Twice a year, Talladega Superspeedway attracts over 200,000 people to witness the speed and spectacle of NASCAR. Built on the former Anniston Air Force Base, the Superspeedway is surrounded by fields that are transformed into caravan communities for the different crews on race weekends. The scope of the environment is staggering. Sponsor flags flap everywhere around the facility. It’s like the Super Bowl.

The amazing thing is, NASCAR produces something of similar scope almost every weekend at different tracks. The average ticket price is a shade under $90, with annual race-series revenue hovering around $3 billion.

Yet behind the big bucks and roaring engines hides a unique and convivial food culture in an unlikely location: The sanctuary of the garages. While European racing teams are known to dine on filet mignon and antipasta platters, NASCAR teams keep it home-style, with the humble grill at the center of everything they do.

As the crews gear up for this weekend’s big race at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia (Sunday 1pm, ESPN), Nick Schonberger takes us behind the scenes at a recent Talladega competition for a day of grilling, eating, and smack-talk.

Written by Nick Schonberger (@nschon)

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At 10:45am on Sunday, October 7, roughly 80 meatballs are simmering on a gas grill behind Roush Fenway Racing’s team truck. Stirring the pot is a ten-year NASCAR veteran, Cowboy. He tells me, “Nobody knows my real name.”

Beside the meatballs, Cowboy is preparing garlic bread. He’s an unlikely looking cook, with his full trucker mustache and logo-strewn outfit. But making the meatballs is just part of his job. On the payroll, Cowboy is a Hauler Driver.

The unsung heros of NASCAR, Hauler Drivers spend long hours delivering cars from the race shop to the track. The responsibilities don’t end once on site: These guys are charged with keeping the team performing at the highest level.

Naturally, this includes making sure everyone is well fed.

Tim Kuhn is known as “Wolfgang Puck” to the team. He manages something that seems impossible: Chicken alfredo near enough from scratch, employing only a grill.

Cowboy works his grill with care. Despite the fact that he’s basically just reheating pre-prepared food, there is a distinct sense of pride. He’s playing an integral role in team success and wants to make sure everyone is satisfied with the meal. Pushed to share his speciality, Cowboy suggests ham and potatoes, but ultimately concedes he mostly prepares “things that stick with the fellas.”

All around the Talladega Superspeedway garage area, guys like Cowboy are tending grills. Hams are braising in Mountain Dew, smoked wings are reheating, and one shifty dude is busily transferring several containers pre-made mac and cheese into a larger aluminum foil pan. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a unique food culture exists in motorsports.

NASCAR is a competition, and there’s as much at stake behind the scenes as on the track. Hauler drivers playfully talk shit about one another. Ricky Simmons, cooking for NASCAR Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter’s team, claims he makes the best burgers in all of motorsport. He also boasts he can bake a mean cookie.

“He’s lying,” says Tim Kuhn, one of the most ambitious cooks we encountered.

Kuhn is known as “Wolfgang Puck” to his team, Turner Motorsports, which is responsible for maintaining Nelson Pique Jr.’s #32 Chevy Silverado. The moniker appears to be deserved as I watch him pull of something that seems impossible: Chicken alfredo near enough from scratch, employing only a grill. Kuhn has been on the job for 20 years, progressing in the team to the point where he took over responsibility for the transporter, and also filling the bellies of the folks who maintain Piquet Jr.’s engine.

There are few rookies that take on the task of cooking team meals in Talladega. This is a lifers’ game.

Next page: Some friendly competition among cooks, followed by a proper feast…
Another team chef, Woody, has been behind the wheel—and the grill—for 16 years. Today he’s cooking for Kurt Bush, pulling beautifully marinated steaks out of gallon-size zip-locks. He tells us his speciality is beer-braised pork butts. Woody proves himself an ambitious chef. His competitive spirit also shows when another driver asks, “Got a loaf of bread?”

“No,” says Woody, barely concealing a few bags of rolls behind him.

These guys are iron chefs of a different breed. In small spaces, and with limited resources—no running water, for instance—they churn out grub for small armies of large men every weekend.

Kyle Bush’s Hauler Driver, Montana, cooks spiral-cut ham. This seems to be a popular dish. Another hearty fellow, handling business for Wood Brothers Racing, braises a few hams in Mountain Dew while vigorously stirring a massive pot of Potato Buds instant mash. Bacon sizzles at the neighboring truck, while a pan of taco meat has entered that awkward stage of half-simmering, half-browning further down the parade.

These guys are iron chefs of a different breed. In small spaces, and with limited resources—no running water, for instance—they churn out grub for small armies of large men every weekend.

Only one guy is preparing BBQ, a fact that destroys all my ill-conceived NASCAR stereotypes. His name is Frankie, and he works for Joe Gibbs Racing. I watch him reheat wings and ribs that he’d smoked the day before. Like Woody, he’s ambitious—the wings and ribs are just an appetizer. He’s also preparing sausage, peppers, and pasta. What’s the craziest thing he’s made? “Apple pie,” shares Frankie with a smile. “I got one I thought was a heat-and-serve, but I had to cook it.”

Working with just a gas grill, regardless of the wonders I’ve seen, has some limitations.

Yet race after race, miracles are achieved. Laughs are had. Mountains of food produced. All in the unlikeliest of environments for cooking. These are the foodways of American motorsport, where meals are made with humor and soul.

A few hours before the gentleman start their engines, crews throughout the garage areas tuck into their meals. This is tradition. This is preparation. This is fuel for a battle.

These guys are focused on one thing and one thing only: Winning NASCAR races.

But first, they feast.