Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: A Conversation with Ex-Mechanic Josh Tucker

Any time a driver says ‘I’d like to thank the boys back at the shop for a great racecar’ while standing in Victory Lane, it’s people like Josh Tucker who are getting their shout out.

Born in Indiana, racing was a natural decision for Tucker, who grew up just north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With an eye on winning at the legendary racetrack, Tucker got his first opportunity with Todd Braun and started his career in mechanics in 2002.

In the years that followed, Tucker advanced up the NASCAR ladder, landing a mechanic position with Roush Fenway Racing. Working alongside the likes of Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan on the Ford team – winning nine races in the 2008 season alone with Edwards – Tucker jumped to Hendrick Motorsports, working with drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. until 2013.

With great success in his back pocket, Tucker now resides in Mooresville, North Carolina, and owns Anchor Real Estate, working with personalities like Greg Biffle and Fox Sports 1 announcer John Roberts.

Sitting down with Frontstretch, we spoke to Tucker about his time behind the wall and in the garage while finding out what made his job truly exciting.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Talk about how you got into NASCAR and what you’re up to now in Real Estate.

Josh Tucker: Came here in 2002, really knocked on doors and passed out resumes trying to get a break. Finally, after a couple months I got a team to let me come in and sweep the floors, take trash out, clean.

I left NASCAR in 2013. Obviously still heavily involved, still go to a bunch of races with Greg owning part of the firm and I know a lot of NASCAR people from my time there.

Catanzareti: What would you call your biggest achievement?

Tucker: The year the Car of Tomorrow came out. It created a tremendous amount of work for the teams. We probably went from working 60-hour weeks to 90-hour weeks to prepare for that big change.

I was working for Carl Edwards at the time on the No. 99 Cup car. We really dug down deep – I didn’t want to say we worked harder than the rest – but we definitely had a great chemistry within our team. We came out that year in 2008 with the COT, we were able to win nine races, more than anybody else. We ran second in the championship to Jimmie Johnson. That year sticks out as being the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. But I achieved the most that year.

Catanzareti: 2012, you were with the No. 88 with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. You won Michigan that year, his first win in four years. What was that like for you?

Tucker: It was incredible. I had won at Michigan in the past with Carl [Edwards], so I certainly visited Victory Lane at Michigan before. It’s a special place to do that with all the manufactures being right there. Detroit being so close, it’s really big for any of them to win there.

For Dale Jr. is was pretty special because it broke a pretty long winless streak for him. He was ecstatic, he loved it. It was a special moment for all of us on that team.

Catanzareti: How was he with the whole team? Does he come by and congratulate everybody?

Tucker: Absolutely. He’s really personable. He’s probably in the shop more than some of the other drivers. I won’t say every week he spent a lot of time in the shop, but it was nothing to see him in the shop once or twice. Sometimes every week, sometimes every other week.

Just really personable. He knows most of his crew members by name which is cool. A lot of drivers don’t. I think a lot of that comes from Rick Hendrick. If you’re an employee with Rick, especially at the level of a driver or crew chief, Rick has a good way of making people demand respect and making people just better. He’s a remarkable person.

So, when you compare a lot of the NASCAR drivers, I think the standouts are always the ones at Hendrick. I think that goes back to Rick himself.

Catanzareti: How were the fans to you during that time? Did you get more attention from fans when you walk by with a National Guard firesuit on? It seems like Earnhardt crews always get more attention.

Tucker: Yeah, absolutely. Dale Jr. is different, obviously, because he’s by far the most popular driver. But fans like drivers who win. So my years with Carl [Edwards], 2008 especially when we were winning every third race, the fans flocked to that.

I was part of the No. 48 car at Hendrick with Jimmie Johnson, certainly the fans love to see you. It’s not just the driver, they love the crew guys, they always ask for autographs. Especially in Victory Lane, they always want your hats. We don’t necessarily keep them; we keep one but a lot of the others ones we like to toss out to fans.

Catanzareti: Have you kept any stuff like that?

Tucker: Oh yeah. I got trophies from most of my wins. Daytona trophies, Bristol, a brick from Indianapolis winning with the No. 48 car, which was really special. About the only thing I didn’t accomplish – well there was a lot of things I didn’t accomplish because I didn’t win, go to Victory Lane at every track – but the biggest thing I wish I would’ve gotten was a championship ring.

I was at Hendrick for their 200th win, we got a ring for that. Got a ring for Indy, Daytona. I was able to do a lot of cool things for sure.

Catanzareti: You kissed the bricks. What was that like?

Tucker: A feeling like no other. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Especially for me because I’m from Indiana. I grew up just north of the racetrack. There is a lot of history at that racetrack, it’s an old, old track with a ton of history. When I first got into NASCAR in 2002, one of my first goals was to win Indy. I looked forward to the day I could get that done.

Didn’t do it till later in my career but at least I got it done and was able to be a part of it.

Catanzareti: I know you worked your guts out for your entire career but did you ever feel more pressure when you were with the Nos. 48 or 88 teams? Or was it the same task and what ever else happens happens?

Tucker: Definitely the most pressure was with the No. 48 because of a lot of things but mostly Chad Knaus. I consider him a friend – probably better friends now since I don’t work for him – he’s a very intense individual. Expects nothing but the best and lets you know if he thinks you’re not giving your best.

So the pressure on the 48 car was the worst. Now, when I was on the 88 car, Steve Letarte, very low-key person. Just as competitive as anybody else but the way he handled his people was a lot different. You didn’t feel the pressure as much with Steve as you did with Chad. But the pressure was obviously still there.

Any time you’re in a competitive situation like that, even the year I worked with David Ragan and we were struggling to run 10th, there was a lot of pressure. Any time you’re in a competitive situation, the pressure is high. It doesn’t matter if you’re jumping over the wall to change a tire or if you’re just tightening the parts on the car before the race, there’s a lot of pressure to do it right.

Catanzareti: What did you do during the race during your time with each team?

Tucker: Early in my career, I did go over the wall and changed tires. I changed the front tires. I didn’t do that for very long and never at the Cup level, it was more Truck and XFINITY level.

For Cup racing during the race, everyone has a job. A lot of the time it was pit service behind the wall, rolling the tire out to a tire changer, pulling the tire changer’s hose or whatever needed to be done. Everyone had a job.

Once the tires come back behind the wall, everyone is usually doing something; checking air pressures, tread depths. There’s always something to do during the race.

Catanzareti: Any time a car wrecks on the track, say Talladega with the Big One. I say ‘Man, those are expensive racecars.’ What is the work like afterward? You bring the car back to the shop, but what is it like for you?

Tucker: Well, the harder part is if you’re trying to repair it at the racetrack to get it back on. There’s very planned and practiced routines that you go through. Every person is assigned ahead of time on a part of the car. So it gets pretty intense at the racetrack if you’re trying to fix them and get them back out.

Once you get them back at the shop, I know it sounds crazy, but most of the time we are just cutting pieces and throwing them in a scrap dumpster. There’s not a lot – with the cars the way they’re done today, there’s not much fixing them. The bodies are usually cut off after each race, chassis are cut up if they’ve been crashed and they’re bent.

Back in the day, you used to try and straighten the chassis or you’d cut a front clip off and put a new front clip on. Today’s cars, you don’t do that near as much, it’s more of: If the car gets wrecked, you cut it up and start a new one.

Catanzareti: That’s probably a lot different from big teams to small teams.

Tucker: Oh absolutely. Other than really early in my career with Todd Braun, after that I was with Roush pretty early on. So I never really experienced the small team side of it. But I have a lot of friends who work for small teams and it is a lot different. Those guys aren’t throwing away cars and they’re not cutting bodies off, they’re straightening body panels.

There’s a big difference there between the funding. If it’s a smaller team who doesn’t quite have the funding as a Hendrick, Gibbs or Roush, it’s a lot different, the work that goes on in the shop.

Catanzareti: When a race gets rained out, say we’re racing on a Monday, how does it change your planning? Does it really shake things up a little bit to get to the track the next week?

Tucker: No. Typically, the road guys – they certainly have responsibilities in the shop but that’s usually for getting the equipment prepared for the next race. We would get back to the shop and go through toolboxes, pit equipment and making sure everything is restocked and cleaned and anything that was lost or damaged over the weekend if replaced.

Usually when there is a rain out, we don’t get a day off that week. That’s what we always hated the most because Monday, the traveling guys usually get Monday off. So when we race on Monday, our day off goes away and then we’re back at the shop on Tuesday morning as we usually would have been.

On the car side at the shop, most of the time the road guys don’t have a lot of responsibilities on the car itself. There’s guys that stay back at the shops that get the cars ready to roll onto the truck. So it doesn’t put us behind.

Catanzareti: Being full time for so many years, what’s an off-week like for you? Do you guys get to enjoy an off-week?

Tucker: Usually, the teams were grateful enough to know we were 38 weeks a year on the road. So we did get an off-week. They would give you three days and then the weekend, so you’d have a five-day period there. A lot of us would save a vacation and take that Monday and Tuesday off. So we’d get the whole week. We’d get Sunday night and be off until the following Monday.

It’s kind of weird because you’re with that same group every single weekend for 40 weeks a year. And then you end up running into them on the off-weeks, too, because everyone goes to the popular vacation spots. Hawaii or I’m a Caribbean person so I always go to the Bahamas.

Undoubtedly, every off-week where I’d go to the Atlantis or wherever, I always ran into other racers that were doing the same thing as me, trying to get a quick vacation off. You know the next 12 weeks until your next off-week are going to be hectic.

Catanzareti: Going back to the track, you’ve been to so many races, so would you say are some of the craziest things you’ve seen on the track from pit road?

Tucker: One that sticks out was when I was with Carl was when he wrecked [Brad] Keselowski at Atlanta. We were on pit road and seen it happen right in front of pit road. I know Carl wasn’t expecting it to be like that but that was a pretty dramatic wreck to see right in front of you. Brad flipping up and almost got into the catch fence all from Carl just being upset and didn’t think it was going to turn into that.

There’s been a lot. I think it was Kasey Kahne in 2012, I can’t remember what track it was, it might have been Dover, got loose trying to get to pit road, came down and crashed into pit wall. Debris flew everywhere, that team had tires on the wall and the tires flew off the wall.

Saw Matt Kenseth get loose into pit road [Dover, 2004] and he parked his car on top of the tires. That was early in my career. That was bad.

Certainly, the wreck at Talladega with Carl where we got up into the catch fence. That was really, really wild. That was my last year with him. There are some that standout that were pretty rough.

Catanzareti: Those emotions at Talladega in 2009 must have been pretty high. You’re leading the race, coming by about to win and then that happens.

Tucker: At Talladega and Daytona especially, those two racetracks, you just know not to – it’s a little easier to predict at most other racetracks. You know if you’re coming around to the white flag and you have a two-car-length lead at Chicago or Charlotte, Martinsville, there’s a pretty strong chance – short of a driver who intentionally takes you out – you know you have a really good chance at winning that race.

At Daytona and Talladega, you don’t. Really, when you cross the start-finish line for the white, you know the lead if probably going to change two or three more times and it’s a crapshoot. Who knows what’s going to happen.

But it was tough. We felt like we had a really good car that year, that was Brad’s first Cup win and we wanted to win a race. We knew he was going to be aggressive and do what he had to do.  We knew Carl was going to be aggressive, Carl just likes to win like all of us.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, we figured there was a 50-50 chance there would be a big wreck at the end and we could get caught up. Turns out there was.

Catanzareti: And you were the big wreck!

Tucker: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s not the only time. My one year with David Ragan, we’re leading the Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne was pushing us, started outside of us on a green-white checkered finish. David started on the outside, Trevor was going to hold off a bit and let David down in front of him. David jumped the restart, came down before the start-finish line and got black-flagged.

Times like that when you’re so close. But you can’t be mad at David, right? He had the same emotions we had, he’s about to win the Daytona 500 and the last thing going through his mind is ‘Don’t switch lanes.’ He wants to protect the lead. That was a heartbreaker for sure.

Catanzareti: On pit road safety, every so often we see a pit road fire. Kasey Kahne wrecked down pit road at Pocono last year. When it comes to pit road safety, what was it like for you? You always had to keep your eyes on cars.

Tucker: Oh yeah, absolutely. You never turn your back. That’s one of the golden rules on pit road, especially when you standing up on pit wall or between the pit box and pit wall, you never turn your back on the racetrack. Stuff happens so so fast and sometimes you don’t have a second to respond or to react.

There have certainly been some wild circumstances that you never figured would happen. Bu they do and if you’re not paying attention, it could have consequences.

Catanzareti: What was your favorite track to work at?

Tucker: [Pauses] Las Vegas was good to work at because the garages were so big. Daytona was always cool to work, the new Daytona after they reconfigured the garages. The infield was cool because they made the garages a lot bigger. You used to be in that carport at the end of the garage. And then when they built the new garages, they made them really nice, they had the fan viewings kind of like Vegas.

Those tracks, from a mechanical side, stand out. It’s weird what mechanics like in racetracks, for us, we like it where it’s easy to work on the cars. So places like Richmond, Bristol was always a nightmare for a mechanic because you’re on pit road and every night when you leave you have to pack all your stuff up and put it back in the truck because of the races that night.

Richmond, the garages were super, super tight. There was no room to work. Dover, the garages are pretty tight. We always liked going to the tracks that were more spread out and had plenty of space.

I had a car fall off the jack while I was underneath it in a really cramped garage. It might have been at Fontana. The garages at Fontana and Michigan, you’d think a two-mile track, a huge infield, you’d think they would have garage space to accommodate everyone’s needs. But the garages in those track were super small. Our engine tuner was jacking the car up, he turned away from the jack and one of the guys beside us took the tire off, hit the jack handle and twisted it. And I was underneath the car.

Luckily, the left side was on scales so it was up off the ground. The right side fell to the ground and the tires were off it and I was laying under the rear-end housing. The trackbar kind of crushed across my chest a little bit. So on a mechanical side of it, we like garages that have plenty of room because accidents happen.

Catanzareti: Usually, you see those metal jack stands that keep the car up. That’s surprises me that something like that can happen. Have you seen anything like that happen before?

Tucker: Yeah, it happens. Not very often. It might have been 2006, there was one that fell off the jack at Bristol and hurt a crew member pretty badly. There was one that may have been at Charlotte in an ARCA race that killed a guy. The car fell off the jacks and landed on him and killed him.

There’s bad stories of stuff like that that happens but for the most part, all the crew guys are very observant and they’re taught at the forefront while you’re working your way up on how important safety is. You always have to look out for your other guys.

You’re putting yourself in some dangerous situations and if you blink or look away, sometimes bad things can happen.

Catanzareti: Speaking of injuries, looking at what the No. 88 is going through right now. Dale Jr. is out, Jeff Gordon is back, Alex Bowman in the car. Did you ever have to work with a different driver like that?

Tucker: Yeah in 2012 with Dale Jr. when I was on the No. 88 car. Dale had his first concussion that put him out of a car for a few weeks and Regan Smith subbed in for us.

Early on, 2004 the first year we went to Mexico in the XFINITY Series, I was with David Stremme and he got sick in the car and we had to pull him out and put another driver in in the middle of the race.

I had to go through that a few times but nothing compared to what the 88 car has gone through this year.

John Roberts [Fox Sports 1 commentator], he’s also a realtor and works for me at Anchor. I was out having couple drinks with him and his wife Traci and we were talking who has had the most unique set of circumstances thrown at them this year. He piped up really quick and said ‘It has to be the 88.’

Nobody has been through what they’ve been through. I still have some personal friends on that team and I’m sure it’s been a challenge for them with everything they’ve had to go through with different drivers and not knowing sometimes who the driver was going to be.

And it’s tough to throw a driver in like that. The team starts gelling all together and the driver is a big part of that. You change that up and it can throw your game off really quick. They’ve definitely had a rough go at it.

Catanzareti: He’s out for the rest of the year. Being out half a season with a head injury is scary. What do you feel about that?

Tucker: I think he needs to do whatever makes him happy. Dale has a lot of life to live outside of racing. He’s proven everything he needs to prove to everybody. He’s getting married, I’m sure he wants to have kids and have a family.

But then again, he loves racing so I would not certainly want to sit here and say what I think Dale should do. But I think he should do whatever makes his big-picture life look the best. If that means he never straps back into a racecar, so be it. He leaves a legacy like nobody else. He’s accomplished things in this sport and got the respect of as many people through his time spent. Even if he never strapped into a racecar again, he’s an instant Hall of Famer.

He just needs to do whatever makes the most sense for him. Not just thinking about racing but thinking about life. My biggest fear is – I don’t know enough about concussions to speak good about it – but from people I’ve talked to, whether be doctors or other racers who have had concussions, the more they happen, the worse they get.

This being his third or fourth, the last thing I’d want to see him do is strap into a car and hurt himself to the point where his quality of life is diminished forever just because he felt like he needed to or owed it to fans. I don’t think he owes anybody anything, he’s done everything he needed to do.

Catanzareti: It’s an interesting time in the sport: Tony Stewart is going to be out, Jeff Gordon is back but is out and now Dale, pretty much all at once.

Tucker: There are others who are probably not too far behind. As crazy as that is to think. I know Jimmie is competing for a championship but I’m sure the thought of retirement is crossing his mind. Whether it’s two years from now or three or four, I don’t know. I think in the next three years, there’s a good few amount who will be out and you’re going to see newer faces coming in.

Matt Kenseth has to be thinking along those lines. Jimmie, Greg Biffle for sure has to be thinking. Kurt Busch is another I would say. I’m not saying they’re washed up and can’t do it anymore, they’re still in the Chase, winning races. There comes a time where it’s time for the younger ones to come out and do their deal.

It’ll be interesting to see in the next three years how the sport transforms and how the younger people, the Chase Elliotts and the Kyle Larsons and even the generations behind them, the William Byrons that are dominating the Truck races. It’ll be interesting to see how that group of people carry the torch once some of today’s greatest retire.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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We(the readers) would like to have more in depth interviews such as this one, especially from people that are not in the limelight. Well done..

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