Inside look at small fraternity: Chicagoans working in NASCAR
Chicago and NASCAR haven't generally been close personal friends over the years, even though there was a race at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet for 19 years.
That all changes Sunday with the street race in Grant Park, which will feature an impressive backdrop of skyline, lakefront and Buckingham Fountain.
There are some suburban natives who made a career in racing and will be standing on familiar ground this weekend. Two of them, in fact, have the exact same goal for the trip home.
"I've got to get Portillo's," said West Chicago native Jordan Caskey. "I haven't had Portillo's in a while. I'm looking forward to getting some Chicago food."
Brian Bottlemy of Johnsburg said finding a Portillo's is his goal for every NASCAR race, since the hot dog chain has started branching out around the country.
"My jackman Nathan Ricketts, he's from just around the lake in Michigan," Bottlemy said. "Portillo's is his favorite restaurant. We've already talked about it. If we can sneak some downtime in, I think we might be able to get one. We're already mapping where the closest one is and it's not far."
Caskey and Bottlemy don't know each other. But they're part of a very small fraternity -- NASCAR crew members who grew up in the Chicago area.
Caskey, 25, is a front end mechanic for Kyle Larson. Bottlemy, 40, a rear tire changer for Tyler Reddick.
"It's definitely a little different as far as me being from the Midwest and Chicago especially, coming down to North Carolina," Caskey said. "There's a couple Midwest guys on our team, a couple from Wisconsin and so on. I haven't met too many from the Chicagoland area."
Caskey said one reason he's looking forward to this weekend's race is he hasn't been in downtown Chicago in so long. The NASCAR Cup series sends him to different cities 36 weeks out of the year.
"It's going to be pretty fun, pretty exciting," Bottlemy said. "I think it's going to be one for the record books."
Gridiron to pit box:
Pit crew personnel has taken an interesting turn in the last decade or so. Larson's race team, Hendrick Motorsports, made a video series about its pit crew, showing them lifting weights, conditioning on a turf field, even doing ladder agility drills. They literally train like a college football team.
Race teams have been recruiting former college athletes to work pit stops, where speed is essential. Another local native, who wasn't available for an interview this week, is former Northern Illinois running back Joel Bouagnon from St. Charles. He works for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Bottlemy doesn't fit the description of former college football player. But he's been able to stay on the circuit, following Reddick from RCR to Michael Jordan's 23XI racing team this year.
"When I started in 2006-ish in NASCAR, there were a lot of people like me, guys who worked in the shop and painted the car on Sunday -- multiuse guys," Bottlemy said. "Then around 2010 or so, it started developing through Hendrick and some of the bigger teams to athletes. It's definitely trended that way to where I'm a unicorn almost anymore."
While growing up in Johnsburg, Bottlemy raced on small tracks in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Through a connection, he got a job changing tires in the NASCAR truck series and kept progressing from there. He spent roughly 10 years working with Austin Dillon and others at RCR.
"This is the first time in my career I haven't worked in the shop," he said. "We're focusing more on pit stops and not sacrificing anything.
"It's pretty cool to have Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin as my bosses. Growing up in Chicago, Michael Jordan was my idol, so that's pretty cool. I got to meet him at Daytona this year. That was life-changing."
Starting at the top:
Caskey began racing go-karts at a young age. When it was time for college, he found a school -- University of Northwest Ohio -- that offered a degree program geared toward racing.
He got his start in the truck series and after three years, he joined Hendrick Motorsports to work with Larson, who won the championship in 2021. As a mechanic, Caskey is generally not involved in pit stops unless there's something on the car that's broken.
"I just started with them this year, so it's all new to me," he said. "The infrastructure at Hendrick is so good, they have so many great employees, it makes everyone's job a little bit easier. When I was working in the truck series, there were a lot less employees, so there was more work involved."
Caskey said a typical work week includes a day assembling the car they'll use that week. The next day, they'll get it prepped for the race and then they're basically ready for the weekend.
"It's definitely very intense during a race, it's a lot going on," Caskey said. "We have one of the best drivers in the business, so we're always up front and in the madness of the race."
This weekend's race adds a little mystery, since it's not only a new track, but the first time NASCAR has tried anything quite like this.
"It's tough when you go to a new place like this and you don't get a lot of time to get your stuff figured out," Caskey said. "(Working full-time in NASCAR) has been a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed it, a lot more than I was expecting to. I'm so lucky I get to do this for a living, because I'm sure a lot of people wish they could."