|Austin Dillon, driver introductions at Texas Motor Speedway, April 2015|
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
Saturday he won the Subway Firecracker 250 Xfinity race at Daytona, his first Daytona win and the high point of his weekend.
Sunday, he finished seventh in the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 - upside down, backwards and on fire. Well, maybe the part of the car he was in wasn’t on fire, but certainly, fiery parts were strewn about.
Monday and Tuesday brought the public scrutiny that generally accompanies such dramatic crashes. That was to be expected, since it’s rare that media outside of the sport pays much attention to the outcome of races unless there’s some sort of spectacular wreck.
On Tuesday morning, the 25-year-old North Carolina native appeared on the Today show - an NBC program, of course - interviewed by Matt Lauer, in what was apparently supposed to be a hard-hitting piece about the dangers of restrictor-plate racing. If you missed it, you can view the interview here.
Dillon then did a teleconference with mostly NASCAR media.
Lauer is known for asking pointed questions and seemingly tried to push Dillon into saying that the racing at Daytona and Talladega is too dangerous and needs to change. Say what you will about the current driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, but he didn’t take the bait.
Even when Lauer confronted him with quotes from Dillon's RCR teammate Ryan Newman, and the driver with the most points-paying plate wins of all time, Jeff Gordon, Dillon wasn’t swayed. He told Lauer that though he thought the cars could be slowed down some and still have good racing, and that preventing cars from getting airborne was a concern, such risk was what he and other drivers sign on for when they race. He thanked NASCAR and God, in that order, for his being there talking at that moment.
Whether Lauer's ever seen a restrictor-plate race or not, he pressed Dillon about the type of racing, how it keeps the cars bunched up at high speeds.
"We sign up for this as drivers when we sign in to what we're wanting to do," Dillon affirmed. "It's a part of our racing. We go to Daytona and Talladega twice a year."
Dillon echoed many of those same thoughts in his teleconference.
“I think it's pretty impressive to see how far we've come after learning from other wrecks, the black box that NASCAR takes and looks at to see the impacts, and how far we've come to change the different chassis bars in the car to strengthen the roof. The roof looked like the cage itself held up well. The catch fence did its job. It kicked things back into the track where we needed to.
“A lot of things have innovated to make everybody still safe today. Luckily the fans are all in good shape. We're obviously going to probably enhance more safety after this, and we'll keep developing as our sport grows, and I think NASCAR has got the people there to do that.
“I've had worse injuries playing football growing up and stuff like that. It's pretty impressive to see after something like that, to watch it and then be able to talk to you guys like I am right now,” Dillon concluded.
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes the checkers as Denny Hamlin starts to spin|
Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images
When asked if he thought that his crash, along with the two others since 2012 that resulted in fans being injured, would tarnish the reputation of Daytona as one of the most revered tracks in the sport, Dillon said, “I sure hope not. I mean, I think that just adds to what it is at Daytona in some way.
“You can't blame things on Daytona. I feel like it's a racetrack that has done its job to put on good races. We just have to keep developing to keep our stands safer, our drivers safer, and do what we can as a sport to develop and bring new technology, like I said, to keep it safe.
“But for me, I think you can't tarnish Daytona,” Dillon said.
“For me even after wrecking like that, I got to experience one of the greatest things in winning there the night before that, and it's a part of it, and I still had a good finish on Sunday. I finished seventh. That was pretty cool.”
Even after seeing video footage of his wild ride and recognizing how the incident affected his family, he maintained his love for what he does and his readiness to go back racing in Kentucky this weekend. He wasn’t sure at first that he’d want to watch the crash, but talking to his younger brother, driver Ty Dillon, he felt he had to watch.
“After the race, I already got into the infield care center, I was pretty much fine. I wasn't shaken, and I was just kind of telling my parents, I'm okay, I'm okay, and talking to them. You could see how upset they were, and I hadn't seen the real footage of the wreck. I knew it was bad but I didn't know how bad.
“When I talked to my brother, it was like ‑‑ it was another level because he was upset, and hearing him on the phone upset was ‑‑ it was like, man, I'm going to have to watch this, because he's a tough guy, and to hear him be upset about it and worried about me, it was like, all right, I need to look at this wreck,” he explained.
“You can see where a guy watching it from home not knowing how I was and the pit crew kind of running out to the car, it was pretty dramatic right there for 30 seconds, 38 seconds or so, but I feel like it was the safety that made it possible for me to be here today,” Dillon said.
Post-race, Dillon said he thought the cars needed to be slowed down some, and he’s been criticized for that by some fans, but he explained his opinion.
“I think that even if you slow it down, there's the shock of getting airborne, so you have to develop new pieces and parts and styles to keep them on the ground, but less speed does help the recovery time as far as slowing down and being able to miss wrecks. When you're going slower, you can get on the brakes and slow down quicker,” he noted.
“It could be something, help slow the cars down and be able to get away from wrecks easier, possibly.”
Dillon also supported the decision to run the race, even starting so late. “I was happy to get the race in. We have such a busy schedule in NASCAR, and if we would have pushed it back another day and the rain would have happened, it really would have put a damper on things for the next coming week.”
One of the most memorable images from the weekend is of the crew of the No. 13 Geico of Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Nationwide crew members bolting over the wall and onto the track to help Dillon, whose car came to rest almost directly in front of their positions on pit road.
Dillon appreciated their actions. He even thought that the first person he saw was Mears himself.
“The first guy that got to my guy was the GEICO crew from Casey Mears' team, and I actually thought ‑‑ it was kind of funny, I almost laughed, because when he first got to my car, I thought it was Casey Mears. I was like, how did Casey Mears get out of his car and get to me that quick, because it felt like six seconds, seven seconds before the first crew had got there, and it sounded like Casey and had the same GEICO suit and everything. I was like, 'Man, Casey got here fast. That's crazy.'
“But it was one of the crew members there. And I couldn't ‑‑ there was someone on the right side, but I couldn't tell who it was, and it was obviously Junior's crew. But it was cool to see all those guys get there. Some of my guys even got there, and they were pretty far down pit road to get to me, and it was special to have those guys get there.”
Some fans feared that those crew members would face penalties for their actions, but NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” on Tuesday that officials want to talk with the pit crew members.
“Listen, we all applaud everybody who wants to run to a scene and try to help out. That’s something that I think that is really cool about our industry in terms of people caring about their fellow athletes,” O’Donnell said.
“We just want to talk about the safety aspect of it. We’ve got to dispatch our safety equipment – those folks are experts – and to be able to get to Austin as quickly as possible, assess the scene, his belts, what may be going on, do we need to turn the car over, can he be moved from the vehicle or should he stay in. Any second that we can’t do that because the car may be surrounded can be a challenge. That’s just a conversation we want to have.”
As for Dillon, he sees no reason the crash, as terrifying as it was to watch, would deter him from driving again.
"I love what I do," he stated. "And if I was shaken, I promise you, I wouldn't be getting in that car next weekend. I'm a pretty honest person when it comes to things, if I'm hurt or don't feel good, I'll pretty much come outright and say I don't.
"But I feel fine, so why wouldn't I?"
Indeed. Why wouldn't he?
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history, and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical research.