Seat saviors: The men who helped ensure Austin Dillon’s safety at Daytona

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SPARTA, Ky. – Tommy Wallace woke up Monday morning to a text message that terrified him, even though the news ostensibly was positive.

“That was the worst crash I’ve ever seen in my life,” the message read, “He’s OK. I talked to him a little while ago. Don’t worry. He’s fine. Nothing’s wrong with him.”

Wallace, the interior mechanic who is responsible for the installation and security of the seats in Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet, felt his stomach turn after reading the dispatches from Josh Sisco, who manages the car’s interior at the racetrack.

Then Wallace went online and watched the video of Dillon’s spectacularly terrifying crash at Daytona International Speedway that has dominated the highlight reels the past four days.

And he felt even worse.

source:  Richard Childress Racing
Tommy Wallace installs the seats for the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon. Richard Childress Racing

“I was pretty upset,” Wallace told NBC Sports in a phone interview Friday. “Reading his texts, it pretty much scared me. So then I got a chance to pull it up and watch on video, and it was unreal. I don’t know how to explain how I felt.

“You know there’s a person’s life in your hands. You have to remember that at all times. When you’re working on (the seat), you’ve got to think about, ‘What if you were sitting in this car? What if your family was sitting in this car?’ You have to have that same type of mentality, and these guys are like family to us. You have to make sure that everything is right to the best of your ability.”

It was at Daytona, where Dillon emerged with only a few bruises after taking one of the wildest rides in NASCAR history –from 200 mph on the pavement, to sailing through the air to a dead stop with a catch fence pole in an explosion of parts and pieces to a jarring collision in the pits with Brad Keselowski’s Ford.

Among the first people Dillon thanked in interviews was his team, and in particular, Wallace, whom he greeted with a bear hug on returning to the Richard Childress Racing shop in Welcome, N.C.

“He come up to me with that big Austin Dillon smile and shook my hand and thanked me,” Wallace said. “I knew he would. That’s how he is.”

“I told him good job for keeping everything together and safe,” Dillon told NBC Sports. “Tommy is a hard worker and very concentrated on how the interior is. He asks a lot of questions about where I want things. It’s nice to have a guy working like that for you.

“You want a guy who comes in on time every day, that takes pride in his job, and Tommy is definitely one of those guys who has always been very focused and meticulous.”

A thorough and redundant system

If there were a one-word job requirement for the unheralded team members who help keep Sprint Cup drivers such as Dillon safe, “meticulous” might be it.

There are more than three dozen bolts inside the cockpit that are designed to hold the seat, leg braces, steering column, seat-belt mounts and other myriad equipment in place during crashes as violent as Dillon’s. Each of the bolts, measuring 3/8ths of an inch (1/16th of an inch thicker than the NASCAR minimum as a precaution), is checked by a wrench at least four times from when the seat is mounted to when the driver climbs aboard.

The process begins with Wallace, who can spend up to a day and a half on installing each new seat (which is constructed out of carbon fiber for RCR’s cars at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway and aluminum at other tracks). Much of the time is consumed by custom-building and welding brackets to attach the seat to the car and affix the head rests and halo section.

source:  Harold Hinson Photography
Josh Sisco, right, talks with Austin Dillon at Kentucky Speedway. Sisco insures the interior of the No. 3 Chevrolet is comfortable and safe for the driver. Harold Hinson Photography

At the track, the handoff is made to Sisco, who makes any adjustments Dillon requests (such as changing his steering column or belts) and is the last person to ensure Dillon is comfortable before the command to fire engines.

A failsafe system involving torque sealing, which essentially leaves a paint mark on each bolt, ensures everything stays tight. If a mark is missing when the car arrives, Sisco knows a bolt might have moved.

“It’s a very redundant system,” Sisco said. “At the track, I just maintain the interior and make sure nothing serious is happening. Tommy’s the one who welds it all together. That’s his baby.”

It’s a job relished by Wallace, a 44-year-old from Richmond, Va., who has spent a lifetime in racing. After starting his career on the road as a tire changer, he came off the road and has spent the past 10 years at RCR, the past seven working on seats.

“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I love working on race cars. I love working on interiors.

“When something bad happens. you have to question yourself do you really want to do it, because of the fact that if someone gets hurt, you feel like you’re responsible for it. Nobody wants to think about that side of it. This is a dangerous sport. The drivers don’t really get the credit they should. The amount of energy that is applied to them when they crash is just unreal – and how they can stand that, and how their bodies can hold up to that.”

‘Everything worked as it was supposed to’

Sisco, who is in his fifth year at RCR and first as an interior mechanic, also has contemplated the hazards of NASCAR. He worked on Joey Coulter’s truck, which tore a hole in the Daytona catch fence in the 2012 season opener.

“I don’t think you ever worry about the stuff breaking or not performing because you know how thorough we are, but you just don’t know when it gets in the fence,” said Sisco, a 28-year-old from Nashville, Tenn. “The fence did everything it was supposed to do, but man, it’s a lot harder on the car than the wall is. The engine was gone. You hit a wall, the engine never comes out. It’s just the fence is almost like a cheese grater when it starts cutting through stuff.

Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet hits the catch fence after the last lap of the Coke Zero 400. The Associated Press

“The first thought is just what hit the fence first and what did the fence get to? Once he landed and you could see the driver’s compartment still intact, there was no worry about (Dillon) coming free or anything like that.”

There still was one heart-stopping element: the cord to Dillon’s radio was disconnected after the crash, precluding the team from confirming Dillon’s well-being until a visual inspection.

But the silver lining that emerged from those anxious moments? The radio was the only significant piece that broke free inside the cockpit during the brutal tumble down the frontstretch.

“That was probably the coolest part: Everything else was still where we bolted it before the race,” Sisco said. “That was pretty neat. Everything worked as it was supposed to; nothing moved on him.

“I think proud is a good word, that we built something like that. All of us, even the chassis guys, they never get any credit for building that sturdy of a car. Where they put their adjustments, their brakes, all that stuff matters. It made me proud that everybody that worked there put that much effort into it and was able to come away from that violent of a hit. That was the first thing was, ‘Man, we built a really nice car.’

The emotions were somewhat different for Wallace.

“I wouldn’t say a sense of pride,” he said. “It was more a sense of relief that (Dillon) was OK. The last thing you want to do is be the person who worked on something that someone got injured in, and I was very relieved he was OK.

“I’m a fairly religious guy, so I truly believe the Lord’s hand was on him, and that’s the only reason why.”

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

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AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.