When Freightliner executives decided seven years ago they wanted to honor those responsible for transporting each NASCAR Sprint Cup team’s precious cargo from race to race, they turned to JHE Production Group (JHE), a unique, creative company they knew could incorporate those same characteristics into a competition.
Today, the Freightliner Challenge involves NASCAR Nationwide as well as Sprint Cup transport drivers and spans most of the season, beginning in early March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ending in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway (CMS). It showcases the drivers’ skills in a series of five events with the field being reduced after each one.
“In Las Vegas we have two days, the Wednesday and Thursday, prior to the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races,” explains Terry Hodges, JHE’s senior manager of special projects. “Anyone who is a full-time transport driver is allowed to come and attempt the course.”
After the qualifying rounds, the top 32 in points advance to the Talladega competition. That weekend reduces the field to 16. Another eight drivers are cut in May at CMS. The final four are determined at Chicagoland Speedway in September. Then, in October, the champion is awarded numerous prizes, including a $30,000 check and trophy. Second receives $20,000, third $10,000 and fourth $5,000.
“At the finals, all four drivers show up at the same time and they get to see the JHE guys run the course one time,” Hodges said. “They get to ask any question they want and then we blindfold them. They are blindfolded because if you’re really good at this you can pick up trouble spots from watching other people and you can figure out how to run parts of the course. The first time is always the hardest and we want it to be the first time for everybody.
“They all have their own little tricks. It’s really great if we can run the event in cloudy conditions, because when the sun’s out it helps them because they can find shadow marks on the ground; shadows formed by the tractor or trailer and know where it will or won’t fit.”
Hodges noted it took the competitors two or three years to realize that if a mistake was made while running the course it needed to be corrected immediately or one’s time only became worse.
“Two years ago the champion won by one second and it was 4 seconds from first to fourth,” Hodges noted.
However, the challenge in the Freightliner competition doesn’t rest solely with the teams’ hauler drivers. JHE also faces a tremendous challenge in staging the event. First it must secure the race track, then obtain a detailed schedule in order to determine when available time exists. Once a suitable time is determined with the track, JHE must then go to NASCAR and coordinate the schedule since the actual running of the event must be put into a time grid. There can be no deviation from the schedule once it has been determined since NASCAR must prep the speedway for on-track activities.
The event can’t damage the race track’s surface, knock down the stop-and-go light at the end of pit road or tear up the grass apron on the frontstretch.
“The biggest opportunity for a headache is when someone decides to go around the track,” Hodges noted. “Logistically, the schedule is not as wide open as it appears to be. It takes two eight-hour days to run it at the beginning and then two hours at Charlotte – an hour to build it and an hour to run it.”
JHE not only officiates the Freightliner Challenge, it also designs each course using its own transport drivers.
“We have the best transport drivers in the industry,” Hodges said. “Because our guys are so good they can build stuff these guys have never seen or imagined having to do in a truck. We have to draw them back from time to time because I don’t want to tear up JHE trucks or trailers, we don’t want to tear up the race track, and we want to finish the event.”