By Jeanne Sager
CALLICOON When NASCAR Nextel Cup racer Carl Edwards hits the wall, it’s usually the end for fans.
For Kevin Brucher, it’s the beginning.
The 2002 graduate of Sullivan West/Delaware Valley is listed three names from the top of the Number 99 Office Depot crew.
On race day, he’s in the pit box, eyes fixed on his computer, radios squawking in both ears.
Brucher is officially “engineer” for the Roush Racing-owned 99 car, a member of the elite “A team.”
The core team of any racing venture in NASCAR Nextel Cup is the driver, his car chief, crew chief and the race engineer.
For Edwards, the young driver currently ranked fifth in the Nextel Cup standings, 438 points behind leader Jeff Gordon, Brucher is the man on the box chatting live with the other Roush racing teams, keeping tabs on fuel mileage and tracking unfolding developments on the track.
“In one ear, NASCAR is babbling away about everything, debris on the track, cautions . . .in the other ear, [Crew Chief] Bob [Osborne] is talking to Carl,” Brucher explained.
Brucher’s enjoyed a fast ride on the inside track to the top levels of NASCAR.
Three years ago, he was a rising senior at Alfred State University, interning for the summer at an engine shop in Martinsville, Va.
Studying mechanical engineering at Alfred, Brucher said he knew interning and the resulting networking opportunities was his key to unlock the wide world of racing.
He took the summer job at the Martinsville shop once a big race town because it’s owned by Joey Arrington, a former NASCAR driver now building high performance engines for race teams.
Far from his home in Callicoon, Brucher said he worked all day in Arrington’s shop but had nothing to do at night.
When a truck racing team moved in across the parking lot from the shop, Brucher walked over to chat them up.
He started lending a hand.
“I went in and just helped out, did anything, whatever they needed,” he recalled, “cleaned parts, organized parts, swept the floor a few times, just to be around it.”
Crew chief Fred Graves soon offered Brucher a job, and Arrington gave the OK for his intern to travel with the truck team on occasional weekends.
When Brucher returned to Alfred that fall, he had a wallet full of phone numbers.
During his last two semesters, he cashed them in.
Although the truck team had fallen apart, Graves’ nephew had gotten a job as a race engineer for one of NASCAR’s mega teams, Roush Racing.
Owner Jack Roush was looking for an engineer for his Number 50 Craftsman Truck Series crew.
Brucher aced his interview.
He started shortly after graduating with his bachelor’s from Alfred, two-thirds of the way into the season.
The work was, in a word, “intense,” Brucher said.
Working for Roush was nothing like his prior experience on a truck team.
Roush has resources, finances.
The crew wasn’t traveling on the road for 12 hours to Indianapolis Motor Speedway; they were flying and being put up in a hotel.
They weren’t throwing things together in a shop in a parking lot in Martinsville, Va.
They were in Morrisville, N.C. in the heart of race country, tied in to the Roush Industries headquarters in Michigan.
“It was just a new level,” Brucher explained.
His new job was to put his engineering skills to use to make the No. 50 truck the fastest it could be on the track.
“There’s a lot of things we were responsible for, but to generalize it, anything that has to do with testing optimization,” Brucher explained. “Tires to springs, getting all you can out of it.”
Roush had three different drivers on the No. 50 truck that year, only upping the ante for the crew behind the truck.
For an engineer, Brucher said the opportunities were incredible Roush is the biggest Ford manufacturing team in the series, with every resource at the fingertips of its workers.
“It’s kind of a big deal when Roush makes noise about something,” Brucher noted.
Late last year, Brucher got a heads up from his boss. He was going to be called over to Concord, N.C.
He was going to the big time.
Brucher went for an interview sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas with Carl Edwards’ crew chief, Bob Osborne.
On Jan. 2, he reported for duty in Concord.
“It’s three times the amount of work than it was in truck racing,” Brucher admitted. “Everything’s just a step up.
“You get a lot more equipment, there’s more competition, it’s tougher,” he continued. “It should be fun, but I see it as a lot of highs and a lot of lows.
Brucher works 75 to 80 hours a week. Even in his off hours, he knows he has to be preparing for the next day.
“You can’t drink and party and carry on,” he explained. “It’s not a road show; you leave something loose, and something falls off and the car hits the wall and it was your fault because you were tired . . .
“Some days, when it’s 100 degrees out, and your car just wrecked . . .” he said, shaking his head.
Last Friday was like a national holiday for him.
It was his seventh day off in 2007.
With no race on Sunday, Brucher celebrated by making the long drive from North Carolina to the house where he grew up to visit his parents, Roger and Carole, in Callicoon.
A Nextel Cup schedule on their refrigerator, a No. 99 ornament and pictures of Roger with NASCAR greats prove this is a NASCAR house.
That’s where the highs are for Brucher.
His mom sees him on TV and gives him a call.
Edwards races into victory lane, and everyone celebrates.
“When you do well, it’s more fun, it’s rewarding,” he admitted.
Brucher has a lot more respect for the pit crews of NASCAR, the work they put into getting that car to victory lane.
The engineering side shows an incredible feat of man against machine.
“You spend nights in the wind tunnel, and you get to see how changing one tiny piece of the body can gain you 50, 100 pounds of ground force,” he marveled.
On race day, it’s down to luck and keeping right on top of every minute detail.
“The biggest thing that makes a good team is being able to make the best of a bad situation,” he explained. “The car doesn’t tell you what to do it’s just a big piece of metal.”
That’s where Brucher comes in. He maintains the AOL Instant Messenger-like chat between the four Roush NASCAR teams during the race, he tracks what’s happening on the track and the status of the car.
Believe it or not, Sundays are a lot less hectic than the rest of the week, he said.
“It’s like the calm before the storm!” he said with a laugh. “You fly out Thursday, spend Friday and Saturday practicing, then Sunday comes along.”
The A team arrives at the track on race day, followed by the B team.
They eat lunch. A team takes the car through “tech.”
“Then we just kind of wait,” Brucher explained. “We have a team meeting, and that’s about it.
“The race starts, and I go on the box.”
Then it’s a three-hour race to the finish for everyone on the No. 99 Office Depot team.
“I sit right in front of the whole race, and I might get to see 25 laps,” Brucher said.
The rest of the time he’s tracking Edwards, his car, the track and the pit.
After the race, Edwards gets mobbed by fans; not the guys on the pit crew.
“They’re superstars,” Brucher said of the drivers.
He’s accepted that, but he’s found NASCAR is a different world than the one he saw as a teenage fan.
“You definitely gain more respect for the guys who basically set aside their life for this,” he said.
Edwards is driving well, and Brucher said he’s in it for as long as Jack Roush wants him in the race engineer’s seat.
What happens next is up in the air, he said.
“That’s what’s great about being an engineer, the options are there it just all depends on where you want to go,” he said.
He’s raced into the NASCAR world, where it’s all about connections.
Now he’s drafting along for the ride.