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.

 and on Facebook

 

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevy Silverado 250
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: Talladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

Denny Hamlin calls out NASCAR leadership for Next Gen concerns

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin cites “bad leadership” from NASCAR for creating a car that he says needs to be redesigned after two drivers have suffered concussion-like symptoms in crashes this year.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been most outspoken about the safety of the car this year. Chase Elliott spoke up Saturday about how “disappointed” he is “that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in.” 

Hamlin said other drivers must join them in being heard.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR had not offered a response to Hamlin’s comments as of Saturday afternoon.

Driver frustrations with the Next Gen car continue to grow, as Alex Bowman became the second driver to be forced to miss at least a race for concussion-like symptoms. 

Bowman crashed last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and experienced headaches and other symptoms of a concussion earlier this week, according to Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. 

Bowman went to a doctor on Thursday and the team announced that day Bowman would not race Sunday. No timetable for his return has been announced. Noah Gragson will drive Bowman’s car Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who drives for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, continues to be out because of a head injury he suffered after he crashed July 23 at Pocono Raceway. Busch said this week that he is “hopeful” of racing this season.

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticisms Saturday about the car and series officials for an issue he said drivers brought up more than a year ago.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on the rear clip and rear bumper of the car. That’s an improvement that could be made to the car for next season. A complaint about the car is how stiff the rear is and how rear-end impacts have felt more violent to drivers this season. The crash test is the first since a full car crash test last December. 

For Hamlin, the rear is only a start to what needs to be done to the car.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.”

Hamlin also knows it’s too late for a redesign for next year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘All right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car,” Hamlin said. “We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just (that) NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

That’s not likely. NASCAR has a contract with the suppliers of each part and those deals, while they can be broken under certain circumstances, are multi-year deals. 

Hamlin said drivers brought up concerns about the car last year. There had been concerns about the car and how hard the impact felt after William Byron’s crash in testing at Auto Club Speedway in March 2020.

“We actually, as the drivers, didn’t do that docu-series last year because we didn’t feel comfortable with this Next Gen car and the lack of the safety testing that had been done before they started announcing that they were going to run it,” Hamlin said. “We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing this car has got to be on the track at all cost. At all cost.”

In an interview last month, John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, told NBC Sports that he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst said. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems.

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth.”

Jordan Anderson in fiery crash in Talladega Truck race

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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Jordan Anderson was airlifted to an area hospital after being involved in a fiery crash during Saturday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Anderson’s car caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. Flames burst from three areas around the truck as Anderson tried to slow the vehicle and move onto the track apron. The truck hit the inside wall. Anderson climbed from the vehicle in a cloud of smoke as it came to a stop.

Anderson, 31 and a resident of Forest Acres, S.C., was transported to the infield medical center before being airlifted. NASCAR confirmed Anderson’s trip to the hospital.

Fox Sports reported that a team member said Anderson had burns.

Anderson is a part-time driver in the Truck Series. He has a top finish of 14th this season.

Starting lineup for Talladega Cup race: Christopher Bell wins pole

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Six playoff drivers will start in the top 10 for Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Christopher Bell won the pole for the race Saturday with a speed of 180.591 miles per hour. He was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe.

MORE: Talladega Cup starting lineup

MORE: Talladega Cup qualifying results

Playoff drivers starting in the top 10 are Bell, Larson, Hamlin, Briscoe, Ross Chastain (sixth) and William Byron (ninth).

Noah Gragson, who qualified seventh, is replacing Alex Bowman, who is sitting out the race with concussion-like symptoms.

Ryan Blaney, starting 19th, is the lowest playoff driver on the starting grid.