David Crocker uses a compass to cook. Yes, a compass.
This is because Crocker is not your typical chef. He is the man at the center of all things food-related for Trackhouse Racing’s traveling crew. At every stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Crocker feeds the men and women who keep Trackhouse’s Chevrolets running. He is, in reality, their fuel.
And all of his meals are prepared outside, typically in the garage area of the speedway of the week.
Crocker sets up his cooking and serving space to provide the optimum environment for preparing food and making it available to Trackhouse employees who need solid nourishment and need it in an on-the-move work day.
“It takes a while to set all this up,” Crocker said, referring to the elaborate, custom-made, two-griddle Trackhouse cooking station that is transported from track to track. “I look at the compass when I’m deciding how it’s going to sit at any particular place. You have to keep the sun off the salad so everything keeps cold.
This is only one of a myriad of details Crocker deals with every week. He doesn’t touch Trackhouse’s race cars, but he’s a key element of the team that keeps things moving from coast to coast as Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez chase race wins.
Crocker controls the steak, the lobsters, the bacon and eggs, the chicken and, oh yes, the garlic bread. Crocker’s garlic bread is legendary among Trackhouse travelers.
“I’ve always liked to cook, but here it’s different,” Crocker said. “You’re cooking for what basically is a sports team. On Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays, I fuel them because they have such a long day. And it isn’t the physical part that’s tough. It’s the mental grind, especially on Sundays. They need a lot of protein so their Sunday goes smoothly.”
Crocker works at a huge cooking station that would be the envy of any backyard cook. Built to his specifications, it has two 36-inch griddles so that a large amount of food can be prepared at the same time. It has every cooking utensil that might be needed over the course of a race weekend. The accessory list includes video screens so that team members and guests can keep up with what’s happening on track.
The cooking station is shipped to the race track of the week along with the team’s pit boxes.
“I designed it, and they built it to a ‘T,’ ” Crocker said. “I wanted it to be user-friendly for me. It has to be set up right so that when I make a turn from the griddle to the table, everything’s set up right for a right-handed. All that has to be to my liking.”
Crocker stresses that he cooks on griddles, not grills. “The griddle sears the meat so that you don’t lose the flavor,” he said. “It’s the most ‘friendly’ thing to use. When I’m busy doing vegetables on one, there’s meats on the other.”
Crocker works every Cup race, typically arriving at the race site a day before most other team members to set up his station and to buy the food items that will be on his menus for the weekend. This can’t be done at a local supermarket. Because of the large quantities he has to buy, Crocker shops at restaurant food service stores. And this is not random shopping.
“I walk in and I know what I have to get,” he said. “I buy too much bulk for a regular store. At Daytona, I got about 50 pounds of New York Strip. An average breakfast is about 20 pounds of bacon, 100 sausages, 120 to 180 eggs, fruit salad, cereal, yogurt and fruit.”
“Fresh” is Crocker’s most important ingredient. “They pay me to cook, not to open bags and boxes,” he said. “I use very little processed food. All that’s important for the teams because I cook for them probably more than they cook at home.”
Crocker said he fits his food availability into the track schedule.
“They’re here to race,” he said. “When they get a chance to eat, they can. My guys are not finicky. They know me. If I say lunch at 11 o’clock, it’s 11, not 10:58. When the garage opens at 12:30, I’m ready. Some teams will come in with their backpacks and don’t even drop them before they start eating. My team is at the car. They come to race. They eat when they get the job done.”
What do they want? Not surprisingly, steak is a favorite. And “fancy” dishes are nowhere to be found.
“When I’m cooking for my teams, I’m not going with plank salmon dripped in maple syrup with four stalks of asparagus because they’ll look at me like I have four heads,” Crocker said. “These guys want to eat. I can chef, but here I’m cooking. They want real food. They won’t sit down to rice pilaf with chicken with hollandaise on it. They’re into meat and potatoes, chicken, ribs, stuff like that.”
Crocker said he mixes up menus to keep things interesting, maybe going with Mexican dishes one day, Italian the next and Chinese the next. “And a lot is grab-and-go food,” he said. “There’s usually not time to stop and sit down and eat.”
Crocker, a native of Bath, Maine, is 65. He now lives in Mooresville, N.C., home to a wide collection of NASCAR team members. When he turns 66, he plans to drive his 1966 Chevrolet truck on an extended run on Route 66, the great American highway.
When does a track chef eat? “When I’m at the track, I usually don’t,” he said. “I fast from about 4 in the afternoon until the next day at lunch. If I have time, I eat then. Sometimes I’ll just go all day and then stop and have breakfast on the way home.”
No fast food, he said, “but I do like to try diners.”
Fifteen years ago, Crocker was one of the many truck drivers hauling NASCAR race cars across the country. That’s where he got his nickname: Showman Dan. He was destined to be a cook or a chef, however, because his mother’s name is Betty Crocker. Really. (She’s 86 and still cooking).
Crocker wound up working the griddles for Chip Ganassi Racing and stayed on board when Trackhouse moved into the Concord, N.C. shop.
“They hired me, and I love it,” he said. “It’s been a good ride. You have to love it, or you couldn’t do it. It’s a grind – basically 36 weeks by myself with one weekend off. I have some friends who help at some tracks, but usually it’s me. I’m usually at the track by 4 or 4:30 in the morning getting stuff ready.”
On the way to buying food for the weekend, Crocker is scanning weather forecasts. He matches his food choices to the temperatures. “I never do a menu ahead,” he said. “I go by the weather. If it’s going to be a 100-degree day, I’m not going with a full meal of potatoes and stuff. That’s not going to settle well.”
Such are the decisions of chefs on wheels.