FYI WIRZ in the NASCAR garage By Dwight Drum
Web work by Larsen & Drum Images by Drum
NASCAR’s Tony Stewart hosts Big John’s Speedway Grill for team
Some NASCAR teams get lunch by stacking bologna and sandwich cheese between two pieces of bread and adding a squirt of mustard. Some teams utilize the down time of their hauler driver and give him the role of barbeque tender. Some have their meals catered and others send out for nearby fast-food.
Tony Stewart is different. His Stewart-Haas Racing has a garage chef, Big John Youk who was self-taught with the help of his mother and grandmother, to properly feed his team and sponsors.
Big John has been in the NASCAR garage for decades. In 2006 he and Meredith Books published Speedway Grill to showcase his culinary skills in a very picturesque format.
Thumbing through Big John’s Speedway Grill cook book can make one hungry.
Establishing a functional food tent in the often cramped environment of the NASCAR garage that by necessity is near the center of the infield is no cinch.
Big John explained. Tony Stewart commented.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of motorsports topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Quotes derived from motorsports industry contacts and personal interviews.
Big John’s day starts earlier than other team members.
“As soon as the garage opens at 6:30 a.m.,” Youk said. “I was actually in here at 5:00 bringing my coolers in. Can’t start working until 6:30 but soon as 6:30 rolled around I got everything going, got it set up, got ice, got what I had to do. Got help with the tent. And we set up the little kitchen here.
“The first day is always the toughest because of that. Once you’re set up things kind of fall into place.”
Tony Stewart appreciates Youk’s efforts.
“Big John’s a great cook,” Stewart said. “If we’re in Dover he has Philly cheese steaks. If we’re in New Hampshire he has lobster. He tries to cook stuff that’s sort of special to that area. He keeps it different and it’s always good, and that’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Youk has plenty of history to fall back on.
“This is the start of my 33rd year being involved with NASCAR,” Youk said. “I’ve been cooking with a crew since 1995. I’m still out here. My boys, I got to treat them good.
“Feeding everybody is rewarding, make sure that they’re full and content. That way they can concentrate on their job, on their work.
“They fuel the race cars, I fuel them. Even when it’s as hot as it is, they’ve got to have something to eat. As late as it might be or as early as it might be, the morale is way up and it shows.”
Stewart emphasized the dual role that Youk plays.
“The best part is that we’re really able to take really good care of our sponsors,” Stewart said. “If they’re at the track, they’re eating his food. They don’t have to stand in line at the concession stand or make a bologna sandwich on the hauler. I mean, they can if they want, but usually once they see the spread Big John has – from fruits and vegetables to meat and potatoes – they don’t want a hot dog from the track or bologna off the truck.”
Youk cherishes his role.
“I was hired here at Stewart-Haas here from the beginning,” Youk said. “I’m just tickled to death to be able to help them out. They have a lot more to be worried about than where they’re going to get something to eat. So as long as I’m here, they can worry about what’s in that garage and I can worry about what’s under this tent right here, which is the food.”
Ah yes—the food—Youk expanded on that.
“We had some real killer pork chops today,” Youk said. “We had some corn on the cob. I made them homemade cucumber tomato sauce. Now it’s late in the day. I got some wings here I’m doing. Newman (Ryan) came up with a sauce of Lawry’s teriyaki sauce, butter and a whole jar of French hot original hot sauce. We mixed that up, heated it up and dressed them. He’s in there right now, burning his lips on them. So that’s what we got going right now.”
Youk is surrounded by NASCAR stars like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and other celebrities, but his years of garage experience tempers any star dust.
“They’re just the bud next door,” Youk said. “You see them every week. You know who they are and they aren’t any different than your neighbor. They’re all good guys. I know they have their little quirks, here and there and everywhere, but that’s none of my business. I like doing the food here. I like making everybody happy.”
Big John Youk had advice for those who might want to follow in his NASCAR garage footsteps.
“It’s not easy to get in here,” Youk said. “You have to know racing. You can’t just come in here and start wandering around without some kind of street smarts about the racing world. For instance you can’t just zombie around without looking to see where the cars are coming from and where they’re going to. Who’s on the move and who isn’t. It’s just not a step in. It’s not easy.”
Sampling Big John’s food—now, that’s easy—if he offers.
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