STATESVILLE, NC - Before David Ragan climbs into his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car for Sunday's race at Sonoma Raceway, he's going to climb into the driver's seat of the 18-wheeler that will carry that race car 2,700 miles from North Carolina to California.
The driver of the No. 34 Taco Bell Ford will be at the wheel of the team's 80-foot, 80,000-pound transporter early Tuesday morning when it pulls out of the Front Row Motorsports race shop for the cross-country trip. Team truck driver Mike Smith, the rig's primary operator throughout the season, will accompany Ragan and split the seat time during the 42-hour journey.
"I've always had a fascination with big trucks," Ragan said. "I wanted to get my CDL (commercial driver's license), so I got that a little while ago. And I thought it would be fun to take a trip across the country on the open roads and see everything, and at the same time get to spend some time with my truck driver."
Smith had his doubts when Ragan first told him he wanted to drive the hauler to one of the race venues, much less the farthest one on the Sprint Cup Series map.
"At first, he didn't really believe me," Ragan said. "But I showed him my license and told him I'd been driving the transporter for my late model team a little. Now, I think he's excited. It's going to be something different and something fun. Although he's probably going to sleep with one eye open just to make sure I'm not driving too crazy."
The 27-year-old Ragan, who has been racing within NASCAR's top three series since he was 18, received his commercial learner's permit last year and earned his full provisional CDL several months ago.
"I was surprised when he said he wanted to do it, but it should be neat," truck driver Smith said. "I think he's the first driver to ever do this. But we're going to have a good time and he's going to be just fine behind the wheel."
Ragan is known for rolling up his sleeves and getting involved with the various operations of his race team. An experienced mechanic, car builder and engine builder in his own right, Ragan can relate to the work done by most members of his Front Row Motorsports crew. But taking on the role of the hauler driver is one job he hadn't tried yet.
"It will be fun to see what he has to go through on a weekly basis," Ragan continued. "I think a lot of people don't respect truckers enough, especially in our sport, where they're gone for days and put in a lot of hours on the road."
On Sunday, Ragan will strap into his No. 34 Taco Bell Ford Fusion to drive 219 miles on the winding Sonoma Raceway road course. After 110 demanding laps on the twisting terrain, will he have to climb back into the hauler for the 2,700-mile trip back to North Carolina?
"I'll be taking a plane home."
Track Ragan and Smith's journey on Twitter by following @DavidRagan and @MikeS702.