News

Out of the Park

Out of the Park
2x4 From Billboard
Tuesday, May 08, 2012
The Race and Crash:

We were fast on Saturday night, timing in 5th quick out of 30 highly competitive cars, and I left some time on the track not getting a smooth exit off of 4, (we were a little tight). The heat races were locked down, no passing, so I needed to get a good start which I did not do. We started 5th and they take 6, but with my bad start I was running 7th and just couldn't get a good enough run on Bronson Maeschen to get to 6th, we got lucky when Robby Wolfgang had a driveline issue while leading putting us into 6th. Still fighting little bit of a tight car we should have left it alone going into the feature, but we had too much time to think about it, and we thought we saw the track widening out. We put a larger left rear on and it made the car a handful on the cushion in the main. We started 8th, and I was doing what I could with what we had but we were too tight and had dropped back to 13th or 14th. I was going down the back straight full song, nobody around me, I went low to see if there was something down there for us, (I had been running up top most of the race). I never made it to the bottom of the track. I had made it to about the middle of the track when I got hit so hard it put me upside down. I heard a car wide open, and a black flash, and then dirt. Then I closed my eyes and held on because I knew it was going to be bad. What I remember the most is trying to keep my foot off the gas, I didn't want to zing the motor while it was still running, but the different impacts and centrifugal forces made that a tough task. I came to a stop and opened my eyes and the car was on its right side. I was looking back at the wall that I just cleared, the billboard that I had went through, and a safety crew member running towards me. He had gotten there so fast that he must have crossed the track while cars were still moving. On a side note, there is not a doubt in my mind that the Knoxville Raceway Safety Crew is amongst the best in the WORLD, across ALL levels of motorsports. I have worked as a professional race car mechanic for years and worked at events with every different major professional motorsports series, INDYCAR, NASCAR, GrandAM, ALMS, World Challenge, etc., all across the U.S. and Canada. I know of what I speak, and they are ELITE. They risk their lives to help keep us safe and for that there is not enough thanks I can give. As he ran to the wreckage I was furiously unstrapping to get out of my destroyed racecar. I wasn't worried I was in danger, in fact, the safety crew man between yelling if I was alright, was yelling at me to stay in the car until he and more help arrived. I was having none of that; I knew I was ok, and running on enough adrenaline to fuel a fighter jet. The only thing going through my mind was who punted me so hard I ended up on the wrong side of the wall. So there I was out of the car and the safety guy was asking if I was alright, and all I could say was, "WHO WAS IT, WHO WAS IT??" He had no idea, and I thought to myself well that car has to be crashed over there, so I'll just climb back over the fence and have a "talk" with the other crashed race car. They would not let me do that (understandably so), so I settled for a ride around. I kept asking who it was that hit me and no one knew, apparently the other car had come away unscathed.

The Aftermath:

This was a very scary crash, not as much for me, as for the people who care about me. You quickly understand how those you care about would be affected if it were to turn out worse. This has actually been the hardest part of the crash. I am a competitor, and at first all I could think was, "look at my car". Once I calmed down it started to set in what everyone else was going through. First was my wife, and biggest supporter, Danielle. She was in turn three, and although didn't see it start, she saw the rest of the carnage as my car exited the speedway at over 100mph. Traumatic is putting it nicely. Thank God my best friend Devin was there, and he held Danielle until they knew I was safe. My mom as well was there, and was scared beyond belief, but she has been a car owner for over 30 years, she's seen plenty, and she grabbed a push truck driver and had him drive her to me. I was already on my way back in by the time she got there. My dad didn't see it but knew it was me, just had that feeling. I said to him sorry about the car, he said "they make more parts." If you know Marty, that’s the perfect answer from a guy who doesn't say much, but when he does, his words have weight. After that there were all kinds of people coming up to say they were glad I was ok, I really appreciated the support I got from the fans. There were also other drivers coming up to check on me. Davey Heskin is another of my best friends and he came up and gave me a big hug. Mike Rienke, another great friend of mine, came up and expressed how thankful he was that I was ok. It's tough as a racer to see that, as well as be forced to deal with it, but it’s part of what we do, and as soon as you have any doubts about that, you should get out of the seat. Later that night as the news of the wreck trended on twitter I received a text from Jeannie Butler of ButlerBuilt Seats (one of my only sponsors). She was worried that I was ok, I called her and we chatted about the crash. She is absolutely committed to making our sport even safer. I told her it was thanks to everything that they do at ButlerBuilt that I was ok and that I would never sit in any other product, and if it was up to me no one else would either. I truly believe in that statement, and trust my life in their product. Davey called her this week just to thank her for what they do too; we hadn't even talked about that yet.

The Safety:

These cars are faster than ever, and the racing is as competitive back through the field as it has ever been. With that the safety needs to advance. I called and talked to Toby Kruse, the new promoter at Knoxville, Monday about the incident. We spoke of the concerns I have following my crash. First, in all forms of open-wheel racing there is a rule pertaining to avoidable contact. I do not want to change great racing and I have absolutely no problem with a racing incident; it happens, we all know it. I do however have problem with what happened in our case and other cases that you hear about throughout sprint car racing, racers driving over their head with little to no regard for the consequences. These cars have brakes. Drivers clean other drivers out and nothing happens to the person at fault. Yes maybe they also wrecked their car, but not always. Also that is not much of a consequence to somebody with money behind them. I told Toby, look at INDYCAR, they review the crashes and if there was avoidable contact, penalties are given. I do not want to see point penalties, because many don't race for points, therefore making it negligible, nor do I want to see anyone get fined, money is tight enough already. I said there needs to be a suspension, or probation. That way the drivers know that they are being watched. Right now it is a "police yourself" attitude, but if I knew who had hit me right away, and had went down there and punched him, I would have gotten suspended and probably assault charges. But what I went through was worse than getting punched in the face (coming from a guy who has been punched in the face). I told him that I will not hold a grudge on the track, (it costs too much). We also spoke about the fact that the cars have gotten so fast that the walls, especially those in the corners, are no no longer tall enough. I told him that there needs to be a catch fence above the walls in the corner. I truly believe that and hope that they don't wait until something worse happens. If nothing is done in the way of a catch fence then I told him that something has to be done about the billboards. The one I went through lodged one of its 2x4's between my seat and the roll cage, about 4 ft. long. One of the pieces also hit the halo of my seat so hard that it bent forward a couple of inches. I am very lucky to be writing this today. Toby agreed with my assessment, and I hope that we can learn and move forward with safety because of this. I love this sport, but we have to remember as the speeds go up, so too does the quality of safety.

The Upcoming Season:

I'm pretty stiff and sore, but all things considered I feel good. I hope to get back to Knoxville on Saturday night but doubt that will actually happen. We've got another car ready enough to go that we could make it, but we sent the engine to Ostrich to be sure we didn't hurt it. So currently we are running a little short on the power plant unless we get it back sooner than expected. To crash that hard this early in the season definitely will affect our program going forward through the season. We have the spare parts and chassis, that is part of doing the proper amount of prep work in the off season, (our season actually never ended, my dad and I were in the shop the weekend after our last race at the end of the year, and we worked all winter). What I think most people don't understand is how much a crash like that will cut into the time that is required to maintain these cars at a competitive level. When you have a total loss on a car like this you end up playing catch up on all fronts, not just the money, but it will also definitely cut into what you would have for operating and travel expense. So we are prepared, and will continue, but it definitely tightens you up on all fronts, and you go forward knowing that.


Thank you to everyone for your continued concern and support, it means the world to everyone involved with the 81. Please come see us in the pits after the races!

-Austin