Ia Hidden Star:/I Ken Burdine

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Ken Burdine is a little bit like a referee in football or basketball. You don’t really notice him until something goes wrong.

But when something does go wrong during a race – whether it be in NASCAR or IRL or CART – you probably want a guy like him doing what he’s doing. Burdine is the motorsports coordinator for Miller Industries, which supplies tow trucks, equipment and services to 10 tracks across the country.

So when the caution flag flew at North Carolina Speedway for a multi-car crash on the backstretch Sunday, Miller’s crew jumped into action, towing back the cars of Kyle Petty, Casey Atwood and Buckshot Jones.

“There’s more behind the scenes than people realize,” said Burdine, who has been at his job for the better part of seven years. “People think I show up at a race track, and we tow in wrecked race cars when it happens and go home. But if it falls in the motorsports category for us, it pretty much has to go across me.”

The actual towing of racecars, which Burdine still does, is the most visible of his duties. There’s plenty of other work involved.

The first piece of work Burdine has to do is negotiate contracts with the 10 race tracks: Daytona International Speedway, North Carolina Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway, California Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, Michigan Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The contract is for any major race at those tracks, so while Burdine won’t be at the Winston Cup race in Las Vegas, he will be at the Indy Racing League event at Homestead.

He also works with Indianapolis Motor Speedway and went to Chicagoland Speedway last year to help train some of the local workers.

Training local workers is another part of Burdine’s work load. Plus, he has to simply find locals at each track. That’s “probably the biggest headache I have,” Burdine said.

“Getting the people to come on race day is not a problem,” Burdine said. “During the week, when people have jobs, getting people to help out with practice can sometimes be difficult. Sometimes we’re required to do stuff for testing, and getting someone in there for that can be difficult.

“People say things like, ‘Hey, if you need anything, give me a call.’ I write it down. When it comes time, and I need a truck, I go back and look at my notes. ‘Hey, this guy said he’d work.’ I’ll call them up and take them up on it. That’s what I‘ve got to do. I tell them, ‘Don’t tell me that if you don’t mean it.’ ”

Plus, he has to compile a credential list for all the volunteers, getting them organized and filed before the race weekend Burdine also has to make sure each track has the right parade lap announcements and that Miller has an ad in the race program.

Burdine is even involved in what the trucks look like once they get to the track, working with logos and other decals at Miller’s shops in Ooltewah, Tenn. and at some of the companies distributors.

Miller Industries builds towing equipment under many different names, making the equipment and then mounting it to a truck chassis. The equipment at racetracks are part of Miller’s “demo” program, meaning a truck used at track could end up in someone’s garage.

“Sure. If you’ve got someone who wants to buy one, tell them to come see me,” Burdine said. “We’ll let them drive it home after a race.

“That’s basically what our program’s about. It promotes sales, good will.”

Once at a track, Burdine and his workers attend the sanctioning body’s safety meeting and then leads his own safety meeting to go over procedures. The process of towing a racecar has changed over the years, refined to the point where it’s a lot like a pit stop. The five workers on a tow truck know their duties, so when there’s a crash to be cleaned up, there’s not a lot of wasted time and effort.

“We hook a race car a whole lot different than we hook a street car,” Burdine said. “Even though we use professional towers that do it in the business every day of the week, when they come out here, it’s not the normal procedure they’re used to. They’re using a wheel lift to attach it underneath. But with the air dams on a race car, there’s no way you can get the crossbar of our wheel bar up underneath it.”

The procedure Burdine uses now is to hook a 1-inch nylon strap on the end of the tower’s boom, lower it to roll bars on the car, hook it, and drive it back to the garage. A car carrier, often called a “rollback,” is used, too.

So the next time you see a car being towed back to the garage of a Winston Cup race, it might not be Burdine driving the truck, but you can bet he had something to do with it.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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