From Amish life to a job in NASCAR: Crew member’s unusual journey

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Reuben Kauffman had seen his father cry only once.

Then came Feb. 20, 2012, when Kauffman walked into the kitchen of his family’s Wisconsin farm home. His father sat at the dining table he helped build, reading a well-used Bible. A kerosene lamp dangled from the ceiling. Kauffman’s mother prepared scrambled eggs and homemade granola.

The spartan kitchen was full of wonderful memories for Kauffman, one of nine children. The cinnamon rolls his mother made were treats that remain unmatched. The mashed potatoes and chicken were just as good.

But this would be a day of different memories.

Kauffman, then 17, approached his parents not knowing how to reveal his heartbreaking news.

So he told them that two Black Angus calves had been born in the barn. Then he apologized for socializing with friends the day before that his parents didn’t approve him being around.

There was nothing else to say — except what Kauffman had come in from the family’s cabinet shop to tell his parents at 6 a.m.

After he spoke, they looked at him slightly confused. Kauffman repeated himself. This time, his parents absorbed each painful word.

His mother began to cry.

So did his father.

FROM HORSE AND BUGGY TO RACE CARS

One of nearly 250 employees at Chip Ganassi Racing, Reuben Kauffman’s job as a fabricator is to help build fast cars for Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Brennan Poole and Tyler Reddick.

Kauffman, though, is unlike any of his co-workers.

Amish travel by horse-drawn buggy instead of cars, keeping with their beliefs. (Photo: Reuben Kauffman)

He attended a one-room school through eighth grade, lived 17 years in a home with no electricity and secretly listened to NASCAR races on the radio, breaking his community’s code on  such technology.

He grew up in an Amish enclave in Loganville, Wisconsin, located about 60 miles northwest of Madison. A career in NASCAR seemed remote for someone who traveled by bicycle or horse and buggy and had to learn basic life skills — such as ordering food at McDonald’s — after leaving.

Kauffman followed the path of a cousin, Marlin Yoder, who left the same Amish community four years earlier and later found work for a race team in North Carolina.

Kauffman, who gained his skills working in his family’s cabinet shop, earned his first job with a small race team by offering to work for free during a two-week tryout. Impressed by Kauffman’s work ethic, his boss told a friend at Chip Ganassi Racing about six months later that he had an employee the team should consider hiring.

“When I stop and think about it,’’ he said, “it’s mind-blowing how far you can get if you push yourself.’’

A ONE-WAY TRIP

Reuben Kauffman was uncertain of his future when he told his parents that February 2012 morning what he had contemplated for five years.

“I’m leaving,’’ he told them in their native Pennsylvania Dutch language.

“Leaving what?’’

“I’m leaving the Amish.’’

“You can’t do that.’’

Kauffman watched those outside the Amish community too long to remain. He envied their lifestyle. He saw a world powered by electricity move at a faster pace and enjoy more benefits, such as nearby children playing on four-wheelers and dirt bikes. Speed and machinery intrigued him. The Amish life did not.

Barn the family of Reuben Kauffman has on their Wisconsin farm. (Photo: Reuben Kauffman)

“There’s only so much you can do if you’re Amish,’’ Kauffman said. “I just saw more to life.”

He not only was leaving a lifestyle but his family. His older brothers and sisters were married and lived nearby. It was only he, his twin Rachel and younger brother Ferman living with his parents at the time.

Nothing his parents said in the kitchen that morning swayed Kauffman. He grabbed his gloves and walked out of the house.

Kauffman headed down the dirt driveway, past the cabinet shop, crossed the road and stopped at a shack that had a phone. His family and neighbors shared it for emergencies or special situations. Kauffman called Yoder to pick him up but Yoder couldn’t. One of Kauffman’s older brothers, Ivan, tried to persuade him to stay as Reuben was on the phone with Yoder.

Meanwhile, Kauffman’s parents gathered Rachel and Ferman and told them what was happening. For as much as Kauffman had wanted to tell Rachel of his plans beforehand, he couldn’t.

“I knew if I would, she would go to my parents and it would make it a lot harder because she wouldn’t have wanted me to leave,’’ Kauffman said. “That would have made everything more complicated.’’

Rachel and Ferman went to Kauffman as much to say goodbye as to urge him to stay. It was one thing to tell his parents he was leaving but to tell his twin sister?

Kauffman remained resolute.

He climbed on a bicycle. With no money and only the clothes he wore, he rode 30 miles in 20-degree weather to his cousin’s home and a new life.

EXPERIENCING NASCAR FROM AFAR

Although NASCAR races occurred at tracks they couldn’t imagine, with cars they couldn’t relate to and piloted by drivers they didn’t know, they kept listening.

What could be better?

As teens often do, they rebel. So when the rules include no radios, someone will have a radio.

Amish friends introduced a 15-year-old Reuben Kauffman to NASCAR, letting him listen to the races in their verboten sessions. This was not new. Yoder, who left the community March 9, 2008, also became acquainted with the sport this way and works in it as the car chief at MDM Motorsports for Harrison Burton’s K&N Pro Series East championship team.

The speed, drama and breathless calls by the announcers lured Kauffman even though he had no idea of “the difference from Daytona to Martinsville.’’

Enticed by those races and the music on other stations, Kauffman biked 10 miles to a Dollar General to buy a pocket radio. He went on a Sunday, knowing he likely would not encounter any other Amish because they would be at community gatherings. Still, Kauffman could feel his heart pound in the store, worried someone would see him and tell his father. Kauffman wasn’t hard to spot in his traditional Amish wear of black pants and a white shirt. The clanging of $5 worth of quarters announced his position with each step.

Kauffman hid the radio under his mattress or in the barn, but his parents caught him with it and took it. He later acquired another radio from someone who had left the Amish community.

Kauffman learned to be more cautious. He volunteered before hunting season to go into the woods and scout prime locations. Alone, he could listen to the NASCAR race on the radio without fear of being caught.

A TRYOUT

Unaccustomed to the nuances outside his Amish community, Reuben Kauffman had much to learn.

The first time he rode with his cousin through a McDonald’s drive-thru proved confusing. Kauffman was befuddled when his cousin stopped before getting to the building and gave his order.

“There was nobody standing there,’’ Kauffman says. “He was just talking to the board. That’s how much I knew.’’

A week after leaving home, Kauffman watched his first NASCAR race on TV — the Daytona 500.

“It was amazing,’’ he said. “I couldn’t believe the speeds they carried. Even after listening to it a couple of years (on the radio), it just came to life.’’

Spurred by his interest in the sport and his cousin’s journey, Kauffman found his way into NASCAR.

Reuben Kauffman helps make repairs to Jamie McMurray’s car at Darlington. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Yoder took two weeks from his work as a roofer to go to North Carolina looking to work for a race team. Kauffman, who also worked with Yoder as a roofer, accompanied him on the 2015 trip.

A few days before they returned to Wisconsin, Yoder got a job with a Super Late Model team.

The next year, Kauffman took a couple of weeks off in January to go to North Carolina to find work with a race team. He got a tryout with a part-time K&N team.

“Don’t worry about paying me,’’ Kauffman told the team. “I just want to show you what I know and my work ethic.’’

When it was time to return to Wisconsin, Kauffman was told to pack his bags at home and come back to North Carolina because he had a job.

Six months later, Kauffman’s boss told Matt McCall, crew chief for McMurray, about that work ethic.

A SPECIAL RIDE

The black Camaro sits parked most days outside where Reuben Kauffman lives with  Yoder.

Kauffman occasionally drives it to work but doesn’t use it every day to keep the car from running too many miles.

After leaving the Amish community, the Camaro was one thing he wanted the most.

“I’ve always liked them,’’ Kauffman said. “Sweet sports car.’’

Finding the right one wasn’t easy. He spent three months searching.

“When he finally found the Camaro, it was pretty big for him,’’ Yoder said. “It’s been many years he’s been talking about, ‘Man, I’m going to have me a Camaro one of these days. It’s going to be a black Camaro.’ ‘’

Where did Kauffman, who grew up in a home with no TV, no cell phones and no computers, find his dream car?

The internet.

WORKING AT THE TRACK

Five years after he shocked his parents and siblings and left his Amish community, Reuben Kauffman walked into a Cup track with the Ganassi team for the first time. It was March 31, 2017, a day that featured above-average temperatures that reached 70 degrees at Martinsville Speedway.

“It was almost too good to be true to be in the garage area with the Cup guys and working on the Cup car,’’ Kauffman said. “It’s amazing to be at that point in my life that I’m working on something like that.’’

Although there was work to do, Kauffman took time to admire a facility that has hosted NASCAR races annually since NASCAR’s inaugural strictly stock season in 1949.

Jamie McMurray talks to Reuben Kauffman (far right) and other crew members at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“Just being in the garage,’’ Kauffman said was so special. “Just being right there with everything. The smells, the sounds. There’s always noise at Martinsville, there’s always some cars on the track. Just being in the middle of that whole deal was amazing.’’

He later joined the team for the Coca-Cola 600 weekend at Charlotte, the Southern 500 weekend at Darlington and the opening playoff race at Chicagoland Speedway in September.

Then came a surprise. The team told him they wanted him on the road for the season’s final five races. He would get a NASCAR license.

Kauffman called Yoder shortly after leaving the shop that day to tell him the news.

“He was excited,’’ Yoder said. “He was so excited about it and kept going on and on.’’

While most people could call parents and family after such big news, Kauffman could not. No one manned the phone in that shack back near his home. None of his family members had a cell phone, abiding by the community’s belief against relying on modern technology. There was no way to reach his family immediately. 

To tell his parents, what he had accomplished, what meant so much to him and how excited he was, Kauffman returned to his former Amish ways.

He wrote them a letter.

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ThorSport Racing parts ways with Toyota

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ThorSport Racing announced Tuesday it has agreed with Toyota to part ways after a six-year relationship ahead of the upcoming season.

The Camping World Truck Series team earned two championships (Matt Crafton), 19 wins, 117 top fives and 227 top-10 finishes and 10 poles during their tenure with Toyota.

In their announcement, ThorSport did mention which manufacturer they’ll be paired with in 2018.

The team, based in Sandusky, Ohio, fielded trucks for Crafton, Cody Coughlin and Ben Rhodes in 2017. Coughlin will compete for GMS Racing this season.

ThorSport will announce their full driver lineup in the coming weeks.

The Truck Series season opens Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway.

NBC Sports has reached out to ThorSport and Toyota for further comment.

Check back for more.

Wood Brothers secure charter for 2018 season

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The Wood Brothers have formed a partnership with Go Fas Racing that will allow the No. 21 team to have a charter, guaranteeing Paul Menard a starting spot in every Cup race this season.

Last year, the Wood Brothers leased a charter from Go Fas Racing.

“This charter is a game-changing step for Wood Brothers Racing. It’s the critical piece needed to thrive as a top owner in our sport,” said Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, in a statement from the team.

“We have been fortunate enough to have extremely fast cars and are blessed with the best sponsors in NASCAR. Pair that with our support from Ford and nearly every piece is in place. Last year we leased a charter from Archie [St. Hilaire]. We’ve really come to appreciate working with him and his son Mason, and I think everyone has benefited tremendously from this relationship. For 2018 and beyond, we’ve taken it a step further and entered into a partnership and we think it will be a rewarding endeavor for everyone involved.”

The Wood Brothers scored their 99th career Cup win with Ryan Blaney last year and earned their first playoff spot.

Go Fas Racing stated on Twitter it would have a charter for Matt DiBenedetto but didn’t reveal details.

 and on Facebook

Danica Patrick confirms she is dating NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers

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Danica Patrick said Monday that she and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are dating. Patrick confirmed the news to The Associated Press.

Patrick, who is from Illinois, is a Chicago Bears fan but will change allegiances.

She told the AP that she and Rodgers met at the 2012 ESPY Awards.

“I told him a long time ago I’d always root for him as a player,” Patrick told the AP. “Now I am probably going to cheer for the whole team. Take out the word ‘probably.’ Now I’m going to cheer for the whole team.”

Patrick ended a five-year relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in November. Rodgers split from actress Olivia Munn in 2017 after three years of dating.

Patrick plans to retire from racing this season after competing in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. She has not announced a deal for either ride. An executive with Chip Ganassi Racing recently told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that they were no longer talking to Patrick about a ride in either race.

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Darrell Wallace Jr. feels a connection to Wendell Scott without the pressure of his legacy

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WELCOME, N.C. – There will be many reminders of the history that Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. could make this season in NASCAR’s premier series, but this one was especially personal.

The first full-time African-American driver on the circuit in 47 years since Wendell Scott received a 2-minute voice mail recently from Scott’s son, Wendell Jr.

“(It said) don’t feel like I need to carry the pressure of his dad and the Scott legacy, just go out there and do me,” Wallace said, relaying the message last Friday during a break from a preseason production shoot. “That’s the way it’s always been. All the history falls in place after. That’s how I like to go about it. A small part carries him with me, but I don’t put that in the forefront.

“For me, it’s just to go out and get through practice, qualifying and the race. If we end up with a top five, then, hey, it’s the first African-American to do this or the first African-American to do that. I don’t really look at that stuff. That’s when the media kind of brings that in. You can sit back after the race and say, ‘Damn, that was pretty cool.’ ”

Wallace is accustomed to being in the headlines for unique accomplishments. His Oct. 26, 2013 win in the Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville Speedway was the first by a black driver in one of NASCAR’s national series since Scott’s Dec. 1, 1963 win at Jacksonville, Florida.

Wallace, 24, has notched five more truck victories since then (including his lone start on the circuit last August at Michigan International Speedway) and made the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2016.

But as he steps into the famous No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports (which has moved this year to Chevrolet and a new shop location adjacent to Richard Childress Racing, which will supply its cars and engines), Wallace acknowledges that “for sure, I’m carrying that banner” again for Scott. He got to know the racing pioneer’s family eight years ago after entering NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

He understands the attention brought by his race, though he also sees evidence on social media that his fan base tires of hearing about it.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Wallace said. “I’ve accepted that it’s always going to be talked about no matter what I do. I’ll be the first African-American to take a piss in the Cup garage. Everything I do is a first. It’s going to be there. I’ve accepted it.

“The fans are (who) get so fired up over it. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to mention it?’ Because no one is there. It’s going to be mentioned. It has to be mentioned. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Wallace made his Cup debut with RPM last season at Pocono Raceway, the first of four starts in place of injured Aric Almirola. He posted a respectable average finish of 17.8 while handling the increased exposure with aplomb.

Team owner Richard Petty said “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on (Wallace)” in 2018, but he thinks his crew won’t feel the effects.

“I don’t think it’s going to put that much pressure on RPM because they’re going to do the best they can for whoever it is,” Petty said. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on him, so he’s going to have to learn to live with it.”

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said Wallace already proved last year he is highly adaptable despite the heavy scrutiny.

“When we showed up at Pocono, we realized what it was all about,” Blickensderfer said. “It kind of gave you goosebumps to think about how special it was. We saw all the hoopla and everything that was going on around it, we thought, ‘This is something that’s a little different than just the kid who’s going to drive a race car.’ ”

It doesn’t feel so different away from the track, though, when Wallace brings his freewheeling presence through the shop.

“When he walks in be-bopping and giving people knuckles, it’s nothing,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s just a kid driving a race car. But I think when we get to Daytona and unload the car that has ‘Wallace’ on it and it’s his car, I think it’s going to be a little different. But it’s different in a great way.

“Everybody on this team looks at it like it’s cool. The way Bubba reacts to it, he just handles it. He does it remarkably well for a kid his age. He just kind of takes it in and is OK with it and goes about his business, much better than most people would. It makes it easier for us just to not even think about that weekly. When we get ready to fire engines for the Daytona 500, we’re going to be like, ‘He’s doing something really cool here.’ Until then it’s kind of business, and it’s just some kid driving a race car.

But as he prepares for his first full season in Cup, even Wallace finds himself occasionally caught in the moment – such as when he walked past one of his new Camaros – which was coated only in primer but had his last name across the windshield.

“I was thinking, ‘Damn that’s my Cup car,’” he said. “That’s cool. Nothing on it but ‘Wallace.’ I thought, ‘Damn, that’s really cool to see.’ It’s exciting stuff that’s happening right now. I’ll be anxious to see when we get to Daytona how giddy I’ll be.”