TV reporter juggles motherhood, NASCAR’s grinding road

May 10, 2012

Wendy Venturini’s 16-month-old son, Caleb, hasn’t missed a Sprint Cup race since he was born. Actually, he hasn’t missed a race since he was conceived.

Venturini, a pit reporter for Speed who is married to a Toyota Racing Development engine engineer Jarrad Egert, traveled for the entire 2010 season before giving birth Dec. 22.

“My doctor was understanding and understood our lifestyle,” Venturini said. “He said, ‘I don’t recommend this to everyone.’ But I had a really healthy pregnancy. We had hospitals lined up in the final three (races) if I went into labor.

“I was having contractions on TV (at Homestead-Miami Speedway) and didn’t tell the Speed executives until afterward. After that, everything went really smoothly.”

Thought to be the only couple traveling and working full time in NASCAR’s premier series while also raising a child on the road, Venturini and Egert represent one extreme of a sport whose travel schedule seemingly could have been drawn up by divorce lawyers.

NASCAR’s 2012 season stretches from mid-February to the week before Thanksgiving, with only two open dates (Easter weekend and the third week in July). In between, several hundred crewmembers will spend much of their time barnstorming around the country.

Saturday’s Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will provide some respite as the South Carolina track’s proximity to the NASCAR’s Charlotte hub means crewmembers are likely to be able to spend Mother’s Day with their families.

But the typical three-day routine of a NASCAR weekend (two days of practice and qualifying precede a race) often means leaving Thursday and returning late Sunday night. While drivers stay in motor homes that can accommodate families (though many, such as four-time champion Jeff Gordon, elect to bring their kids on race day), crewmembers aren’t afforded that luxury.

“It can be a brutal sport with the travel,” said Dr. Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who has counseled drivers and crewmembers for 11 years at Hendrick Motorsports. “You’re never home. It’s very hard on families. ‘I’m supposed to go to my daughter’s graduation, and here I am in Pocono.’ It’s tough on them.”

Venturini, whose family owns an ARCA team, has grown accustomed to the lifestyle, having been raised at the racetrack. When she and Egert began planning a family, they did so around the NASCAR season with the expectation that the newborn would travel full time.

At just short of 3 months, Caleb left for Speedweeks 2011 with his mom and dad. Venturini, 33, didn’t miss a Speed show the rest of the 2011 season.

“Looking back, it was a little bit crazy at first, but I’m glad I did it,” she said. “Because I learned a lot about motherhood. Much like our lives, it moved everything into fast-forward about being a mommy and going with the flow. I learned not to get wrapped up in problems. Anything that arose with our son, you just rolled with it.”

Child care was a concern for the first few races. They relied on family for help until Cup driver Michael McDowell’s wife, Jami, offered to babysit Caleb (the McDowells and their son travel to most races by motor home; Venturini and Egert also have a traveling sitter this year).

“We still meet challenges on scheduling,” said Egert, 35, a 15-year NASCAR road veteran who handles engine support and fuel-injection mapping for Joe Gibbs Racing. “There were a lot of situations we didn’t have answered going into it.”

Venturini, who also made sure working at the track wouldn’t affect Caleb’s hearing while in the womb (“I checked; they’re well insulated”), admitted that sometimes life felt too hectic in the first year when Egert wasn’t able to fly with her as much.

“Things are unique for us, but it’s hard to define normal,” she said. “What’s normal to one family may not be normal to another. … I’m not a parenting role model. It’s the complete opposite of what all theses parenting books would write about schedules, to have your son or daughter napping at a certain time or a specific place. He sleeps and is very adaptable. He’s a great kid, great traveler.”

Venturini and Egert take their motor home to 29 of 36 races (employing a freelance driver) and stay in hotels on the West Coast. A second set of toys and other necessities stays in the motor home, enabling Venturini to fly with only her son, a diaper bag and an iPad that helps keep him occupied.

At the track, Caleb often plays with the children of other drivers (Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears) and crew chiefs (Darian Grubb) in each track’s driver motor home lot, which often have playgrounds.

“We pull up in the car, and he gets excited when he sees the motor home and the racetrack,” said Venturini, who cares for Caleb full time from Monday to Wednesday at their Concord, N.C., home. “He runs from one end of motor home to the other.

“It’s definitely the only way we could do it as a working family. I don’t want to leave my son at home every week for 10 months. That wasn’t an option for me because I was raised on the road like this, and I knew it was possible. I couldn’t do this without Jarrad and my son here.”

Egert and Venturini are hoping to have more children, and they hadn’t decided on what they’ll do with Caleb’s education when he reaches school age.

“Life on the road is just controlled chaos, and you mix a toddler in, and it makes for a challenge,” she said. “But it’s a good challenge.

“It’s hard. I understand the 500 crewmembers here every week leaving their spouses and children at home, and I understand and don’t envy that. I’m compassionate about what they’re going through, and that’s why I feel very blessed.”

By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY