams bounce from stop to stop on jets. They leave the shop at quitting time and find their work-away-from-home waiting on them the next morning at the race track.

The schedule is demanding. For example, Butcher started the month with a 502-mile trip from North Carolina to Dover, Del. The day after the race, the team was at New Hamp shire for a test session, meaning Butcher helped load the hauler after the race and was at the next stop _ 435 miles away _ at the crack of dawn.

From New Hampshire, Butcher drove the truck to the next race at Pocono, Pa. From there, he headed home for two days before hitting the road again for this Sunday's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at the Michigan International Speedway.

After Sunday's main event, Butcher will drive back to North Carolina, unload the truck and quickly load it with road-racing equipment for the 2,923-mile cross-country journey to the Sears Point Raceway. After working 10 hours on race day, he will turn around and head home again.

''If I have a run that's over 12 hours, I have somebody with me,'' Butcher said. ''But most of the time, I'm alone. I can go about 10-12 hours. If you get tired, sometimes you have to pull over for a quick nap. You can't push it.''

Twenty years ago it was easier to be a truck driver on the Winston Cup Series. Speeding tickets could be forgotten with a race team hat. Inspectors at weight stations would look the other way for a signed postcard or a quick look inside the truck.

Inspectors and police aren't as forgiving these days, Butcher said. That's why he keeps it within 5 mph of the speed limit. Time is money on the road, and there's no time for the kind of delays caused by a traffic ticket.

Butcher grew up less than 10 miles from Petty Enterprises. He applied for a job with the team in 1978, only to get a rejection letter from Petty himself. When ''The King'' hired him three years ago, Butcher showed him the 21-year-old letter.

''He got a kick out of it, but I never got rid of a letter from The King,'' Butcher said. ''Now that I work for him, I still have it.''

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