Sitting behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang, Brett Bodine eases the pace car onto the straightaway at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. With the calmness of a Sunday driver, he presses the gas pedal, sending the car to upwards of 100 mph. "I used to love racing here," says Bodine, 47, during a pre-race lap around the track in April.
After 18 years as a NASCAR Cup series driver, Bodine hung up his race suit in 2003 and now serves as the official pace car driver for the NEXTEL Cup series. "I've always threatened that one race I won't pull off the track," he adds with a laugh.
Since 2004 Bodine has driven the pace car, which leads racecars around the track at the start of every race, and slows the field following a yellow caution flag. "My job begins when we leave pit road at the start of the race," he says. "I have to set the pace so drivers can determine the exact pit road speed for their pit stops. Here at Talladega, it's 55 mph. But it's different at every track."
During a race, Bodine never exits his pace car and is in constant communication with a NASCAR official through an in-car headset. "As I'm driving around the track, I tell the race director the conditions I see and help him decide what equipment we need following an accident and then help determine when the track is all ready to go."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, says the pace car driver is an essential part of the race. "When you're driving the pace car, you're not just driving the car," Pemberton says. "You're observing the track conditions to make sure it's safe. Brett has a lot of insight into the entire sport. The way he came up through the ranks, he adds a lot to our business."
Bodine's immersion into racing began during his childhood in Chemung, N.Y. (pop. 2,665), where his parents owned and operated the Chemung Speedrome racetrack. "If you look at the jobs it takes to put on a race, you can't find a pair of shoes I haven't walked in," Bodine says. "I've done everything from cooking hamburgers at the concession stand to selling tickets. I flagged at the track when I was a kid, I scored races and I even drove the pace car for my dad at the track."
But in 1977 Bodine decided he was ready to race at his parents' track. "They weren't really pleased that I was a driver," says Bodine, whose brothers Geoff and Todd also are veteran NASCAR drivers. "My parents really wanted me to take over the family business."
Instead, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the State University of New York at Alfred, and gave himself five years to become a professional racecar driver. "I realized that I needed to go get an education before I went into professional racing," he says.
Today, he puts his education and racing experience to use at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., where his job title is director of cost research. In addition to his pace car duties, Bodine test-drives NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, an experimental racecar designed to address safety issues for drivers and lower costs for car owners. He also handles the approval process for new NASCAR drivers.
"I just hope I can help shape the sport in a positive way," says Bodine, who resides in Concord (pop. 55,977) with his wife, Kathi, and their 6-month-old twins, Kami and Eli. "And I hope I can help protect all my buddies out there on the racetrack."