Commentary

Dillon boys making steady headway

Updated: April 23, 2011, 4:42 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

For decades, when you interviewed parents or grandparents of race drivers, you felt compelled to ask them how they dealt with the danger to their offspring.

Nobody had to ask Richard Childress. He volunteered, before this season started, that "I can feel good about watching my grandsons race."

This is the man whose deep and abiding personal loss, his driver and best friend, Dale Earnhardt, stirred the NASCAR safety revolution that now makes him feel less anxious as his grandsons, Ty and Austin Dillon, move up through the ranks.

After the younger grandson, Ty, 19, won the ARCA race at Talladega last Saturday with what Childress called "a classic Earnhardt move," I was struck by Childress' calm at the most white-knuckling of tracks, the place where Earnhardt was seriously injured in 1996.

[+] EnlargeAustin Dillon
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesAustin Dillon is in the top 10 in the Camping World Truck Series.

Young Dillon's last-second move began in the tri-oval, the dog leg in the frontstretch, close to where Earnhardt's car had rolled over on its side and been struck on the roof, fracturing his sternum.

Yet Childress could sit on the pit box, as both a master race strategist and a grandfather, and watch Ty's move -- a slingshot past ARCA veteran Frank Kimmel -- with unbridled glee.

Since Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, "I think we all learned a lot with that situation, losing Dale," Childress said at Talladega. "If you find anything that came out of it positive, it's that all the drivers are in safer equipment today -- the racetracks with the soft walls, the HANS devices, all the things today. We have a lot safer racing."

He paused for a moment. Long before he lost Earnhardt, Childress himself drove woozily with a concussion for months in the 1970s, daring not tell NASCAR because he had to race to stay afloat financially. And before that, Childress had dared to drive in the inaugural Talladega race in 1969 when the top drivers of NASCAR boycotted due to danger.

So for Childress, the awareness of the risks never really fades away.

"It's still a dangerous sport, and that's part of it," he said. "But that's what [Ty] and his brother wanted to do, and I'm gonna back 'em."

Ty has now won three of only five ARCA starts. Austin, 20, won twice in the Truck series last year and is currently one of the drivers to beat, week in, week out.

"When Ty turned 13, he called me and said, 'Pop Pop, we're ready to go racing,'" Childress recalled, "and that was the most expensive call I've ever had."

That's saying a lot, for an owner who came out of his first season with Earnhardt, 1981, about $75,000 in debt from all the crashes -- even with the Wrangler sponsorship Earnhardt brought with him.

"Boy, he'll break you," owner Bud Moore had warned Childress in 1983, just before Earnhardt came back to Childress for keeps in '84.

[+] EnlargeTy Dillon
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCARTy Dillon has moved up to the ARCA series and won at Talladega.

To the contrary, Earnhardt and Childress made each other rich, of course, and now Pop Pop has the wherewithal to put the Dillon boys in the best equipment.

"But I knew," Childress said, "they would put [their] all into it."

At Talladega, Ty "really ran a smart race," Childress said. "He studies racing hard. I'm really proud of him for all the effort he's put into it.

"Yeah, you can have a good car, but you've got to know what to do with it," Childress continued. "And he does."

No wonder. Childress and son-in-law Mike Dillon started the boys out on dirt, the best training ground there is for oval racers in any type of cars. When a driver gets accustomed to being sideways, little can rattle him thereafter. Dirt racing, I've always believed, was the foundation of the uncanny car control that made Earnhardt so successful.

"I think dirt racing helped them more than anything," Childress said of the Dillon boys. "And they still really love to run dirt."

They're currently on slightly different paths, but "the big picture is to move them up," their Pop Pop said. "We ran Austin in the [NASCAR] East series, and we felt it was better for Ty to go ahead and move up [to the big tracks and ARCA]. We watched what happened with Austin, and we moved him on [to Trucks].

"And now we're hoping to run Ty in some Truck races before the year is over, and Austin's going to run some Nationwide. And if we find the sponsorship, hopefully we can run Ty in the Trucks next year and Austin in the Nationwide next year. That's our plan."

Can he envision Austin and Ty Dillon as drivers with RCR at the Cup level someday?

"That's something that you dream of," he said. "But they both know they've got to earn it."

They can be workmanlike, and learn racing as a craft. Pop Pop can feel good about that.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.