A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Teenager Austin Sets Sites On The World Of NASCAR
RICHMOND, Va. — At the Austin family dinner table in heartland Eudora, Kan., nothing but positive conversation is allowed. And so, “We assume that one day, Chase will be the next Jeff Gordon,” says his mother, Marianne.
But he would be so much more than that.
If Chase Austin is the next Jeff Gordon, he’ll also be NASCAR’s own Tiger Woods.
With NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity talent search, “There’s going to be a minority soon,” Austin says of the elite Nextel Cup series. “I don’t know if it’s going to be me.
“Me being the first? I’d really like to. I don’t expect myself to. I’m not pressuring myself about it. But if it happens, I’ll accept it.”
At 15, Austin is a few years away from getting a chance to drive on the main NASCAR circuits and he won’t be chasing leaders Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the final Nextel Cup race of the season this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But many expect that someday he will be a contender.
How good is Chase Austin?
Good enough to be signed by the team owner who discovered Gordon and made him a star.
Good enough that Rick Hendrick had to beat the fervent bidding of two other juggernaut NASCAR teams, Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing, to get Austin family signatures on a long-term developmental contract.
Good enough that he’s already won more than 100 feature races in go-karts, full-bodied stock cars and powerful open-wheel sprint cars in the Midwest.
Good enough that he did it all on uncanny feel for race cars and race tracks, his father is certain. That’s because Steve Austin knows his own limitations as a mechanic, “and only I know that I never gave him the best that he could have. I did good just to get the basic setup under him. And so he had to adapt the car to whatever the track conditions were . . . He learned to get into the corner in different spots to get the car to handle.
“And he would still take an ill-handling car and make it fast. He just had a knack for it. I didn’t teach him. We didn’t know anything about going out racing. He basically just jumped into it and did it.”
Good enough that even in a league desperate to break out of its notoriety for all-white drivers and mostly white audiences, no affirmative action was applied here. The fact that Chase Austin is of ethnic minority “is a bonus,” Hendrick says.
Good enough at the other necessary art for a NASCAR driver, attracting sponsorship, that at a recent race, Hendrick got him together with corporate chieftains who represented more than $50 million a year in sponsorship for the team.
“He was up in the (VIP hospitality) suite, talking to the executives of Lowe’s, DuPont and CarQuest,” Hendrick says. “And I was blown away. I mean, 15 years old?”
NASCAR’s minimum age for drivers is 18, so the big time is at least three years away for Austin. He’ll come up through the elaborate Hendrick developmental system, first in late models on short tracks.
NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity already has placed five minority drivers in rides in the entry-level Weekly Racing Series. More are being evaluated in formal, regularly scheduled tryouts. African-American driver Bill Lester is a regular in the Craftsman Truck Series, though he has yet to win.
From the starting grids to the grandstands, “We want to make NASCAR look more like America,” says Ramsey Poston, the organization’s chief publicist.
Yet through the flurry of activity, Austin may have the best chance to break through as NASCAR’s first minority winner, due to the combination of his ability and maturity with Hendrick’s wherewithal.
African-American drivers are not new to NASCAR. The late Wendell Scott competed at the highest level from 1961-73, winning only once, on a dirt track in ’64 – and he had to protest a scoring error, hours after a white driver had been flagged the winner, even to get that one.
In NASCAR’s first proactive attempt at diversity, in 1978, sports car star Willy T. Ribbs was groomed briefly to be the first major black star, but left in a dispute with promoters. His designated ride was filled by a struggling young white dirt-tracker of the time named Dale Earnhardt – and the rest is more blue-collar, white-southern history.
What NASCAR never has had is a minority Jeff Gordon, a consistent threat to win races, week in, week out, year in, year out.
Neither has NASCAR had a winning female driver, although Janet Guthrie raced in the 1970s, Patty Moise in the ’80s and Shawna Robinson in the ’90s. Tina Gordon (no relation to Jeff or Robby) and Deborah Renshaw occasionally compete in Busch and ARCA races, respectively.
Although conventional wisdom is that motor racing just isn’t very popular in minority communities – largely because of the lack of minority drivers – “we didn’t take that into account when we got into racing,” Steve Austin says. “When I was a kid, my dad took me to the races. But as for other minorities showing interest in racing, I think it’s kind of tough because their fathers never showed them that they could actually go out and race. That’s probably why there’s not a lot of interest in the minority market.”
So race “has never been an issue with Chase,” Steve says. “He’s been racing the backwoods dirt tracks for quite a while, and he’s been well accepted. We didn’t get a lot of racism and all that kind of stuff racing dirt tracks. They had a lot of respect for him. He didn’t crash people. He stayed out of the way. He passed ‘em all clean. And he got along with them. I think it’s just his attitude.
“We don’t walk around with a chip on our shoulders,” Steve continues, “and we’re nice to everybody, and everybody’s nice to us, and we just haven’t had a problem.”
Though personally unscathed by stereotyping, Chase reckons that “as soon as a minority does it [makes it big in NASCAR] a lot more minority children and adults will start watching it, and the ratings will probably go up because there’ll be a lot more people interested.”
As for other kids in high school, going out for the traditional football, basketball and baseball, their reaction to Chase is that “sometimes they wish they could race cars, too,” he says. “But they all know I have to put in a lot of time, and I don’t get to do things they get to do.
“Sometimes,” Chase says with a hint of a sigh, “I wish I was a regular kid who just got to go outside and play basketball and go home and do my chores and that would be it. But this is the lifestyle that I have, and I accept it.”
“We pulled him out of school for several months at a time last year to travel,” Marianne says, “to race in the Carolinas and some places where he might get on the radar screen. But we’re very fortunate because we live in a small town, and the school is 100 percent behind him. In fact, we met with the entire staff, counselors and principal to work out a plan to get us through this year.
“They faxed and e-mailed his homework, and he got As and Bs,” Marianne continues. “It’s an added pressure for him to have to self-teach his homework and to race and hold up his other commitments. So I don’t know whether that’s a good long-term plan. But our goal is to keep his life as normal as possible, for as long as possible.”
That might mean hiring private tutors for the road. It’s one of many unknowns in the uncharted path of a 15-year-old professional driver.
Yet the path is brightly, warmly lit, because that’s the way the Austin family always sees it.
“We never pushed him. We always let it be his choice,” says Marianne. “But the conversation in our house, about everything we do in our lives, is very positive. And so we talk about when he’s a Cup racer. And, ‘one day when we live there.’ And, ‘one day when we do this.’ It’s just a given.
“We believe the joy is in the journey. So we will enjoy each step that we take …We assume that one day, Chase will be the next Jeff Gordon. But if that doesn’t happen, we will have had a great time along the way.
“What we’re doing here is so cutting-edge that no one really knows how to make predictions,” Marianne continues. “And when you start to make predictions you put pressure on people. Our focus is seat-time – taking a driver with raw talent and developing that.
“Who knows? No one has ever been down this path before.”