Ask Kyle Bazzell about life growing up in Fairbury, Ill., and you won’t hear about small town life, playing with friends or the childhood dreams he had.
You’ll hear about the Fairbury American Legion Speedway, a dirt track that’s history spans several decades in the small farming community where Bazzell started his work in racing.
“About the only thing that was there in the summer was summer league baseball and going to the dirt track watching races on Saturday nights,” Bazzell said of the 3,500 population town. At around 10 years old, he started selling newspapers at the track and later popcorn. “After that I just became a spectator for a couple years.”
But for someone like Bazzell, sitting in the stands was not in the cards. He began helping teams with their racecars, under the radar since he was just shy of 16, volunteering during the complete remodel of the speedway and later as the track’s co-promoter for three years.
“Whenever anyone asks where I’m from, that's the story I tell them,” Bazzell said. “It’s neat to tell people you were a part of that.”
Little did he know it was only the beginning. Today, Bazzell, 47, of Mooresville, N.C., drives the hauler for NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin in the No. 11.
“I've never had a bad trip as far as something negative happening, all of them have been fun,” Bazzell said, particularly going to tracks on opposite coast lines -- anything to spend more time in his 2015 Freightliner Coronado. “I just like getting in the truck.”
For twenty-five years, Bazzell drove an 18-wheeler in various positions, including at a lumber yard, hauling livestock and then as an owner-operator, hauling pigs.
“I’m gonna tell you a 600-pound sow is not gonna come out of the trailer by just rubbing their back,” Bazzell said, often having to safely pull the animals out. “Snorting and snot flying all over you, that part wasn't the glamorous part. Just being in the truck and driving the truck is what you wanted to do.”
For a more lucrative opportunity, he went back into construction until he went to visit a friend of his, a mechanic with NASCAR owner Jack Roush, for the race in Darlington, S.C. Bazzell said his friend had tried for years to convince him to work in NASCAR, but the timing was never right. His friend found out about a hauler driver opening and the stars aligned. Bazzell said his wife, Stephanie asked about his trip and got a life-changing answer.
“It was good; I think I’m moving. I think I’m going to go to Charlotte and get a job in racing,” Bazzell said and though surprised, she was supportive. “It was a dream of mine … she said, ‘if this is something you really want to do, pursue it.’”
Bazzell started 11 years ago with the truck series team Germain Racing, later moving to Roush Yates racing, Hendrick Motorsports and now to Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s worked with a handful of notable drivers including David Gilliland, Ricky Rudd and Todd Bodine.
“They were a blast,” Bazzell said of Bodine, the two-time truck series champ, and his now wife. “Just the way he carried himself … he was very confident he could get in that truck and win or be in the top 5 every time he was in it.”
For seven years, Bazzell drove for now six-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, seeing him win his last four championships.
“I’ve seen Jimmie in his racecar and that was about it,” Bazzell said. “He might come in the hauler and say ‘Hi,’” but he added, “You can't fault him for that. I always thought this guy is here to do a job.”
Bazzell joined on with Gibbs Racing eight months ago to drive for Hamlin’s team. Like Johnson, Hamlin is focused on his job, but they are able to joke around. Bazzell said he and another crew member recently ate at a steak house in their hotel while in Daytona which turned out to be funnier than expected.
“They have 10 to 12 drivers they named steaks after. Denny’s was a 22 oz. Porterhouse,” which they were going to have, until the waiter talked them into another steak that “melts in your mouth,” he added. “I kind of gave Denny a little grief; we were this close to getting your steak. He just shook his head in disgrace and just walked away,” joking with them a bit, Bazzell said.
These moments of downtime though are few and far between, as he’s often kept busy managing the hauler.
“Driving the truck is probably 10 to 15 percent of our job,” Bazzell said. “We’re a mom, chef, butler, psychiatrist; we’re a little bit of everything.”
So when he can’t spend too much time at truck stops shooting the breeze with fans, he makes sure not to leave them empty handed.
“What you'll do to make up for that is grab a hat out of the truck and give it to them,” Bazzell said.
Though Bazzell said the job can wear on him, he’s anxious to get back in the truck once he’s been away too long in the off season. Besides spending time with his wife and their 16-year-old son Chase when he’s home, he makes it a point to walk through his grass … barefoot … in the middle of the night, especially if he can’t sleep.
“I love to cut my grass. I have Bermuda grass, it's just like a golf course, probably a half-inch high,” Bazzell said. “At 2 in the morning, I take my flip flops off and walk through my grass. It feels like your walking on your carpet.”
Though he loves his job in NASCAR, he emphasized that he’s just the average Joe … who works for Joe Gibbs.
“When get home from work, I change out of my Gibbs clothes, I put a regular T-shirt on to do yard work or go to the gym,” Bazzell said.
Q&A with Kyle Bazzell
What was the last text message you sent? Before I left the shop I asked my wife if we were going to paint my son’s car.
The best book you’ve ever read? There’s a couple books but the Nikki Sixx “The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star” and “This is Gonna Hurt.” It grabs your attention.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Never give up.