They grew up Amish in Wisconsin. Now these cousins are living a NASCAR dream they never could have imagined.

Hendrick Motorsports crew member Reuben Kauffman works on one of Alex Bowman's cars in the team's shop in Concord, North Carolina.
Hendrick Motorsports crew member Reuben Kauffman works on one of Alex Bowman's cars in the team's shop in Concord, North Carolina.

The visits are nice. Occasional visits.

Reuben Kauffman will park across from his boyhood home and change into the simple black and white clothes of the Amish that are stashed for him in his father’s cabinet shop.

He’ll head into the house, where he’ll share a good, home-cooked meal with family. He loves his mother’s cooking. They’ll share some laughs as he tries to figure out which of his 37 nieces and nephews belong to which of his eight siblings.

They’ll talk about life on the farm, about the tight-knit community in which Kauffman grew up. About the chickens he raises at his home in North Carolina.


“They don’t ask a lot of questions about what I’m doing as far as work,” Kauffman said. “They don’t like the fact that I work for a race team, I guess. It’s just so far out.

“My little brother has asked me some questions before about it and been a little interested but he feels like he shouldn’t be, so he feels like he’s doing something wrong when he asks about it.”

And that’s part of the reason the visits come so infrequently. It’s been a year.

“I can see they’re sad that I’m not there all the time and they miss me,” Kauffman said, “but it’s also hard … if I go see them too often it gets to the point that they think I’m going to be coming back.”

He is not.

For 17 years Kauffman led that life, a life devoid of the luxuries he knows now, the car he drives to work, the microwave that heats his leftovers, the lights that come on with the flick of a switch. The race cars on which he works. The airplanes and the cross-country trips, including the one that will deliver him this week back to Wisconsin, the state in which he grew up.

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The NASCAR Cup Series races Sunday at Road America in Elkhart Lake. If the workload permits, Kauffman will be able to slip home to Loganville, northwest of Madison, on Saturday afternoon. He’ll have the company of fellow Hendrick Motorsports mechanic Marlin Yoder, the cousin who left the Amish community in 2008 and helped Kauffman do so four years later.

“It’s been 10 years since I left,” said Kauffman, 27.

“Going to this society from that society is such a big jump. You look like an idiot every day for a long time with the stuff that you do. You just look like a complete idiot, and you’re just trying to learn, trying to learn. The faster you can learn, the better.

“So to be told I was going to be where I’m at now, 10 years ago, I would have said there’s no way. I would not have been able to even imagine this life or imagine where I’m at now. It would have just been mind-blowing. But to be able to take those steps and do that over the past 10 years, it’s been a lot of fun.

“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been quite the journey.”

Hendrick Motorsports crew member Marlin Yoder works on one of Cup Series champion Kyle Larson's cars in the team's shop in Concord, North Carolina.
Hendrick Motorsports crew member Marlin Yoder works on one of Cup Series champion Kyle Larson's cars in the team's shop in Concord, North Carolina.

An introduction to NASCAR

To be clear, Yoder and Kauffman did not leave their families looking to break into racing. They made the difficult decision to leave based on what they saw of life outside their community in general.

Still, Yoder was smitten with what little he learned of NASCAR listening to a cheap AM-FM radio given to him by an older buddy who had left the Amish.

On Sundays, after farm chores and church, when his community observed a day of rest Sundays, Yoder would go out to the woods and tune in the country music station that also carried race broadcasts.

“If you’ve ever heard the MRN guys or the PRN guys, they paint this amazing picture of what’s going on, and it sounds super exciting,” said Yoder, who was about 15 years old at the time and is 31 now.

“I kind of got hooked then, even though at that time I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know what it looked like. I didn’t know what racetracks looked like or what race cars looked like. I had no idea of what it was all about, but it sounded exciting and sounded like something I’d be interested in.”

The key, of course, was not to get caught, which would result in contraband getting smashed with a hammer, a stern lecture and a spanking or grounding from Sunday evening “young folks” gatherings for the offender, Yoder said.

Yoder decides to leave

The oldest of six children growing up in Richland Center, Yoder came to know this daily routine: up at 5 a.m., an hour of farm chores, family breakfast, work in his father’s sawmill, school, help with cleanup at the sawmill, evening chores, dinner and a little bit of hanging out with family, reading or playing cards.

“And then you’d go to bed and get up the next day and do it all over again,” he said.

Formal education for the Amish ends with the eighth grade.

As rare as it is for people to leave the Amish community – Yoder estimates maybe one of 100 people do and nearly all return – Yoder had some friends who did. He envied their new, more free lifestyle and at age 17 he followed, first landing a part-time job tearing down old houses for a man who salvaged the lumber and subsequently working as a roofer.

“Basically when I first left, my parents told me to not ever come back to visit unless I’m coming back to stay at home,” Yoder said. “I was determined to not go back. I was determined that this was a life that I wanted. So I didn’t talk to my parents during that one period for probably 2½ years.

“And during the same time, me and my buddies still lived in that area and we were not nice either. We would always do stuff to piss the Amish people off, like take our vehicles and drive through their driveways and do burnouts. So we were troublemakers as well.

“I was sour at them and sour at the Amish people as a whole, but then as I got older and realized it goes both ways and I grew up a little bit, things got better and got better with my connection to the family.”

Relationships were strained, though, when Yoder helped his cousin leave as well. Their mothers are sisters, but it was Kauffman’s father who frightened Yoder the most.

... And Kauffman follows

Kauffman began to question the Amish way of life when he was 12 or 13. He saw neighbor children riding their four-wheelers, yes, but he also began to see different interpretations of the words he was reading and the lessons he was being taught. By age 16 Kauffman was ready to leave and asked his cousin for help

“I told him I wasn’t going to help him until he was 18 because I honestly believed his dad was going to call the local police and get me in trouble for harboring a runaway kid that wasn’t 18,” said Yoder, who relented a bit.

Eight days after Kauffman turned 17, he sat down with his parents before sunrise and broke the news. Then he rode his Schwinn 30 miles in brisk February weather to Marlin’s house to start his new life.

“They didn’t take it well at all,” said Kauffman, who went to work in salvage and subsequently joined Yoder installing metal roofs.

“For the way they are taught, the way I was taught from as far back as I can remember, if you leave you’re going to hell. There’s no way around it. You’re breaking too many rules and their way of looking at it is if you’re born there, God put you there for a reason and if you go outside of God’s will you’re not going to go to heaven.”

Immersed in the sport of racing

The same friend who got Yoder his first radio and who helped him to leave the Amish also was among the friends who took him to see racing in person for the first time in Wisconsin Dells. Later in 2009, Yoder attended his first NASCAR race at the Milwaukee Mile, the final event there for what is now the second-tier Xfinity Series.

If Yoder was intrigued by what he heard on the radio, he was absolutely captivated by what he saw. It wasn’t long before his group decided to become hands-on.

“We bought a race-ready (street stock) car and we had some old car trailer, a wooden-floor car trailer, half the boards were broken out,” Yoder said. “We had no tools, didn’t know what we were doing. We went there and raced every Saturday night. Or tried to race there every Saturday night. And it kind of went from there.”

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Kauffman saw his first NASCAR race on television in 2012, shortly after he left home. That was the rain-interrupted Daytona 500, the one in which Juan Pablo Montoya’s car crashed into a jet dryer on the track, causing an explosion.

“I thought, ohhhh, wow, this is wild. This is even more wild than it sounded on the radio,” Kauffman said. “Then the first one I went to was at Kansas and I was just in awe. It was awesome. I knew if I would ever have a shot to do that for a living, I would definitely … that’s something I would want to do.”

Moving to NASCAR country

In early 2015, Yoder made an exploratory trip to the hub of NASCAR in Charlotte, North Carolina, a trip that resulted in a job with the top-flight super late model team owned by Richie Wauters, another Wisconsin native.

He then graduated to the K&N East Series with since-closed MDM Motorsports, where he was part of a championship team with Harrison Burton in 2017 and runner-up with Zane Smith in 2018. Next stop: the most successful team in modern NASCAR.

“Our finale was a late Friday afternoon race (at Kansas Speedway),” Yoder said.  “I was going to start on at Hendrick on the 48 (NASCAR Cup Series) car with Jimmie Johnson the very next day.

“So Chad Knaus, who was crew-chiefing the 48 at the time, left his rental car at the racetrack for me and after the race I helped the MDM guys load all the equipment and everything, and they got on a plane and went home and I drove to the hotel Hendrick was staying at. Didn’t know any of the guys. … I didn’t work that weekend, but I shadowed the (fill-in) front end mechanic.

“We went back to the shop that Tuesday, Wednesday, I worked at the shop on the Martinsville car and then we went to Martinsville and I was the primary front end mechanic at that point. Kinda got thrown to the wolves a little bit but obviously it’s worked out well.”

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson pose with their teams after locking up the front row for the 2022 Daytona 500.
Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson pose with their teams after locking up the front row for the 2022 Daytona 500.

Kauffman gets help from his cousin again

A year after Yoder started in Charlotte, Kauffman went to visit, and by the end of a week he had a job lined up.

Although he had virtually no experience, Kauffman had the same impeccable work ethic that made his cousin stand out, and Yoder’s recommendation was currency on which Kauffman could trade.

“Sold some of my stuff up there, fit what I could in my Pontiac and came down here,” he said. “It was pretty much starting over again.”

Kauffman moved into a job with Chip Ganassi Racing until its Xfinity Series program was shut down when a sponsor defaulted. Let go on a Friday, he had four interviews by Monday and on Tuesday started work as an underneath mechanic on the Hattori Racing Enterprises Camping World Truck Series team. Hendrick called midway through 2019 but Kauffman declined, unwilling to abandon the much smaller team to which he was committed.

“I was like, man, this was an opportunity I probably won’t get again, but I just can’t do that,” he said. “It ended up paying off doing that.

“On Monday morning after Homestead, on my way to work, I got a call from Greg Ives (crew chief for Alex Bowman). He’s like, ‘Hey, so … I know you didn’t want to leave in the middle of the year. But the end of the season is here.

“I went over, had an interview and everything went fast. I got hired there by the end of that week and was on the 88 with Greg and Alex, and we qualified second for the (Daytona) 500 my first year.”

An improbable success story

The Hendrick teams swapped numbers last year – Bowman took over No. 48 last season after Johnson’s retirement and the newcomer Kyle Larson became No. 5 – but the teams essentially stayed together. Kauffman and Yoder still work in the same shop on the Hendrick Motorsports campus in Concord, North Carolina, with Kauffman serving as underneath mechanic on Bowman’s car and Yoder the front-end mechanic on Larson’s.

Both drivers enjoyed career seasons as Larson won 10 races and the championship and Bowman won four times, more than he has in his other five-plus seasons combined.

On weekends he didn’t go to the track, Yoder also won a pair of races driving the street stock he built. Then he carried the celebration into the offseason, getting married in December.

Larson and Bowman started this year by sharing the front row for the Daytona 500, and both drivers have won a race.

As different as their past and current lives are, Yoder and Kauffman have come to realize the lessons of the Amish community serve them well in the NASCAR world. The uniform is different, but they still work in a close-knit community where hard work, respect and teamwork go a long way.

The similarities are strange. Then again, everything about this journey has been.

“I couldn’t imagine it because being 15, being Amish, I never thought, never imagined anything close to this because I didn’t know it existed,” Yoder said. “I was barely imagining what life would be like outside of the Amish.

“Even when I moved here in 2015 when I was 25, I didn’t expect to be here today. I didn’t imagine I’d be able to have a shot at it, much less winning races and championships.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: NASCAR crewmen from Wisconsin grew up Amish, work for Hendrick