It's gray and rainy when we arrive at the Pomona dragway (aka Auto Club Raceway), where the NHRA Winternationals are supposed to be happening. It's not that the venue will change; cars can't run until the track is dry enough, and as of Friday morning, nothing is running at the first event of the season. A rare storm among talk of drought conditions and the threat of water rationing has temporarily silenced what is otherwise one of the loudest events on wheels--drag racing.
We walk through the pit area to where Team JEGS has its two rigs set up. The reason we came--nitro-burnin' action aside--is to learn about two fantastic custom big-rigs and see how they keep a champion race team on track. Rain or shine, one of the most important members of the team still has a job to do, and on this day, he's busily working away when we catch up with him. Nicky Morse is the chef for Team JEGS and as such is responsible for feeding the drivers, technicians, and assistants that make sure everything goes as planned.
Photo courtesy of Team JEGS
Nicky works in a fully customized kitchen located behind the cab of a 2008 Volvo Conversion. T&E Auto Haulers, based in Herscher, Illinois, was responsible for setting up this kitchen on wheels, and the result is nicer than the kitchens in many houses. Nicky and his brother, who has expertise in AutoCAD, designed the kitchen, Nicky selected the appliances, T&E made sure the trailer would still be capable of carrying race cars if necessary (the rig's job before it also served as a kitchen), and Myers Cabinets in Indianapolis built and installed the cabinets. Generators supply power, and there are gas lines for the burners. There's a refrigerator and freezer, six-burner industrial stove, sink, slide-out spice rack, pasta rack (yes, he does make pasta from scratch), cabinets above and below on three sides, a microwave--we don't know why; he doesn't seem to use it--granite countertops, and a Corian countertop. When this semi isn't being used as a cooking and eating area, it's a rolling storage area, and the segment of the counter that's topped with Corian is on wheels. This material saves 500 pounds of weight, making it much easier to move than granite. Most of the trailer is filled with tables and chairs, with enough room to comfortably seat 20 or so, and everything is modular and can break down to be stored in a surprisingly compact space.
Randy Bishop is the man in charge of this 37-foot-long, 57,000-pound rig. He clocks an amazing 60,000-65,000 miles behind the wheel each year, and is on the road from February to mid-November. He typically drives 700 miles a day, stopping to recheck straps, locks, and more about 100 miles after hitting the road following an event. He told us that the most miles he's put on a single tank of fuel is 1325--but that wasn't in one drive, of course. The cab has many of today's creature comforts, including nav, Bluetooth, and Sirius. When he isn't heading to (or at) the track, he's taking care of the truck. At the beginning of the year, before race season starts up, the tractor/trailer goes back to Delaware, Ohio (JEGS headquarters) for any necessary repairs and maintenance. There, Randy also reconfigures what'll be stored on board, learning the fastest way to set up and tear down, using the JEGS shop to fabricate whatever's needed to make things more efficient. Total setup time of the JEGS pit is six hours, teardown is a mere four--down from eight hours when he first started.
Chef Nicky and Randy Bishop
Randy owned an auto/boat/motorhome repair shop for 20 years, and has used his considerable expertise to keep this truck in tip-top shape. He's also made plenty of repairs when driving from one race to the next, and has learned to be extremely resourceful--seems like a vehicle never breaks down in the middle of a big city. Keith Graham--also known as Big Show--drives the second big-rig, which holds the team's weather station, racecar data computers, spare parts, tools, extra engines, and carries the cars. The data recorded and analyzed in these computers focuses on very small details. It helps define how the vehicle is set up and is essential to winning, as races like this can be won or lost in a ten-thousandth of a second.
Nicky Morse is highly enthusiastic about cooking, knowing from a young age that was what he wanted to do. Spending time learning his craft, he perfected it by working in country clubs--sometimes planning and cooking for 18 functions in a single day--hotels, and restaurants, and did freelance chef work for CMT, cooking at the homes of Tanya Tucker, John Michael Montgomery, and more. The work he was doing was very stressful and required long hours, a combination that became impossible to manage when he was diagnosed at the age of 30 with Hodgkin's disease. Forced to abandon his dream, he spent some time teaching at a culinary school before being approached to be JEGS' chef.
Now that he is, he loves that he can work in a kitchen again in a less stressful environment, and relishes finding new recipes to try for the team. He also likes using items from the local markets when on the road (seafood in Seattle, spices from the Southwest, etc.), plus he knows a guy who lets him use a smoker for fantastic BBQ when in Nashville. He grows his own herbs and vegetables and gets the meat from a high-quality butcher.
When we got to the semi, Nicky had already arranged the ingredients for today's lunch--pizza. This is no Domino's fast food stuff, either. Nicky has made his own pizza dough and separated it into balls for each pizza. As I ask him questions about his career, his history with the team, and the kitchen in which he's working, he's put together three deep-dish pizzas: one with aged provolone, mozzarella, and bell pepper; another with bell pepper, sausage, tomato, and onion; and one with bleu cheese, pickled peppers, and spicy sausage. He then makes two thin crusts, one of which is covered with a POUND of pepperoni, just the way driver Jeg Coughlin, Jr likes it. By the time he's done, there are six (or was it seven?) homemade pizzas, and the ones we tried were fantastic.
Just millimeters shy of busting a button, Nicky offered us fresh fruit and blood-orange ice cream for dessert. Okay, it was actually a trio of ice cream flavors that also included chocolate and salty caramel. Also excellent. On several occasions, Nicky has noticed that the smells wafting out of the JEGS rig have drawn other people into their area. Must be something about the mix of garlic and nitromethane.
To check out the latest Team JEGS Recipes by Chef Nicky Morse "The Racing Chef" at http://www.jegs.com/recipes/RecipesHome.html.
Photo courtesy of Team JEGS
Team JEGS was founded by Jeg Coughlin, Sr., who has been racing since the 1950s. He has won 30 NHRA divisional titles, including 11 in a row in his Top Alcohol Dragster, and his bio notes he's competed in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, A-Gas Supercharged, D-Gas Supercharged, C Stock, C Gas, Modified Eliminator, Pro Comp, and Super Eliminator classes. Jeg Jr. was the main driver this weekend. He has won 54 national events, including five NHRA Division 3 championships--three in Top Fuel and two in Pro Comp. Brothers John, Mike, and Troy also are avid racers and add to the family atmosphere of the team.
Jeg didn't get to race that day, but we found out after the fact that he qualified in sixth, posting a 6.629 at 208.23 mph in his Chevrolet Cobalt. He ended up finishing fifth in points rankings. This weekend, he and the team are getting ready for the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida. He's currently second in points, only two behind Jason Line. We won't be surprised if he's in first by the end of the weekend.
While you may think a team hiring a chef is a bit of an extravagance, that's far from the truth. Having a chef take care of the team not only ensures that the drivers get the ideal nutrition and proper combination of foods, but that everyone will get fed, even if timing doesn't allow meals to happen until late in the evening or if breakfast must be long before sunrise. Imagine getting a caterer to come out to the track at midnight--using a chef instead could very well be a cost-effective alternative. Plus, it means the drivers get to have a terrific home-cooked meal with family, in every city where they race. For people that are on the road most of the year, there may be nothing better.