Daytona 500 victory 50 years in the making for Austin Dillon’s tire changer

Photo: Dustin Long
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The younger members of Austin Dillon’s team, full of adrenaline-fueled energy and excitement, celebrated their Daytona 500 victory Sunday with a late-night visit to a tattoo parlor to permanently etch their achievement on their rear end.

Terry Spalding didn’t make it that far. It was time to turn in.

That’s OK, Sunday was a big enough day for the 50-year-old front tire changer, who experienced his first Daytona 500 win.

Yes, Spalding is 50 years old and changes tires for a Cup playoff team. Age alone gives him a different perspective on the Daytona 500 victory.

“I’m really able to appreciate it,’’ Spalding told NBC Sports. “I’ve been doing it 20-some years. Only since I’ve been at RCR in the last seven or eight years have I really been able to win the races that I won.’’

Dillon says Spalding doesn’t need a Daytona 500 ring to note how special he is.

“Terry is just a champion in life, period,’’ Dillon said. 

Spalding grew up the son of a racer in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina to pursue a job in the sport in 1990 — the same year Dillon was born.

Along the way, Spalding has worked in Cup for car owners such as Travis Carter, Ray Evernham, Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip, Richard Childress. Spalding has gone over the wall to service cars for drivers such as Jimmy Spencer, Elliott Sadler, Tony Raines, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Dillon.

Spalding went to in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2011 when Paul Menard won. Spalding was in Victory Lane last year when Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600.

That he is still going over the wall is a feat considering the radical changes for pit crew this season. With NASCAR eliminating one of the over-the-wall positions, pit crew members are having to redefine their roles. Those that haven’t adjusted as well have lost jobs or been dropped down a series. Spalding’s duties have changed. He now carries a 60-pound tire with along with his air gun.

He’s always managed to adjust through the years. When he turned 40, he often was asked how much longer would he wanted to change tires. He randomly said 50. It’s a nice round number. Realistically, as pit crews have become more athletic and younger — many are in their 20s — that seemed like a pipe dream.

Now that he’s 50, how much longer will he go?

“I feel as good as I did when I was 40,’’ Spalding said. “I thought about when I can’t go over the wall anymore, starting to coach.’’

He’s got to find time. He plays in the same basketball league Denny Hamlin hosts at his house that includes Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and others. In recent years, Spalding competed in slalom ski races. He’s also played in a roller hockey league. He’s competed in mountain bike races.

“I still go in the weight room, I don’t hit it as hard as I used to,’’ Spalding said. “I like to do things … and stay active that way.’’

He’s not ready to quit any time soon.

“I want to go as long as I can,’’  he said. Barring some freak injury, I honestly think 55 is no problem.’’ 

That would be at least five more Daytona 500s.

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