Special reserve

The life of a replacement driver ain't easy

Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brian Vickers came to terms last month that his NASCAR driving career could be over.

Sunday, he’ll start the Daytona 500.

It might also be his last NASCAR Sprint Cup race. The 32-year-old doesn’t know. Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t said who will drive the car after Sunday’s race, although Ty Dillon is expected to be in it for a few races.

Such is life for a substitute driver, whose employment often depends on how quickly the primary driver’s injury heals, suspension ends or sponsor selects a different replacement driver.

It is a vagabond existence where opportunities sometimes appear with only a few hours notice. There can be little time to fit into a seat specially made for the other driver who isn’t the same size, little time to learn the names of the crew and little time to sort through the nuances of dialogue with the the team’s crew chief and engineers.

Then there’s understanding the car that is set up for someone else and, in some cases, driving for a manufacturer that the replacement has never driven for previously. Each manufacturer’s cars and engines have their own unique quirks.

The substitute driver, though, has taken on a greater role. In the last four years, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and former champions Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch have needed temporary replacements.

NASCAR can waive — and has on a case-by-case basis — the requirement that drivers must start every race to be eligible for the Chase. Kyle Busch won last year’s championship after watching three other drivers compete in his car for the first three months of the season.

Even as the role of the substitute driver has grown, the level of success is limited. Jamie McMurray remains the last driver to win as a replacement driver, doing so in 2002 at Charlotte when he filled in for an injured Sterling Marlin.

Vickers will drive in Sunday’s season-opening race for Stewart, who suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra during an ATV accident January 31. This will be Vickers’ third race since the end of the 2014 season after missing most of last year because of a recurrence of blood clots.

“It’s a big seat to fill,’’ Vickers said of driving for Stewart, a three-time series champion, “but I’ll do my best.’’

* * *

Regan Smith has filled in four times for drivers in the past four years, often on last-minute notice. As he recounted one of those experiences, he suddenly stopped and recalled another time he served as a substitute driver.

“I forgot about that one,’’ Smith said, smiling in the disbelief that he had overlooked one such role. “I’ve done a lot of this. Holy cow.’’

It’s easy to see why:

  • Smith drove two races for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., when a concussion sidelined Earnhardt in 2012.
  • Smith filled in for Stewart at Watkins Glen the day after Stewart was involved in a sprint car crash that killed a competitor.
  • Smith drove the first three races of last season for Kurt Busch after NASCAR suspended Busch for an off-track matter, placing 16th twice and 17th in the other race.
  • Smith drove for Kyle Larson last spring at Martinsville the day after Larson fainted at an autograph session. When Smith started, it was his first laps at Martinsville in two years. He finished 16th.

Smith was driving for another team when Earnhardt was ruled out in 2012. Smith received a phone call at about 6 a.m. as he was making coffee. Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time and now a NASCAR on NBC analyst, told him to get to the shop.

Smith was going to join JR Motorsports, which is affiliated with the Hendrick Motorsports, the following season, and figured Letarte wanted him there to go over some testing Smith would do for the team.

Letarte told Smith he would be driving Earnhardt’s car that weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, beginning later that day.

“Their gauges were different than mine and I missed something simple that I should have seen,’’ said Smith, who finished 38th after an engine blew because of his oversight. “The way the systems were I didn’t know what was going on. That’s a prime example of it costing us what would have been a top-10 run.

“Fast forward to Kansas (the following week) … I understood what was different.’’

Smith finished seventh at Kansas.

Another early call sent Smith scrambling back to Watkins Glen in 2014, hours after Stewart’s sprint car incident the previous night. Smith had not raced a Sprint Cup car in more than a year but had driven in the Xfinity race at Watkins Glen the day before. The problem was Smith had already returned home to North Carolina when he got the call at about 8:30 a.m.

He flew up with car owner Rick Hendrick and helicoptered with Hendrick to the track. Smith arrived at the track about 90 minutes before the command to start engines.

Smith’s first laps in the car were when the race began. He used the early portion to adjust to the brakes and how the car handled. He was involved in a late accident and finished 37th.

“The Dale story was the craziest one,’’ Smith said, noting the arrangements had been worked out between his team and Hendrick Motorsports before he was told he was needed.

“Here you are hopping into the car of the most popular driver and arguably one of the most visible figures in auto racing history,’’ Smith said. “He’s got a lot of fans that you’re trying to please. There were people that paid tickets to see that car and they’re still going to cheer for that car because it’s their guy’s car no matter who is in it. I get some of the louder cheers that I’ve ever gotten.’’

* * *

Sometimes even the simplest things can be challenging for a substitute driver.

Shortly after Kyle Busch suffered a fractured left foot and broken right leg the day before last year’s Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs Racing hired David Ragan to fill in for Busch.

Regan, who did not have a full-time ride, suddenly was with one of the sport’s elite teams with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards as teammates. It would arguably be the best ride of Ragan’s career. One problem, though, was finding his way around the race shop.

“That first time I showed up, it took me 30 minutes to figure out which door to go into and which section,’’ Ragan said. “I think I went into the engine shop first and finally I was able to meet Adam (Stevens, the team’s crew chief) and those guys.’’

He went on to record a fifth-place finish at Martinsville, his best in nine starts in Busch’s car, and used that to land a ride in the No. 55 car at Michael Waltrip Racing the rest of the season.

Although Ragan needed to be acclimated to Joe Gibbs Racing’s shop, Erik Jones didn’t have that problem. A Joe Gibbs Racing driver, he competed in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series, but he also filled in for three of JGR’s four Cup drivers at different times.

Jones replaced Denny Hamlin at Bristol after Hamlin suffered neck and back pain before rain stopped the race on Lap 22. Jones was at home watching the race when he got a text that he might be needed. He gathered his gear and rode a helicopter to the track, arriving in time to take over the ride after the four-hour delay.

Jones later drove Kyle Busch’s car at Kansas Speedway, the final race before Busch returned. Jones drove two races for Matt Kenseth after NASCAR suspended Kenseth for wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville.

“When I did the substitute for Matt, it was his seat, his insert,’’ Jones said. “We didn’t have time to pour an insert for me. It wasn’t all that comfortable.

“The seat wasn’t where I wanted. I had a lot of aches and pains (after driving Kenseth’s car in the Texas fall race) the day after that I wouldn’t normally had. Back, sides, shoulders. A lot of things were just kind of aching and hurting.’’

He wasn’t complaining, though.

“You’ll do a lot of things to drive a race car,’’ Jones said. “As long as you can reach the pedals and see over the wheel, I think a lot of guys will drive them.’’

* * *

Fourteen months ago, doctors told Brian Vickers to get his affairs in order and call his family before heart surgery because he might not survive it.

His heart was rejecting an artificial patch placed in 2010 to fix a hole. Doctors were not sure if they could remove the patch.

“They said going in to get it out, it may knock it loose, and if it becomes loose, I’m doing to die,’’ Vickers said.

Having gone through that, along with blood clot issues that kept him out of the car three separate times since 2010, has changed Vickers’ focus. He’s looked at life beyond racing.

Until he was selected to fill in for Stewart during Daytona Speedweeks, Vickers was in training to go with friends to Alaska later this year, to climb mountains and ski, reaching heights of 16,000 feet for eight days. He also has plans in September to scale all 10 peaks along the Grand Teton range in three days.

Still, the chance to race again has him excited. His father sensed it when Vickers called him that he would be driving Stewart’s car.

“I love racing,’’ Vickers said. “I love what I do. But I also love life. There’s so much more to life than racing. I’ve learned that the hard way. I mean, I’ve been in the sport, I’ve been out of the sport. There’s a lot more out there.’’

He’s raced since he was 10 years old. Vickers missed his high school prom to race at Bristol Motor Speedway and attended his high school graduation only after qualifying for an Xfinity race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He’s won three Sprint Cup races and an Xfinity title, but now the focus is on the Daytona 500.

“This is pretty special,’’ Vickers said. “I wasn’t sure if I would ever be in the Daytona 500 again. Here I am.’’

For how long, remains the question. That’s always the question for a substitute driver.