Kansas City, Kan. Bright-eyed beauty of the banked battlefields called racetracks, Danica Patrick looked so relaxed Thursday afternoon at a press conference to promote Saturday’s Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway.
No surprise there. She had just spent the afternoon in the infield campgrounds, where racecar drivers live in their motor coaches for the weekend. The campgrounds is where back-biting, Internet bullying and mean spirits go to die. No autograph hounds, either.
The light air in this little slice of heaven can be traced to the drivers. Not the racecar drivers. The drivers of the luxury motor coaches, who must master the skills of truck drivers/concierges/auto mechanics/clean freaks.
Nobody does it better than Dennis “Wadd” Weaks, aka “The Mayor of the Campgrounds,” and Steve “Hop” Kiefer, Patrick’s driver since Jan. 11.
Weaks, who drives for the race’s defending champion, Scott Dixon, and peers wheel the coaches from city to city. Once the stars fly in, they vacate the vehicles. They hang around during the day, in case they’re needed. At night, they check into nearby hotels.
Some go to such great lengths to make the vehicles seem brand new they spray tire-black on the treads. They maintain the buses inside, outside and under the hood. They stock the refrigerators and shelves, customizing them to the tastes of the racecar drivers and spouses.
“It’s really important for us as drivers, them taking care of the rest of our business and not leaving us anything else to worry about,” Patrick said. “The competition is getting harder and harder all the time. Anything that doesn’t take away from that focus, I think, is a positive thing.”
Patrick realized there was something else she wanted to say about the coach drivers.
“Just having guys who are happy and in a good mood and able to help you out, just good people, is positive,” she said.
Before driving for Patrick, Kiefer did so for former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George, founder of the Indy Racing League. An anecdote Kiefer told about a conversation with George revealed the coach drivers don’t treat their bosses as celebrities. They treat them as people. Celebs crave that.
Said Kiefer: “Tony came to me and said, ‘One thing I have to ask you, Hop: You’ve been with me almost 19 years and you’ve never asked me for an autograph.’ I said I didn’t have to. I got it every week,” Kiefer said, meaning the signature on his paycheck. “People always ask me, ‘How much stuff of his do you have?’ I say I’ve got his friendship.”
Kiefer calls himself “twice blessed” for getting to work for George and now Patrick and her husband, Paul Hospenthal.
“Good people, Danica and Paul,” Hop said. “They know how to say please, thank you and I’m sorry, and they mean it when they say it.”
After Saturday’s race, it’s off to Indianapolis for the month of May for the drivers’ drivers. The circus keeps rolling along.