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Volume 20 No. 41
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With eye on cost, nutrition, team brings own cook

John Youk looks up from a camouflage grill beneath a tent at Kentucky Speedway and eyes a Sprint Tower in the distance. He scans the numbers for Stewart-Haas drivers.

“Patrick’s third fastest,” he says, nodding. “Stewart’s quick, sixth. We’ve got hot cars. Oh yeah.”

Stewart-Haas Racing’s team chef — the man everyone calls “Big John” — then returns his attention from Friday morning practice at the racetrack to the fish he’s seasoning and preparing for lunch. It’s one of three things he’s spent his morning preparing for the mechanics, back-office staff, drivers, engineers and crew chiefs of Stewart-Haas Racing.

John Youk (left) and one of his volunteer sous chefs prepare lunch on site for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Youk is 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, and he loves food. His voice is so reminiscent of John Madden that he’s often asked for autographs when he goes through the drive-thru at a fast-food chain. He travels to every race during the season and gets friends in the race market to help him cook.

On Friday at Kentucky Speedway, there are three sous chefs working around him. One is helping season fish. One is stirring the jambalaya. Another is setting out bakery items for lunch.

Youk gets $1,500 a weekend to spend on food for three days — or roughly $57,000 over the 38-week season for groceries alone. The salaried chef also receives a seasonlong garage pass worth $3,500, as do his volunteer sous chefs.

The grocery bill covers feeding all four Stewart-Haas teams and a host of other people affiliated with the teams. He typically feeds more than 60 people a day for three straight days. He likes to come in with some menu items planned and then get other things as he goes. He’s a big fan of the farmers market.

“I blow it out on race day,” Youk says. “After we’re done here, I’ll go to the store or go first thing tomorrow. I don’t know what I’m making tomorrow. That depends. Is there good sweet corn? Is there something else local we can get?”

Youk has been working in NASCAR since 1979 when he worked on the pit crew for James Hylton’s car. He first started cooking in 1995 when he was with Sabco Racing, a precursor to today’s Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

“They said, ‘We need to get a grill. We’re sick and tired of bologna,’” Youk says. “I said, ‘You get a grill and I’ll cook.’ I was on the pit crew and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He became a full-time cook in 2001 and joined Stewart-Haas in 2009. He’s got a cookbook — “Big John’s Speedway Grill” — and ignited a trend in NASCAR. Today, Michael Waltrip Racing also employs a team chef, while other teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing use caterers that work in the garage, such as Kat’s Korner or the Garlic Garage.

Stewart-Haas Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing believe the cost of hiring a cook and paying for groceries is cheaper than catering food in each race market. Not to mention, it gives them a chance to feed their crews more wholesome and diverse food than they would get in the infield of most speedways. Eating sandwiches or hot dogs for 38 race weekends would wear the teams down.

“I’m put here to give them a nice, balanced meal,” Youk says.

The menu today is a mix of healthy and unhealthy. There’s a fruit bowl and salad bowl, tilapia and trout. There’s ribs and jambalaya. Later in the afternoon, he’ll make pastrami sandwiches and wings. There are cookies and chips out all day. Plus Greek yogurt and granola bars.

The crews working on the cars barely have time to eat lunch. Usually, they send a crew member by the food tent, which is located near the team’s haulers in the garage, to load up a tray with ribs, fish and fruit and bring it back to the garage for everyone to pick at between practice runs. Others wait until the team goes through inspection to make a plate.

Youk spends his time making sure what the team members get to choose from tastes good. His food is so good that former Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman, who joined Richard Childress Racing this year, still stops by for lunch after practice.

“Got anything worth a damn over here?” Newman says, smirking. He piles four ribs onto a plate and turns to go.
As Newman walks off, Youk just shakes his head and says, “I’m just sitting here feeding the masses.”