It's Friday morning of almost any NASCAR weekend, more than two days before the green flag drops. But the competition has already begun.Uniformed crewmen push brightly painted Chevys, Dodges, and Fords into the tech line, each one prepared to do battle in the weekend's Nextel Cup race. But before they can hit the track, they must pass through the technical gauntlet of a cadre of NASCAR officials, trained to inspect and detect, keep the playing field level, and ensure the safety of all participants. Hurry up and wait is the order of the day: hurry up to get the car ready, and wait for your turn in the tech sheds.
John Darby, director of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, says NASCAR has 45 full-time and approximately 20 part-time officials. Fifty men and women, give or take a few, staff the average race, each with specific jobs to do. Some work primarily with the Craftsman Truck Series, some in Busch, and some in Nextel Cup.
"The reason we designate officials to specific series," Darby explains, "is because we have so many events, and not all of them at the same track. Cup may be in Las Vegas, Busch in Pocono, and Trucks somewhere else. We need enough people to staff all three series."
Where do these people come from? And how do they get to be NASCAR officials? Darby came to NASCAR from the grassroots of motorsports, working first in weekly and touring series, then semi-national and finally at the national level. "A lot of officials started that way," he says.
Even though racing has become increasingly more technical, a graduate degree in engineering isn't required for employment. "Actually, there's not much demand for engineering degrees," Darby adds. "An individual with 10 years in motorsports is just as desirable as someone who just graduated from engineering school."
Billy Berkheimer, supervisor for the team that does the aerodynamic templates, saw his years in motorsports pay off. A friend of Darby's, Berkheimer had experience at Rockford (Illinois) Speedway, where he'd raced, driven the pace car, done inspections, and worked as an official. "I even sang the National Anthem," he says.
As a spectator at Daytona 10 years ago, Berkheimer was in the right place with the right skills when there was a shortage of tech inspectors. "Plate races take so much more officiating," he says.
When Berkheimer was asked if he'd like to officiate at that race, he said yes, sold his tickets, and worked the race. "They wanted to know if I'd be willing to work more races and I said yes," he recalls. "Then I went home and didn't hear anything until the Milwaukee race. I worked five or six races that year."
The next year Berkheimer became a full-time NASCAR official.
TrainingDarby says technical schools also provide talent pools for inspectors. "We've developed relationships with technical institutes such as the NTI [NASCAR Technical Institute] and automotive training facilities. We look for strong mechanical ability, the ability to think on their feet. A strong motorsports background is a plus, as well as a general knowledge of mechanics. I like to think we're improving our staff. They have more education, more skills."
Personality is also important. "It's huge," Darby says. "NASCAR is a group, for all practical purposes, that lives together 40 weeks a year. A lot of what we do resembles marital relationships. It takes a very disciplined attitude."
Diversity has become valued in NASCAR's hiring, so every season more women and minorities become officials. "The more personalities you can get in the mix," Darby reports, "the more it takes some of the grind out of it. The job can be more fun."
When not at a racetrack somewhere, Darby and Berkheimer work at the NASCAR Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. Their jobs often require long hours.
"I don't even want to think about it. It would make me shudder," Berkheimer says. "But I'm single, my family is back in Illinois, and I love what I'm doing. We have a lot of officials who work part-time because their lifestyle won't allow them to work full-time. And that's OK."
Training for new officials takes place at the Conover office near Hickory, North Carolina, or in Concord. A new official's indoctrination begins with simple things such as what to expect on a race weekend or in the garage area. Specialized training is given in specific disciplines, such as engines, aero templates, fuel cells, or safety inspections. "There's also a very lengthy training for pit road officials," Darby says. "The best training we have is experience."
Berkheimer says instructors encourage training in more than one area. Flexibility allows NASCAR to fill gaps in inspection teams that might be created by illness or other absences.
Unlike drivers, officials don't necessarily start in lower series and work their way up to Cup. "We put the most suitable person in the spot," Darby says. "They don't necessarily work their way through Trucks and Busch to Cup."
Keeping pace with changes is part of the job. There are those who maintain that NASCAR's rule book is written in pencil. Changes are often made in response to a team's creativity or to problems that threaten the safety of participants. This is a challenge for NASCAR's officials as well as for teams. "We sit down immediately with the officials assigned to that discipline to keep them abreast of recurrent changes." Darby says.
In 2004, changes were made in the inspection process to improve consistency. Inspectors were divided into groups headed by a team captain. Each group focuses on one aspect of inspections.
"You get much more consistent results," Darby says. "It drives your ability to notice changes quicker. If you're used to looking at a square box and one day you start to see round corners on the square box, you notice right away.
"For a single series director it would be impossible to monitor all aspects of inspection. You have to get enough smart people around you."
The GrindSo what is an average weekend like for a Nextel Cup official? "Thursday is travel day, although the transport guys may need to leave Tuesday or Wednesday," Darby says. Mid-afternoon finds a small group of inspectors unloading and setting up. Equipment is tested, calibrated, leveled, and verified so that everything is ready for the next day.
On Friday, Darby meets with his officials about 30 minutes before the garages open to the teams. They talk about any lingering issues from the previous weekend, discussing specific problems as well as potential issues with the current track. They review the schedule, the order and sequence of inspections, and traffic flow. Everyone knows what to do.
There are typically five hours for teams to get through inspection before practice. During practice, inspectors regulate traffic in and out of the garage area and manage pedestrians. Then officials may have an hour for lunch and rest until they begin inspecting cars before qualifying. There is also a post-qualifying inspection of the top five cars and one or two others chosen at random.
The day ends with a 10-minute debriefing and discussion of anything that helps prepare for the next day. When the garages close at 6:30 and all the teams must drop their wrenches and leave for the day, NASCAR officials can relax, too.
Saturday morning also starts with Darby meeting with his officials. By then there are only 43 teams in the garage area, and it's time to finish inspections. Any car that crashed, for instance, has to be reinspected. Final practice also has to be managed.
"By noon we're about done," Darby says. The garage remains open so teams can work on their cars. "This is when there's a lot of circulation [by officials]. It helps that it's an open-air garage, so all the competitors can keep tabs on each other. They can look to the left and look to the right and feel good about what they see." While officials watch Cup teams working on their vehicles, those trained for pit-road duty may suit up and work a companion race.
Sunday starts with a third morning meeting to deal with issues from the previous day. Teams bring their cars for pre-race inspections, after which they are placed on the grid. "When the 43rd car is on pre-grid, officials can take a break for lunch," Darby says.
Pit officials stay busy during races monitoring pit stops and safety. Officials watch the track and report problems to NASCAR Control. Flaggers communicate with drivers about track conditions or their behavior, and Timing and Scoring note every lap.
After the winner's celebrations, the top finishers' vehicles, as well as a random sampling of others, are pushed into the tech sheds. "Inspection post-race focuses mainly on engines and those things that have to be disassembled." Darby says.
After that, the equipment is packed up, the trucks are loaded, and everybody heads out. Another race is in the record books, and another race is down the road.
More information on jobs in NASCAR is available online at employment.nascar.com.
Karts To CupDean Duckett leans into the trunk of the Monte Carlo looking for anything out of place. It's Speedweeks at Daytona, and the NASCAR inspector is looking for rule breakers.
"I make sure nobody is messing around," he says. "It's their job to cheat. It's mine to catch them. I'm working with the best cheaters in the world. It used to upset me, but if they weren't cheating, I wouldn't have a job."
There are several items on Duckett's checklist. "I make sure the fuel bladder isn't torn or outdated and that they're putting all the foam in the tank," he says. "I check to see if they put slits in the rack. You want the cell to be in nice and tight. You can tell when they 'blow up the can' to get more gas in the cell. I put seals on the rack and we check them again after qualifying."
How did a guy from Niagara Falls, New York, land a job with America's premier race series?
It all began at a pizza parlor. "I saw a 'Help Wanted' sign in the window and went in to ask about the job," Duckett says. That's how he met Tom Argy Jr. "He'd already hired somebody for the pizza delivery job," Duckett recalls. "I was about to leave when he said, 'Wait a minute. What do you know about go karting?"
Duckett was sent home with a brochure and a video about karts. He says it looked interesting, and he needed a job.
Duckett worked for Argy's T.C.M. Racing for 15 years, officiating for World Karting Association (WKA), Super Karts USA (SKUSA), and International Karting Federation (IKF) events as well as doing promotional events in parking lots. "In 2001, Argy was headed to a NASCAR race in Kansas and asked me if I'd like to come along," Duckett says. "He said he'd help with my resum and introduce me if I thought I'd like a job in NASCAR." Duckett took him up on the offer and was hired for the last five races of the season.
Five years later, he's a regular at NASCAR races. In addition to inspecting fuel cells, Duckett also is in charge of pit open and close for Nextel Cup and for Craftsman Trucks when needed. "Sometimes I 'run the garage' for Trucks, letting Control know if a truck is or isn't going back out," he says.
Duckett, his wife, Jill, and 8-year-old son, Hunter, still live in Niagara Falls. "NASCAR offers to move us every year," he says, "but Jill is happy where she is. I'm working some extra races this year [like the Busch race in Mexico], because [Jill] wants a house."
Traveling 1011/42 months a year is the hardest part of the job, Duckett says. "I have to give my wife, Jill, credit. She's the mom and pop when I'm not here. It's hard to discipline your son over the phone."-June Boone
The TeamsSafetyEncompasses all safety aspects inside and outside the car.
EnginesEnsures that engines meet all specifications, including cubic-inch displacement, carburetion requirements, and so on.
Templates 32 used to determine that body parts meet all specifications.
Mechanical Measurements Includes roof height and weight of car.
Fuel Systems Checks capacity and safety aspects of fuel cells, lines, and more.
Tires Ensures that tires meet all specifications.
Chassis and SuspensionIncludes shocks and various checkpoints on frame and rollcage.
Official Vs. InspectorA NASCAR tech inspector is an official who does technical inspections on race entrants' vehicles. All inspectors are officials. Not all officials are inspectors. Some NASCAR officials work in Timing & Scoring, Flag Stands, Administration, and as Race Officials. In most cases, pit road officials and tech inspectors perform other duties, so some officials might do both jobs.