Racing resumes without fans, life goes on for one member of Hendrick’s No. 88 race team
Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Saturday, May 23, 2020, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.
After two months of being pitted under the yellow flag version of coronavirus, NASCAR’s race teams have returned to green flag racing, one of the first professional sports leagues to resume operation.
Scott Denton, 54, has been involved in auto racing for the past 17 years. He’s spent the last 10 working for Hendrick Motorsports as a member of race teams featuring drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
He’s currently a member of Hendrick’s No. 88 team that’s led by driver Alex Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives. Denton is the backup driver for the No. 88 race team hauler, but also is a part of the pit crew on race day.
As a member of the support crew, he’s responsible for throwing the rear air hose and catching the gas can during adrenaline-pumping pit stops that last less than 15 seconds.
Prior to NASCAR stopping racing in mid-March, the 88 team had been on a roll as they were coming off a win March 1 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The win was the second career victory for the 27-year-old Bowman, who is in his third full season driving for HMS.
And once racing resumed, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet made another strong showing, finishing second in the May 17 race at Darlington (S.C.) Speedway.
“Sunday was awesome, but it was also different,” Helton said Wednesday, May 20. “It was strange, surreal, but it went well because everybody there did what NASCAR asked us to do.”
All of the race team members had to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They had their temperature checked before entering the race track and had to wear a mask and practice social distancing once inside.
“We had to follow all the protocols that NASCAR wanted and HMS wanted,” Helton said. “Pretty much all day you had a mask on and gloves and you were six feet apart to keep your distance. It was different because you usually mingle and say ’Hi’ to guys, but all you could do basically was just wave at them instead of high-fiving and stuff like that.”
The big difference was the quiet and emptiness of the track’s grandstands.
“You miss the fans because of the screaming and yelling,” Helton said. “When I’m doing my duty, you don’t really think about it, but yeah, we miss the fans.”
On a typical race week, Denton works Monday through Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports shop in Concord. He spends his time “turning the tool box around” and “turning the trailer around”, which basically means he’s going through a six-page checklist and making sure the equipment used on race day is serviced, in place and ready for use.
He’s normally off work on Fridays and Saturdays and then flies out to the race track with members of the race team on Sunday. After assisting the pit crew during the race, he drives the hauler back to its shop in Concord.
While they weren’t in the shop from mid-March through early May with social distancing restrictions, Denton’s days were filled with plenty of video conference meetings through the Microsoft Teams software. Sometimes, there’d be three meetings per day.
He also devoted a large amount of time to mountain biking and doing workout videos at home. With the physical demands of working as part of the pit crew, it was important for the 6-foot-1-inch, 194-pound Denton to stay in shape. The work paid off as he dropped 10 pounds while social distancing.
A 1983 graduate of Ashbrook High School, Denton makes his home in Belmont with his wife, Christyn, and their 6-year-old son, Jack. One benefit of the downtime has been the chance to be at home, Denton said.
“That’s a blessing in itself to be able to be home with the family,” he said. “It’s been a lot of family time.”
While currently serving as a backup hauler driver, when he started at Hendrick Motorsports, Denton was the primary driver for Gordon’s colorful DuPont transporter and Junior’s Mountain Dew-splashed tractor-trailer. He made the switch to a backup driver after he got married in order to spend more time at home.
“When I’m on the road, I’ll do a lot of Facetiming, especially on the West Coast trips,” Denton said of races at Sonoma, Calif., Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The 2,800-mile drive to Sonoma from Concord runs more than 40 hours each way, he said, while Phoenix takes 34 hours.
The drivers follow Department of Transportation regulations that limit them to 11 hours of driving per shift. On the long trips, he and the other driver will often rotate, switching out every 10 hours.
“When you’re driving the truck, it’s the open road, it’s like freedom,” said Denton, who says Interstate 10 through southern Arizona is his favorite stretch of road. “It’s unbelievable. There are beautiful mountains and scenery you just don’t expect to see. If you didn’t leave Gastonia or Belmont, you wouldn’t think something like that exists.”
Racing has long been in Denton’s blood. He started out racing super late-model cars at Cherokee Raceway in Gaffney, S.C., with his grandfather, Toy Bolton.
“I love racing in general,” Denton said. “I grew up in racing and I was always a race fan growing up. I used to watch those transporters go by and I used to tell my granddad, ’Hey man, I’m going to drive one of those one of these days.’ He said, ’Oh, it’s a lot of work.’”
Denton’s longtime friend, Mark “Hollywood” Armstrong, who was working in auto racing and now works for JR Motorsports, suggested Denton, who was working part-time at FedEx and attending Gaston College, get his commercial driver’s license and he would help him land with a race team.
After obtaining his CDL, Denton started out driving a motorhome for race team owner Chip Ganassi and then worked his way up through the ranks, culminating with the offer from Hendrick Motorsports in 2010.
This weekend’s trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway is their shortest trip of the year, as it’s almost literally across the street from their race shop. The Concord track and race week is a special time for Denton.
“I can bring my family. My son and wife can come to the garage and see what I actually do for a living,” he said. “Charlotte’s always been special because of that.”
However, Charlotte will also be without fans as NASCAR’s social distancing restrictions remain in place. Denton will miss having his family there beside him.
He says the fellowship among the racing community is what he likes best about his job.
“I enjoy racing. I enjoy going to victory lane. It’s pretty awesome.”