Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to share their career path in a feature called “How I Got Here.” These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to listen. Up next: NASCAR official Rickie Kyle.
Can you tell me what your job right now with NASCAR entails? What do you do on a weekend?
On a weekend, starting on Friday morning, we do inspection on all the series that are racing that weekend. I’m in the safety department and we do all the safety on the cars and Trucks, Xfinity and Monster Cup.
So you’re going around and you’re basically checking to make sure that they’re compliant with the safety rules and things like that?
Yes. All their seatbelts and helmets and HANS devices, we have to double-check that every week to make sure the dates are not (expired), so their HANS and helmets and seatbelts are in compliance with the SFI rules, and of course with our NASCAR rulebook.
Interesting. So how long have you been working for NASCAR?
I’ve been with NASCAR 20 years as of this year.
Twenty years. Oh my gosh, wow. So I am very ignorant about this and don’t even know where people start being NASCAR officials. Did you grow up as somebody who was interested in cars?
No, I’m not mechanically inclined. I can change oil and spark plugs, but anything past that, no. I wasn’t a NASCAR fan. In grade school, I had friends who went to Rockingham every year and would bring back a Richard Petty STP sticker, I remember that. And I just wasn’t a big race fan.
One year in ’96, I started working as a security guard at Rockingham Speedway. For two years, I just kinda sat on the golf cart, because my job was to put out fires during the race — because if the tower saw smoke, they would think it was a wreck. So our job was to ride on the golf cart with two shovels and put out fires.
I thought you were using it as a metaphor at first, but you were literally putting out fires.
Putting out fires for people who were cooking or burning campfires during the race. And so I started doing that, and me and my friend were sitting on the golf cart one day and I was watching the NASCAR officials, what they were doing. And I told him, I said, “I could do that job.” And he said, “Well go get a job, and then help me get one.” This was in ’97, I think.
So I went home and my plan was to send a resume to NASCAR every month until they called me or said stop sending them. My sister helped me with my resume, I got it typed up, I sent the first one in.
We had a race in Rockingham that fall, so I went there and worked the race. After the race, I went in the garage — because I’m in a security guard uniform so I can go in — and I said, “How do I get a job for NASCAR?” And I asked several officials. I bet you four of them told me, “See Gary Nelson (who was Cup Series director at the time).” And four of them told me something off the wall, like you’ve gotta have some automotive engineering degree, you’ve gotta have a college degree.
But I went and found Gary Nelson, and he was standing in the garage. I didn’t know who he was, and I said, “Who is Gary Nelson?” And they said, “That guy there.” I walked over and I said, “Mr. Nelson, my name is Rickie Kyle, I’m very interested in being a NASCAR official.” He kind of looked at me up and down, he said, “OK, what do you do now?”
At that time I was a machinist for Ingersoll Rand Corporation in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He said, “Oh wow. Can you read micrometers, calipers, and blueprints?” I said, “Yes sir, I do that every day. I went to school to work there after I got out of the military,” and I’d been there 18 years at that time.
So Gary Nelson said, “Wow, give me your name and number.” So I gave it to him, he stuck it in his suit jacket and he said, “I’ll get back with you. Go over to the media center and get a schedule and mark all the races you can drive your car to every time you work that’s within eight hours of your house.” I lived in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and back then it was 16 races within eight hours of where I lived. So I checked all of them off and I remember when I was checking them off, it started raining, and I was standing under an awning in front of the media center. And I’m checking them off, my hands were shaking, I’m like, “I got to talk to Gary Nelson from NASCAR.”
And so I went over and I said, “Gary Nelson wants this,” so one of the officials took it because they were in tear down. He walked over, he said, “This is from that security guard,” and (Nelson waved it) and stuck it in his pocket.
A month later — April 1st, 1998 — I got home from work. I had two jobs, and I was changing to go to my second job, and Gary Nelson called me at home himself and I answered the phone, I said, “Hello?” He’s like, “Is this Rickie Kyle?” I said, “Yes it is.” He said, “This is Gary Nelson from NASCAR. I’m calling to see if you still want to be a NASCAR official.”
Just like that. No red tape, no interview, no resume, no nothing. Just sight. And so I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “You be in Martinsville, Virginia, Friday night and meet Marlon Wright at the Best Western hotel on 220 in Martinsville, Virginia, and he’ll take it from there.” So I went up that Friday night, met Marlon, he gave me that paperwork. I remember going in my room, and the guy I was rooming with, he had his NASCAR official hat, his NASCAR shirt laying there. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m gonna be wearing this.”
So the next morning I went to the track. There was no black people working with NASCAR. I mean, I’d seen a few in there working in the track, but no officials. There were none. And they had hired me and another black official from Memphis named Tyrone Carpenter. We both started the same weekend. And he worked for FedEx in Memphis.
So I went in, and my father always said, “Keep your mouth shut, be where you’re supposed to be, and do what you’re supposed to do.” I did that ever since high school, basic training through the military, never had a problem. Did my (military) tour, got out, worked at Ingersoll Rand for 18 years, and then Gary Nelson calls me up. And I said, “Now I’ve gotta do this same thing again.”
So I went in the garage and guys were kind of looking at me. Everyone was very nice, I had no problems. When I told my mother NASCAR wants me to come work part time, she was like, “Ain’t that the sport were everybody has a beard and some teeth missing and drinking beer?” (Laughs) I said, “That’s the fans, Mama, that’s not (the officials).” She said, “You be careful,” I said, “OK.”
So I went in the garage and they introduce me and I’m standing in the trailer. All of a sudden this big shadow, it was wide, it was like, “Who’s that?” I turned around and it’s this huge man standing there and I’m like, “Who…?” And this man says, “How you doing?” It’s Mike Helton. And I said, “I’m good sir, how you doing?” He said, “Welcome aboard,” I said, “Thank you.”
They gave me my shirts and they interviewed me, riding in the pace car Gary Nelson and Buster (Auton) around Martinsville Speedway. And that was my interview. Gary said, “Who’s your favorite driver?” I said, “I don’t know any drivers.” He said, “Well, do you like to watch the race?” I said, “If I want to go to sleep on Sunday, I’ll turn it on.” He said, “You just answered the two most important questions right.”
Being hired as somebody that knows nothing about any job, their mind is open to learn everything there is. So I just came in and I’m fresh. I didn’t know Turn 2 from Turn 4, and then I learned and I learned how to do it. And when they hired me (full-time), I was the first African-American to be hired by NASCAR as an official. I was the first African-American to go over the wall in a uniform and work a car as an official. And I was inducted into the Minority Hall of Fame by Wendell Scott’s wife at (North Carolina) A&T (State University) in 2003.
That’s so cool.
NASCAR got me a ring that says, “Bridging the gap in motorsports.” I got a glass plaque that Mary Scott presented to me, and so I had to tell that story there. I went to a black tie dinner with my wife and daughter.
Ever since then, this place and this job, I have never had a problem with anybody — crew, driver, fan. When a fan sees “Official” on your shirt, they’re more enthused about meeting an official than what color you are. I have never been (subjected to) any racial remarks or anything that I’ve ever heard myself. And if you respect people, they respect you.
For 20 years, it’s just been a smooth ride for me and I get the most respect. People say, “What do you do?” And I say, “I’m a NASCAR official.” And their eyes get big and they’re like, “Really?” Like in my town, it’s a small town, and I can’t go in the grocery store, the pharmacy, the bank (without people whispering) “That’s the guy that works for NASCAR.” And some mornings when I have to go to Charlotte for teardown, I stop at the convenience store, get something to drink on the way up, and it’s a bunch of guys standing around. And everybody knows me, and a lot of times I’ve had NASCAR vehicles that I’ve driven over the years, and they’d see me come in in the morning, and they’re staring at me. I’m like, “I’m just a human like you, I have a job, a regular 8-to-5 job. That’s all.” “But you’re on TV!” I said, “Yeah, you gotta be careful so you’re scratching and digging when the camera is on you.” (Laughs)
So how did your job evolve over the years? You mentioned when you started, it was a part-time thing. At what point did it become your actual career and your job, and how have your duties changed over that time?
Well for the first two years, I was part-time. And they put me right off the bat in the engine department because I could read micrometers and calipers and blueprints. So they hired me and I went straight to engines, and I did all the paperwork and typed in everything on a laptop, and they taught me how to do that. And I did that for 10 years, worked in the engine department.
Then I left the engine department and I went to the weights and measurements department, and I worked there two years. And I left weights and measurements when an opening came up for safety and I got in safety. So I’ve been working there.
But my duties, outside of doing safety on Friday, I do all the lineups for qualifying; I line all the vehicles up on pit road. I line up everything for all the races because I’m ex-military and I’m all about “dress right, dress,” — everything’s gotta be exact. The crews, I’ll be out there, they’ll say, “Oh Lord, here comes Rickie with his tape measure.” I mean, I can eyeball vehicles and put them exactly where they need to be.
They need to be a certain space apart, a certain angle?
Certain angle, space apart and you’ve gotta do it by sight. And over the years for 20 years, I’ve lined up vehicles. I think about three years ago, NASCAR appointed me lead over pit road, so I’m over all the pit roads and lining up vehicles. So they say, “Hey Rickie, we’re not gonna line them up Le Mans, we’re gonna line them up nose to tail,” or “We’re gonna line them up in the pit box, we’re gonna line them up Le Mans style.” They can call me and I change it and do it right then.
At Bristol Motor Speedway, we had cars all between trucks and everywhere for qualifying because we couldn’t get them all on pit road because the pit road was so short. And one day I said, “I’ve got an idea, John” — John Darby was the director. I said, “Can we try my idea?” He said, “Do you think it will work? Let’s try it.”
I got all 43 cars on the front pit road backed in at an angle, and I remember Mike Helton and Robin Pemberton coming out and taking pictures of it because the way it looked. They said, “We have never seen seen Bristol look this neat and clean and everybody’s on pit road.” There used to be people between trucks and we had to stick officials back there to watch them watch the cars because you can’t see them. So I came up with that idea.
Then I came up with the steps — if you park nose to tail, it’s 10 steps (between cars). That’s eight for the car, two for the generator. If you park Le Mans (a grid), I can park five steps between each car, six steps, or seven steps. If they say, “We need room,” I do seven. If they say, “We’ve gotta be tight,” I do five. And so I got that implemented out there.
The teams come to me, and they say, “Rickie, that was too tight. When we come back, we need more room to make that turn to get our generators out.” I say OK, so we go back and I’ll do something different. And they come up and they acknowledge it and they’d come up and say, “Hey, that was good, Rickie, you did it like that.”
I mean, all the teams and the crews and the crew chiefs and the drivers, it’s amazing that you know these guys that are on TV and they walk up to you and know your name. Tony Stewart was trying to sign my uniform at Dover last week, I’m like, “Get away from me! I’ve got one, don’t write on it!” He’s got a Sharpie trying to write on my uniform before the race. And Dale Jr. invited me to his house to see his treehouse. I’m like, “What? Do you have a Tarzan rope or something?” He’s like, “No, get my number from the PR girl and you call me.” I’m like, “I’m gonna call Dale Jr. to come to your house? Yeah, OK.” (Laughs)
So you mentioned you were in the military. You were in the Army?
I was in the Army. I went in the Army fresh out of high school, I graduated, two weeks later I was in basic training. My father was ex-military, he was in the 82nd (Airborne Division), he was in 21 years, retired and then he was the first black to be a deputy and a police officer in our town. I wear my hair the same way he did 40 years ago (close-cropped), me and my brother, because my father was ex-military. He said, “You’re not gonna grow an Afro and walk about here with plaits in your head. You’re gonna keep a haircut.” And he was always strict on us; we always shaved.
Being in the military, I got Soldier of the Month for being the best dressed soldier in the military. Out of 260 troops, twice while I was in the six years, I got the Soldier of the Month award. I finished my three years active duty, I went into the reserves, I did six years in the reserves, and that was when I was working at Ingersoll Rand also.
So when Gary Nelson hired me, he said, “Now you can’t work all these jobs. You won’t be able to, because you’re gonna be traveling.” I said, “I just have to sacrifice then and make it work.” And over the years it has worked.
It’s been 20 years of meeting people. I am so close to these people, if something happens to them, it’s like a family member, like somebody dies. We had this girl that got in a wreck in Charlotte and she was my partner, her name was Brienne (Davis). She was going to a birthday party on 77 in Charlotte and got in a wreck. She had an old ’69 short-bed truck she fixed up herself, and didn’t have seatbelts in it. And she flipped and got thrown out and she was brain dead. And so Mike Helton came up to me at Phoenix the next weekend and said, “Rickie, don’t worry, she’s better off where she’s at.” And I just started crying uncontrollably. And my wife was like, “Why are you crying over another woman?” And I said, “She’s like my family. We were close.” She was about my daughter’s age. I’m like, “We worked together, we are together all the time. Any of these people I work with, I’m very close to them.” And being here at NASCAR is like a family. Everybody’s just great. We get along, we party together, we hang out, we go play golf, we’re all the time together. And I spend more time with these guys here than I do with my family.
They asked us in a meeting two years ago at our official conference, they said, “Raise your hand if you’re proud to say you work for NASCAR.” And you know, half the people didn’t put their hand up, because they’re afraid you’re gonna be labeled as an ass-kisser or brown-noser for raising your hand and being honest. I said, “I still get teary-eyed saying I work for NASCAR. When cars go by at Talladega and the hair is standing up on your neck, when you’re down in pit box 1, you love what you do.” You know what it feels like to be in love with something, because that feeling, like when you hear somebody sing and it sounds so good, you can feel it. You can feel that feeling, and that’s the feeling I get for working pit road and being here.
I love getting up and going to work no matter where we are every week, I never dread coming to work. I’ve never called in and took off sick because I love what I do. And the director told me one time, he said, “You know what Mr. Kyle? You were meant to do this job.”
I never was one that (grew up) wanting to be a NASCAR official. I never heard of a NASCAR official until I was working in Rockingham in the ‘90s. The way I got to the track down there was from work, a bunch of guys was going to the time trials, and I didn’t drink. And they say, “Rickie, take off half a day and come with us to time trials at 1:00 and drive for us so we can drink beer.” I said, “Oh, OK.” So we took off and bought a bunch of Bojangles chicken and a bunch of beer and we went to the track. And we were sitting in the bleachers and watching the cars practice, and every time this black car went by, everybody stood up, put their hand up. Even someone that was drunk passed out, when the black car went by, they’d open their eyes and stand up and do that. I’m like, “What’s so great about that black car that everybody stands up?” He said, “That’s the man right there. He will put the nose of that race car anywhere and he ain’t afraid of nothing.” And that’s how I got to know who Dale Earnhardt was. And I got to meet Dale Earnhardt. I got to work with him a couple of years before he got killed. I was there the night he got killed, and I have never seen so many grown men cry in my life.
You mentioned that it’s kind of a family. What if somebody’s listening to this and they’re like, “I would love to do that, that sounds like a great job.” How would you recommend they get their start these days?
NASCAR wants you to have some type of track knowledge. Like we just hired a girl out of Alabama. She went to college and she’s 26, and I’ve noticed her at Talladega. She worked pit road in security, her and her dad. Her dad’s 6′ 4″ and she’s 6′ 3″. She played basketball. I watched on pit road when lining up cars, how she controlled the crowd — even though they’d be nasty, she’s be polite and she knew how to handle them. I said, “She’d make a good official.”
So a year ago, I told her, “You should apply for a job. Go to NASCAR.com and apply and send your resume in.” She didn’t do it. So the next year we came back and I’m like, “Did you send it?” She said, “No, I just felt like I couldn’t get a job.” So me and my supervisor, David Green, talked to Chad Little, who did the interviews, and we talked to Chad and we took him out and we introduced her to him, and he said, “Send me your resume to my email.” And she sent it in, and ball started rolling, now she’s sitting over there in our office.
And in hiring her, just being there on the track and having that track knowledge, she has picked up everything. I told them, “You hire people that’s got a fresh mind to this instead of somebody who’s worked at a dirt track all their life and they’ve got that in their head.” She has picked up everything we showed her, she picked it up the first time. We’ve got guys that’s been here five years and can’t park a race car as good as she does, and she’s been here less than a month. Because she never knew it, and when you tell her something, that sticks in there. So I told them, I said, “You keep hiring these guys that’s got all this experience, but it’s like what they told us when I tried to be a highway patrol back in the 80’s — they said they want to hire guys with no experience so we can train them to be highway patrol.”
When people come from lower series, they’re all ready to jump and fight or yell at somebody, and now they get to this level and get this (“Official” name) on the shirt, their head is just big. And my father always said, “Don’t let a job make your head get too big. Stay humble, do your job, be nice, treat people the way you want to be treated.” I tell them, “I’ve been here 20 years, I know. You’ve gotta treat these teams and drivers right. You’ve gotta be nice, you’ve gotta be polite. Gary Nelson always said, “We’re not here to bust their ass every time they do something wrong.” He said, “It’s our job as officials to help these guys, teach them how to do it right and teach them if they do it right, it’s gonna work out for you.” It’s respect.