Driver For Earnhardt In It For Long Haul

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Troy Cole secures one of the Chevrolets of NASCAR driver Steve Park inside the trailer and gets ready for another long haul.

Then he leaves the Dale Earnhardt Inc. shop, blends into the traffic and heads for Daytona Beach, Fla.

Although some of his trips -- more than two days nonstop with a relief driver -- cover nearly 3,000 miles, he is alone on this 550-mile drive. But he has plenty of company -- on the radio, that is. Nothing bearing Earnhardt's name escapes notice for long in the heart of stock car country.

Thirty minutes into the trip, the CB radio banter begins.

"Is Dale Earnhardt in there with you?"

"Got any hats for a good buddy?"

Then the clincher:

"How do you get a great job like that?"

Cole laughs.

"Being in the wrong place at the wrong time and saying the wrong thing," he answers.

This 48-year-old jack of all trades has what many long-haul drivers consider one of the great jobs in the industry. He drives the transporter that hauls two cars and a porta-garage to every Winston Cup race.

Each weekend, he refuels the cars during pit stops and finds time to grill pork chops, chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers for the rest of the team.

A retired Charlotte firefighter, Cole began his racing career in 1990, not long a misunderstanding caused him to quit a job as relief driver for another team before he ever turned a wheel. The primary driver didn't want a stranger in the cab for long hauls, and Cole said he understood.

After stints hauling cars to testing sessions, he went to work for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when it started its Winston Cup team in 1997.

"I really didn't mind," Cole said of the aborted try with another team. "I got a better job."

Now, he covers more than 55,000 miles annually to races all over the country. He drives an 80,000-pound hauler that doubles as headquarters for the team each race weekend.

The rig holds everything the team thinks it will need. There are almost enough spare parts to build a race car: extra engines, sheet metal, suspension parts and painting equipment.

Also aboard are boxes filled with nuts and bolts, and video equipment the team will use to record pit stops for later analysis. The trailer doubles as a lounge area where the driver and crew can get away from the frantic pace of the garage.

While Park runs the car around the track during practice, Cole fires up the grill.

But during the race, when it's time for a pit stop, he climbs over the wall as the gas man. In about 16 seconds -- while the other crew members change four tires and make any needed setup changes -- Cole dumps two cans of fuel weighing 80 pounds each into the car and climbs back over the wall as Park speeds back onto the track.

"It's challenging and exciting," Cole says. "There's a rush you get that's hard to explain."

When the race ends, Cole and the rest of the crew scurry to pack the truck for the trip home. It takes only a few minutes to again load everything from pit carts to shocks and springs, chairs, crew uniforms and the cars.

Then Cole heads back to the shop unload the car, load a new one set up for the upcoming race and begin the next chapter of his lonesome, nomadic career.

"That's my favorite part, driving the truck by myself," he says. "On the road, I can think about things, or think about nothing and just drive."

Where does that leave, Linda, his wife of seven years, who runs the show car operation for DEI?

She wishes he were home more often, but understands the nature of their business.

With off-season testing, non-points events and a 34-race season, Troy can be gone 40 weeks or more.

"He's gone so often, that I have to mow the yard, take out the trash, pay the bills and keep the car running," Linda says. "But the good part of is that with him gone so much we never have anything to fight about and we really have a good time whenever he's home."

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