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Road Food for
the Fast Lane

  by Regina Schrambling

  Englishtown, N.J. - Standing less than six feet from the track at Raceway Park here, it's hard to disagree with a promoter who calls drag racing "the most sensory of all spectator sports."

  You can smell it in the melting rubber, see it in the blur between blinks and hear it in engines blasting from zero to 200 miles an hour in seven seconds. You can even feel it: the vibration of two race cars pounding down the track has been measured at 2.2 on the Richter scale.

  Only taste is a conspicuous no-show. If drag racing has a flavor, it is sausage and peppers, or cheese steaks and fries. And if it's grim pickings for the fans, it's even bleaker for the competitors. This is not a world where real men eat mesclun. Judging by all the boxes I spotted outside drivers' trailers, Dunkin' Donuts is the breakfast and dinner of champions.

  But now even this bastion of burgers and Budweiser has been infiltrated by the new American cult of the chef.

  A Pro Stock racing team that has long traveled with a cook proudly hired one with a pedigree in February. And while the chef, Nicky Morse, may not be making the galantines and terrines he perfected at Ziggy's Continental in Columbus, Ohio, he is introducing the team to a whole new world of ingredients like Boursin cheese and chorizo salami and premium bacon — sometimes all in one sandwich.

  Just before lunchtime last Friday, Mr. Morse was ensconced in one end of an 18-wheeler in a stainless-steel kitchen that would seem large in a Manhattan apartment. On a Garland burner he had Great Northern beans simmering with a meaty ham hock; in the oven three loaves of bread were just developing a golden crust. He was slicing deep red tomatoes and layering them with fresh mozzarella on a counter covered with bowls of roasted peppers and chopped garlic and an array of imported cheeses and Italian meats. Over the next two hours he would assemble sandwiches and ladle soup for a succession of drivers, mechanics, technicians, publicity agents and one wife and baby traveling with Team Jeg's, a father-sons stock car team in from Columbus, Ohio, for the $2 million Matco Tools SuperNational event here. When he finished, he would start marinating Flintstones-worthy veal chops to be served family style with penne before the night's race.

  When Mr. Morse's kitchen is wiped clean, other teams are just setting out in search of a restaurant, often for their first real meal of the day. Jeg Coughlin Jr., a son of the team's founder and a Pro Stock world record-holder, said: "We used to have to go out to dinner, and it would be 11 o'clock at night. Now we work to have dinner by 6:30, and it keeps the team's chemical balance on keel."

  In a sport that emphasizes fuel and performance, Mr. Morse provides just another competitive edge, not so very different from the weather station the team uses to track racing conditions. ("Humidity is good for bread and terrible for the cars," the chef said.)

  "Sometimes when I shop, I feel bad because the bill is so big," he said. "But they've got some of the top guys in the world working here, and they want to keep them." No wonder he can go through five pounds of chocolate, Callebaut and Hershey's alike, on a weekend, much of it in a tire-size tart.

  Team Jeg's can indulge in a full-time chef partly because the family's main enterprise, Jeg's High Performance Mail Order, sells racing parts to the tune of more than $100 million a year. Racing alone is big business, though: the event here was the ninth stop on a $50 million, 23-event circuit of the National Hot Rod Association.

  Mr. Morse, who is 36 but says he still gets carded, cooks for the team on weekends it races and spends the balance of the year at his home in London, Ohio. He is used to oven-frying on the fly, having worked as a freelance chef for Country Music Television, traveling to sets and the homes of artists like Tanya Tucker to cook. The difference today is that the same faces are in his kitchen for every meal.

  "Sometimes I feel like my grandmother," he said after asking yet another team member who had ambled in, "Want something to eat?" Handing out sandwiches, cheese and chocolate, he seemed like a human vending machine for the antsy and the bored. A new variety of Vlasic pickles and an obscure Norwegian cheese were offered with equal excitement.

  The chef found the job through a team member but did not accept it until he had vetted his potential employers. Realizing that their favorite restaurant in Columbus was an Italian place he admired, "he knew we were past the Olive Garden," Mr. Coughlin said. As soon as he took over the mobile kitchen, he threw out his predecessor's chafing dishes and pushed aside the jars of dried herbs.

  Despite a filet mignon budget and freedom to cook what he chooses ("they have the option not to eat it"), Mr. Morse has limits. His small refrigerator and stove run on propane. The water tank is tiny, and he has to scrub his pots and pans with the abstemiousness of a drought victim. To save water, he dispenses with china in favor of throwaway plates.

  He has learned to do most of his shopping at home, buying meats from a wholesaler and cheeses from well-stocked specialists. "I can only count on finding butter and milk on the road," he said, recounting his fruitless search for fresh thyme and skinny asparagus near Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.

  Mr. Morse could almost pass for a driver, in his bright chef's coat with the name Jeg's splashed across it. But he knows his place is in the kitchen. He is not allowed to drive any Team Jeg's vehicle bigger than a golf cart (even that once accidentally wound up in a racing lane). He is not sure what model year his own car is but knows it has been hit 11 times, sometimes with him in it.

  The chef has come a long way in just a couple of months. When a souped-up Chevy Cavalier outside his kitchen guns its motor with the decibels of 30 Hell's Angels at a stoplight, he no longer even flinches.

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