"One Of The Crew"
March 14, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
I cornered him at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas recently, he sat down to give us a bit of an idea what it’s like to be “on the crew” for a major racing institution like Penske and what it’s like to be, Earl Barban.
Beginning life with a six-year stint in the Marine Corps, Earl quickly moved on in 1988 to working as a nightclub bartender and bar manager in Missouri, while finding time on the side (as most racers do) to race his own dirt car outside south St Louis at Ken Schrader’s 1/3 mile dirt oval, I-55 Speedway in Pevely Missouri.
When a buddy whose sprint cars he helped work on, invited him to lunch one day, he went to his shop. Upon seeing the show cars of famous racers like Bobby Allison and Danny Sullivan, Earl thought it would be a great place to work so he applied and they hired him. Thus began his venture into the world of professional racing.
Starting out at the bottom, he began by building show cars, souvenir trailers, and taking them out on the road to display at various venues. Earl continued doing that for three years until 1990 when Roger Penske moved him to Charlotte and into the research and development team, driving the truck and being a test mechanic for PRS. Ever interested in learning more, Barban began driving the race hauler the next year, took a turn at gassing the car for a few years, and was jack man for four years. He continued the hauler position and working on the cars until 97 when he stopped driving. Upon having knee surgery, which inhibited his continuation of the jack man position, last year he also began the new responsibility of spotting. He performed at that position for all but 15 races last year and will spot for all but eight tracks this year. He currently shares the duty with Rusty Wallace’s “old” spotter Dave Kenny who has moved on within the organization, but still continues to enjoy getting out of the shop to keep his hand in the mix on rotating weekends.
Does he feel pressure in the spotter’s tower to be perfect each race? Not at all, because he does the best he can as the spotter, which he views as the driver’s safety device.
“That is what spotters are meant to be. A competitive edge may be that I can tell him where someone else has been running on the track that may be faster than Rusty has been doing, if I can see guys falling off or pitting a certain cycle. I listen to everything on the radio so that I can keep him informed. I want Rusty to be free to turn to the right without being afraid that somebody is out there. If I can get to him just a little sooner and get an advantage, then maybe that is the competitive edge that I can give him.”
Now occupying the senior spot on the team, besides his race day responsibility of spotting, his job is to take care of the mechanical side of the car. He along with three others goes over the race day checklists to be sure each and every detail had been attended to. He can assess the brakes, and make transmission and motor changes. In the last 2 years he has begun working more with the engine shop and feels comfortable enough that if need be, he could tune the engine on race weekend if the engine team failed to make it to the track. When asked if his multiple experiences within the organization seem to be paying off, Earl is candid.
“It is a benefit all the way around, it all works really good. This year is my 12th season and there is not anything about how things run, that I don’t know. If Rusty starts to motion something, I know what he wants, Rusty wants things done a certain way and I know how to do it that certain way, because I’ve been trained only by Penske racing. Gary Brooks at the shop, Dave Kenny and David Little at the Fabrication, Scott Robinson in gears and transmissions, so I know how everybody wants it done.”
Perhaps Earl’s biggest accomplishment and one he is extremely proud of in his tenure with Penske, is that he has traveled with the crew to every race since 1991.
His greatest regrets about living the life every race fan admires is that even though he travels to great places and is surrounded by tremendously beautiful locations, there is never a minute away from the track. There is always something calling to be done either in the garages or on the track and it prevents him from having any spare minutes when he may venture out into the “real world” to become a sight-seer. He would also dream of being able to have vacation that doesn’t come in the middle of winter, which limits his choices of places he is able to visit on his “off” time.
Although his positions inside the Penske organization have taken him from being transport driver to the now lofty position of spotter for one of the most famous drivers on the circuit, he doesn’t mince words. There is no nervousness when he takes the radio and his driver’s life into his very capable hands. He has known Rusty Wallace for so long that the mesh between the two makes for an unbeatable combination. He knows what Rusty wants to hear and what he doesn’t and he knows how to tell him the information he needs without mixing signals. Working for one of the biggest and most well respected race teams in the business, Earl has a high opinion of his bosses.
“The prestige is number one. Anything that Roger Penkse’s name is associated with is gold. He is a very, very well respected business man and I’m proud to work for Penske Racing South.” Rusty Wallace is the only driver that Earl has ever worked for and will most likely be the only one he ever does. He and Rusty have discussed his future he has decided he will be there until his driver retires. And what then?
Even through all these seasons of work, Earl has been preparing for a life in the “outside world.” He owns several rental properties, and a warehouse and race shop out of which he runs. He tries to keep active outside of his job to provide a secure future. His timeline is working for Wallace until he retires, (hopefully by the age of 45) and after that, maybe do something fun!
Until then Earl is just happy where he is, tucking his driver securely into the race car on race day, being in the middle of the action and making sure that everything on this team runs right.
Got a question? Call Earl, he’ll probably know the answer!