BY NATE RYAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Jeff Harkey will have only 48 hours to recover from an odyssey that spanned two countries, three weeks and 9,000 miles.
The hauler driver for Justin Labonte's No. 44 Coast Guard team returned home yesterday to Charlotte, N.C., for the first time since Feb. 21. His truck will be on the road again by Thursday, heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway with a rear-view mirror full of indelible memories of Mexico.
Multiple convoys of 18-wheelers were escorted from the Texas border by the flashing blue lights of the federales (Mexican federal police). Dead mules, grazing goats and wild horses cluttered the grassy medians of bumpy, unmarked highways. Roadside taco stands blanketed in dust sat a few feet from 80-mph thoroughfares.
On a dizzying 9,700-foot climb to Mexico City, 4-foot guardrails offered the only protection from a mountain plunge.
"All in all, it was a great adventure," said Harkey, a crewman for two decades. "I've never seen anything like it."
Neither had NASCAR -- but the Busch Series' one-month, cross-continent swing from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Fontana, Calif., to Mexico City to Las Vegas could become a familiar routine in coming seasons.
Seattle, Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City have been floated as future destinations for the Nextel Cup Series. As NASCAR stretches its schedule geographically, teams will feel the impact logistically -- as many did with this year's addition of Mexico City.
Because the March 6 road-course race fell between two stops at West Coast speedways, returning to the East Coast wasn't an option even though it was necessary. Cars used for ovals and road courses aren't compatible.
Way stations were created in Laredo and San Antonio to allow for swapping out cars and secondary hauler drivers. Several teams will have a similar plan next month when only a six-day turnaround exists between Busch and Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, a 32-hour ride from Charlotte.
At least one Nextel Cup owner believes relying on far-flung branch offices outside the sport's North Carolina hub could serve as the 21st-century blueprint for transplanting NASCAR's traveling circus from one edge of the country to the other.
Richard Petty's Driving Experience, a stock car fantasy camp for fans operating at Cup tracks around the country, is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., but also has smaller garage outposts in Kansas City, Kan., Atlanta and Orlando, Fla.
Petty believes such a satellite shop concept might make sense for Nextel Cup. The required space would cover only a fraction of the 200,000-square feet garages becoming common in Cup.
"You would never be building cars, it's strictly a maintenance shop," Petty said. "You wouldn't need near the facilities because if you wreck the car, you send it back home."
With the help of its sponsors, NASCAR took many steps to assure the Mexico trip went smoothly. UPS prepared the paperwork and manifests to ensure efficient passage for 80 trucks. Nextel provided its walkie-talkie cell phones to aid communication. NASCAR arranged for the armed escorts.
"If not for UPS, I'd still be trying to get in the country," Harkey said. "I couldn't have done this by myself."
Many Busch teams still struggled with transportation hassles, renting extra trailers to ferry cars from North Carolina to Texas. Kevin Harvick said the trip was tough on his Busch crew but preferred preparing cars in Kernersville, N.C., to a satellite shop.
"It's better to shuttle the cars back and forth," Harvick said. "You take a big chance on the road of overlooking something by working out of something that you're not used to and don't have all the equipment that you need."
Brendan Gaughan, general manager and driver for Orleans Racing, also is lukewarm on satellite shops because of their potential costs. Gaughan's family-owned Craftsman Truck Series team is based in Las Vegas and has developed a knack for dealing with the demands of the road.
Gaughan, whose 30,000-foot shop offered refuge and relief to three Busch teams arriving from Mexico last week, said there are some stretches of the schedule when his team's semis don't return from races.
"There are ways to logistically bring the correct piece to every race," said Gaughan, who didn't want to reveal his team's secrets. "We are extremely well prepared and have gotten darn good at it. There are better ways to do it [than a satellite shop].
"You just have to learn how to shuttle your stuff around the country and make it a feasible unit."
Contact Nate Ryan at (804) 649-6851 or firstname.lastname@example.org