The Rahal Letterman team depends on three truckers
By Paul Abelson
What’s the best job in trucking? Many would answer, “Driving for a high profile auto racing team.” Perhaps the question could be reversed to, what’s the best job in racing? If you ask Doug Hoerig of Warren, Ohio, and Mike Fisher of Columbus, Ohio, they’ll tell you the answer, no matter how the question is asked, is driving the transporter and being a race crew member.
Both work with the Rahal Letterman Racing team, currently running the BMW factory-backed team in the GT (grand touring) class in road racing’s American LeMans Series (ALMS). Bobby Rahal won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 and was Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) national open wheel racing champion in 1986, 1987 and 1992. He also raced in Formula 1 in 1978. David Letterman, the late-night television host, became a silent partner in Team Rahal in 1996. In 2004, the team changed its name to Rahal Letterman Racing (RLR).
Hoerig, a big race fan, started driving for local Ohio-based racing teams in 1996, after launching his truck driving career with Schneider. He joined RLR in 2000.
Fisher’s race team career dates to 1996 with another CART team, Tasman Racing. In 2000, he switched to RLR, where he’s been ever since. While Fisher and Hoerig team drive, the team’s second truck is driven solo by Dick Jones of Columbus, Ohio. Jones, 74, retired after 38 years of over-the-road driving, more than half of it in chemical tankers. He, too, joined RLR in 2000. He brings his truck in the paddock (the teams’ garage area) first, precisely at the edge of their assigned space. Then Hoerig or Fisher line up exactly 17 inches on Jones’ right. When lined up, each trailer’s side doors open, forming a pass through between the trailers.
Just in case you think that when the rigs are in place, the job is done and the drivers can go off duty, think again. Before each of the two team cars can be unloaded from each trailer’s upper deck, the awning for the “garage” and all tools and equipment must be unloaded and set up. That includes pit area fueling equipment and computers so the crew chiefs and team management can monitor telemetry from the cars.
Hoerig and Fisher carry all paddock and pit equipment and even a small machine shop, plus equipment up to and including engine hoists; everything except tire mounting equipment. Jones’ truck carries spare parts. While RLR doesn’t carry back-up race cars, they have every spare part except a chassis. Engines, transmissions, drive trains, instruments, fuel systems and virtually any vehicle system can be repaired or replaced with parts from Jones’ truck. It’s no wonder that both trucks scale almost 80,000 pounds.
Beyond the driving
Among other duties, the drivers are responsible for maintaining inventories, replacing parts used at the track when they get back to Ohio.
“We usually have two to three weeks between races, so there’s time to get things done,” Hoerig says. “But from here (Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.) we race next week in Toronto. That gives us just one day at the shop to get everything done. Then it’s back on the road.”
“When you drive for a high profile race team like ours, you have to keep the trucks looking good,” says Fisher. “You never know when sponsors or guests will show up for a tour of our paddock. These trucks are rolling billboards.”
Jones says, “People are more interested in NASCAR, but we always get the once-over from quite a few motorists each trip, especially when they realize they’re looking at David Letterman’s trucks. Or, if they’re race fans, Bobby Rahal’s.”
Law enforcement can be just as starstruck as anyone else. “Sometimes they’ll pull you around back — not because there’s anything wrong, but just to look at the race cars,” notes Fisher. “And you really can’t say no to a scale master. They’re disappointed when we open up the back and they can’t see much. When we’re packing to 80,000 pounds, it’s pretty tight.”
Hoerig and Fisher are also part of the over-the-wall pit crew, helping service the BMWs. With races as long as the 12 Hours of Sebring (Fla.), cars come into the pits regularly for fuel and tires, and to change drivers. Between races the crews practice pit stops, consistently taking on fuel or changing tires in mere seconds. When not working on pit skills, the crew also spends time on physical conditioning. But with their heavy workload, the truckers don’t have time for workouts and practice. Fisher operates the air jack, connecting compressed air to jack up the car on pneumatic cylinders for tire changing. A fire-suited Hoerig stands in the pit with a fire extinguisher during fuel stops, as required by ALMS regulations. Jones is the go-to guy. Crew members go to him during the race for everything from bottles of water to parts and tools.
Most highway drivers keep truck tires pumped to 100 psi or more, and if a tire is high or low by a few pounds, it doesn’t matter. In racing, tire pressures have a critical effect on handling and lap times. When the racers radio crew chiefs that handling is off and needs to be adjusted, the first corrective action is to adjust tire pressures, often by as little as a quarter to a half pound. Hoerig and Fisher do that for both BMWs.
The rigors of the work
There are always drivers at truckstops who ask how to get a job with a race team. Often it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the jobs are advertised in local or national race fan newspapers, sometimes on the Internet. Doug often asks, “Are you sure you can handle the job? It’s not just driving and setting up. You don’t get to sit back and relax once the pit and paddock are ready to go.”
Truck drivers are often asked to serve as hosts for everyone from VIP visitors to local Boy Scout troops. Being responsible for all the team’s spare parts and equipment, they are the first to arrive at every race track, and the last to leave.
Hoerig cautions potential drivers to be sure it’s something they really want to do. “You give up a great deal of family time. It’s pretty intense for about nine months straight, starting the first of the year with testing and tweaking new cars. Then in February our season starts at the 12 Hours of Sebring and concludes early October with the Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta. We get back to the shop to get the trucks taken care of and catch up on everything we’ve neglected, then we can catch our breath and relax for a while. In January, it starts again.
“It’s the kind of job that probably only five percent of truck drivers could handle,” Hoerig says. “But if you can do it, it’s the best job in trucking.”
Editor’s note: Rahal Letterman Racing won its class at the ALMS at Road America and finished in top three in every race except the last, where they came in fourth. When the points were totaled, RLR and BMW Motorsports won the ALMS GT Class Manufacturer and Team Championships. It was the team’s first championship.