For racing dads, tacks vary when kids want in
Aspiring drivers invariably receive family support
Tim and Megan Cindric knew Austin was a precocious child, but his approach was so serious and measured that it made them wonder what their 9-year-old wanted.
“He grabbed me in the hallway and said, ‘I need to have a lifechanging discussion with you and Mom,’ ” recalled Tim, president of Team Penske. “I said, ‘Austin what’s this all about?’ He said, ‘We needed to go sit down and have a talk.’ So we did, and he says, ‘I’ve been thinking about it a long time, and I’d really like to try and become a professional race car driver.’ ”
Tim and Megan stared at each. Both had worked in the industry, and both, he said, shared the belief that their son racing was “the last thing we really wanted.”
The motor sports community is laced with such stories, but each path has been undertaken with slightly different steps and apprehensions. USA TODAY Sports spoke with four father-son duos, including Marty and Myatt Snider, Jeff and Harrison Burton, and Steve and Tyler Letarte, about their experiences.
Megan Cindric probed Austin’s resolve quickly, noting that being built like his father — a former college basketball player — would likely preclude fitting in race cars.
“He said, ‘That’s not true, Mom; Michael Waltrip is bigger than Dad is,’ ” she recalled.
The Cindrics hoped it would blow over. Austin persisted. He had never known a time when his father worked anywhere else but Penske. Team founder and owner Roger Penske had taught the boy how to shake hands: firmly, with a meeting of the eyes.
When it became apparent it wasn’t going away, Tim begrudgingly explored how to indulge his son. The process began in 2008 when then-Penske driver Ryan Newman speculated publicly about leaving, prompting a series of cold calls from interested suitors. Among them was Mike Wallace, whose kids were racing in introductory-level Legends cars.
“We had that conversation, and I said, ‘Hey, I hear race cars in the background. Where are you tonight with your kids?’ ” Tim said. “And he said, ‘Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Summer Shootout.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”
The Cindrics eventually visited Wallace at the track for an introduction to developmental racing, and the process hasn’t stopped. Austin, 18, has raced in multiple sports car and stock car organizations, including ARCA, and is driving a partial NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule with Brad Keselowski’s team, including this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.
Having completed his end of the bargain with his parents to keep his grades high and find his own funding by the time he graduated high school — he did so this spring — he’s on his way to paying off the pitch made to his family.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of forethought; it was just action,” Aus- tin said. “I didn’t understand at that time what went into making a career in racing, and obviously I knew I was way in over my head after a little while, but it started as something to be a little bit fun, and it was always something I wanted to do. But I didn’t understand the steps it took.” LESSONS LEARNED Steve Letarte followed his dad into the world of motor sports and felt that telling his son, Tyler, that he could be anything except a racer was not only hypocritical but not good parenting. That’s not to say Steve expects his son, 13, a regular in a North Carolina mini Outlaw karts series, to become a professional. There is no next phase plotted, he said. This is about fun and life lessons.
“We are doing this no different than kids playing football or soccer or baseball or golf,” Steve said. “It’s to learn about life with no expectations. ... We go out, we race, we have fun. I don’t look at this like a springboard. I look at this like a kid growing up.”
Still, Tyler says he sometimes senses extra scrutiny because of his last name. “The expectations are a little higher, but I don’t let it get to me,” Tyler said.
Tyler has learned that he likes to tap into his father’s expertise. Steve has learned that he’s not good at “casual racing. ... I am just not wired that way,” he said. FAMILY BUSINESS Jeff Burton won 48 races in NASCAR’s top two series before becoming an NBC analyst. When son Harrison, 16, convinced his family that he wanted to follow in the racing footsteps of his father, Uncle Ward and cousin Jeb, Jeff had a wealth of racing information to bestow. He offered it willingly, he said, because not to do so with a kid would be irresponsible.
“It’s kind of a two-way street,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to learn lessons in racing by just hearing it. I’ve heard all kinds of things about aero and stuff about the car, but the first time you experience getting aero tight or sucked around another car, you don’t know about it.”
As Harrison ascended through NASCAR’s developmental ranks to his current position running occasional truck races with Kyle Busch Motorsports (he also won his only ARCA start this season at Toledo Speedway), his father decided he had to learn on his own.
“It’s a tough balance,” Jeff said. “You want your kid to not to have to learn the lessons you learned, because typically you had to learn the lessons the hard way. And typically, you want to short-cut that for them. The older he’s gotten, the less we talk about it. We talk more big-picture than we do the minutiae. Now he has permission to tell me to shut up whenever he wants to in regards to advice about racing.” THE MOMENT OF TRUTH Marty Snider knows the day is coming and wants nothing to do with it. Not professionally, at least. As an NBC Sports pit reporter, Snider plumbs for stories about the personalities that spice up the sport. The story of his son, Myatt, 22, reaching NASCAR’s top level would qualify. But as much as Marty wants to see it after years of helping Myatt make racing connections and secure funding, he doesn’t want it played out on TV. Not by him, at least.
“I’ve always told (NBC executive producer) Sam Flood, my boss, that I’m never covering one of his races,” Marty said. “And he says, ‘If he’s in it, you need to cover it.’ I don’t know. ... I don’t want to. I like being a dad at his races. Kevin Harvick always gives me grief, ‘You gotta get away from him, you bring nervous energy to him. Stay away, because he’s a talented kid.’ If I had his pit, I would be worried about him. If I didn’t, I’d be worried about him.”
Said Myatt, who won in the ARCA series last season, “You always want to make him proud, because we both pour out hearts and souls into this.”
Harrison Burton, center, has the support of parents Kim and Jeff, a former NASCAR driver.