Champ Car racers are some of the world's fastest; the open-wheel speeders are similar to Formula One cars, and can do 240 miles per hour on the straightaways. Not surprisingly, by day the racetrack smells of gasoline and burnt rubber. But after dusk, a mouth-watering array of aromas fills the air -- at least around the team-sponsored hospitality trailers that gather at the edges of each course.
For the past 14 years, Berlin resident David Horner has cooked in one of those trailers, traveling the Champ Car -- formerly the Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART -- circuit all over the continent. This year, the New England Culinary Institute grad hit the road as head chef for Team RuSPORT, finishing the season a week and a half ago, after a three-day race in Mexico City that drew a record 271,000 fans.
Champ Car racing isn't quite as popular as Formula One or NASCAR, but the league's 10 teams still spend tens of millions of dollars each year to compete, and some of that moolah makes it into the meals they serve. Racing fans for whom trackside food means beer and burgers might be surprised to learn that the dinners Horner prepares are often as fancy as the cars are fast. The 46-year-old chef regularly whips up $300-a-plate feasts, featuring everything from Waldorf salad with truffle butter to Bayou petite crab shots to beef Wellington.
"I think people are always really blown away that they're getting this kind of service at a racetrack," Horner says. "Most people don't have a clue."
Not that the average fan can partake of this largesse; Horner feeds only car owners, sponsors, pit crews, drivers and the media. He and his team of 10 chefs prepare about 1500 meals for this crowd during each weekend race -- breakfast, lunch and dinner. They cook Friday through Sunday, and work 16- to 17-hour days. It's Horner's full-time job, though he works just 13 weeks a year. He makes $3500-5000 per event.
Horner says it's not a life he envisioned as a kid. The stoic, soft-spoken Michigan native grew up in Bay City, where his father owned a family restaurant. He had no intention of launching a culinary career, but after three and a half years studying engineering at Michigan State, he changed his mind.
Horner moved to Vermont in 1987 to attend NECI. After graduating in 1989, he spent a couple years working at his dad's Michigan restaurant, and at eateries on Martha's Vineyard and in Colorado. When he returned to Vermont in 1991, he perused the NECI job postings and found an ad for a personal chef to a busy executive. "I had never heard of such a thing before," he recalls.
Horner interviewed for the position and got it. His client? Multimil-lionaire Michael Dingman, who made headlines when he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to the Bahamas in the 1990s. Before he left the country, Dingman introduced Horner to the rarified world of auto racing, where money is seemingly no object. Dingman raced Ford Mustangs in the International Motor Sports Association's GTO division.
When Dingman quit racing in 1993, he invited Horner to stay with him and help design a new kitchen on his custom-built yacht. But by then Horner had been bitten by the racing bug. He left his post and signed on as a chef for Honda's Champ Car team in February 1993. He stayed for six years, then worked four years for Players, a Canadian cigarette company. He now cooks for RuSPORT. "I like the excitement," he says.
Horner keeps mementos of his various gigs in his modest home on the Barre-Montpelier road. His small wooden kitchen table is cluttered with miniature racecars and menus. He shows off a scrapbook of photos, including a few snapshots of celebrities, including actor Paul Newman, who races in the Champ Car series.
Horner points to a shot of the 40-plus-foot RV in which he cooked for Players. "That was my kitchen," he says. "We'd build a tent around it."
That might sound like a second-class dining hall, but nothing could be further from the truth. Horner opens a slick promotional guide, left over from his days with Players. Lengthy sections are devoted to the drivers, the cars and, finally, to hospitality. In one colorful spread, a smiling Horner wears an apron and holds plates of food. Beside him is a tent like the one he mentioned, filled with tables draped in white cloths. Each place is set with an elaborate array of flatware, and four sparkling glasses -- one for red wine, one for white, one for liqueur and one for water. Ceiling fans spin overhead.
The shot was taken before one of Players' VIP dinners. Every Saturday night during a race week, the teams try to outdo each other with elaborate affairs. These are the most ambitious events Horner caters. "You want to really wine and dine the VIPs," he says. "I always want to wow 'em."
Horner keeps some of the menus from these dinners as souvenirs. He shows off one, from a race in Chicago -- "Chicago Playbill," reads the fancy script at the top. The meal included eight separate Southern- themed stations. "It was kinda bluesy," Horner quips.
At one station, diners might have chosen Creole stuffed peppers or mirliton-eggplant-succotash slaw -- the mirliton squash came from New Orleans. Another station's offerings included mini popcorn shrimp, bronzed tenderloin po' boys, andouille corndogs with Creole mustard, and alligator hushpuppies. "You ever had alligator before?" Horner asks. "It's pretty good."
Even more impressive is the laminated, diner-themed menu from a race in Canada, with meal choices printed in both English and French -- another Players production. The dinner followed a 1950s theme, complete with servers on rollerskates. At the "Tavern on the Green" station -- named for the New York City restaurant -- diners piled their plates with lobster thermadore and mincemeat pie, or steak tartare. Those looking for lighter fare might have sampled the avocado-and-baby-shrimp salad. "It was really fun," says Horner.
But the chef also reports that those dinners are remnants of a bygone era in Champ Car racing, when 12 or 15 teams paid for hospitality tents. Nowadays, there are just four or five, including his. Players, the spendthrift cigarette company, had to stop racing in 2003, when Canada outlawed tobacco ads on the sides of racecars. That was a bummer for Horner -- he thoroughly enjoyed his relationship with the company. When Players redesigned their hospitality trailer, they gave Horner their old stove for free, a $7000 monstrosity that's wedged in the corner of his kitchen at home.
Horner then had free reign to redesign his workspace. "It was really sweet," he remembers. "I didn't have a budget." Now, he says, "They're not throwing the money around like they used to. Cost is so involved. It's too bad."
Even so, Horner still gets to work with the best ingredients money can buy. It's one of the things he loves most about his job. RuSPORT flies him to the race site on Monday -- to cities such as Edmonton, Monterrey and Las Vegas -- and he starts prepping for the weekend's meals. He places orders with his suppliers that week, and they fly in the goods. "Everything we get, it was flown overnight, pretty much," Horner says. That includes what he calls "really good stuff," such as organic free-range veal and organic micro-greens. "You can play with a lot of really cool ingredients," he says.
Though the fans can't get hold of these goodies, everybody on the RuSPORT team is invited to partake, except, ironically, Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger, the team's two drivers. They're in training and aren't allowed to pig out. Horner says he fixes them plain grilled chicken breasts, and angel hair pasta with red sauce. For lunch, they might get a turkey sandwich with steamed vegetables. "It's a lot of carbs," Horner says.
The regimen must be working: At the season finale in Mexico City, they took first and second place. Horner points that out with a measure of pride.
But preparing separate meals for the drivers can put a kink in Horner's already busy schedule. Though he's got help in the kitchen, the staff is doing everything themselves. "Working in a restaurant," says Horner, "you have to worry about your dishwasher not showing up. You're always struggling for help. [With] this, it's all you."
That can be a pain, says Horner. "You're cooking for 200 people, and the guy shows up [saying], 'Can I have A.J.'s sandwich, and in, like, five minutes?' Just getting everything to work right is crazy."
But Horner wouldn't have it any other way. Last year, he tried to hold down a regular job, working as a chef for the Barre Town School. "All of a sudden," he says, "I was doing 35 pans of pizza." It didn't suit him as well. He might go back to work for the district, doing more creative cuisine a few days a week, he says, but he'd like to stick to the hectic racing life as long as he can.
Although it can be challenging at times, he says, "I just think, 'No matter what, a week from now, I'll be on a plane to go home.'"