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.”

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.