Even when winning became commonplace, days in the pits at National Hot Rod Association drag races were still long and taxing.
Back then, Tacoma’s Pat Austin was as good as there was at winning NHRA races and producing horsepower. Competing in the Alcohol Funny Car class, and later piloting the Castrol-sponsored Top Fuel dragster, Austin won 62 national races between 1985-1996 — most of any driver in the sport during that time.
He also won four world championships, all in Alcohol Funny Car. His 75 career national-event victories rank seventh all time in NHRA history.
As late as 2002 — Austin’s final season on the circuit — his son, Drew, was a mainstay in the pits, serving as either an eager gofer or a source for occasional comic relief.
“He was quite the race-team clown,” Pat said.
In between rounds of racing, as crew members frantically worked to put the car back together, Drew would often station himself in front of the car, digging a hole to show how much zeal he had to work on the car, too.
Was the child-play ploy effective?
“Finally they gave me the privilege of taking the valve covers off — at least for the first round of racing,” Drew said.
Retired from drag racing for more than a decade, the Austins have jumped back into the sport this summer.
Now three generations are being represented. Walt Austin, 75, the patriarch of the operation, is a tuner — just like he had been for his son during those NHRA championship years. Pat, 49, is also back, not as a driver but as the hands-on crew chief.
This time, the driver is Drew, now 20. He is racing a new A-Fuel dragster in the Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, which the NHRA created in 2009 for pre-1980 nostalgia cars.
“For a lot of guys, drag racing is never easy,” Walt said. “Pat was kind of a natural. So is Drew. Those two make it look pretty easy.”
After Pat’s last race at the hometown NHRA Northwest Nationals in 2002, the family got out of drag racing entirely.
For Drew, that meant competing instead in junior wrestling, baseball and football. He ended up being an all-South Puget Sound League South Division quarterback at Graham-Kapowsin High School, and signed with Central Washington University on scholarship.
“Drew did everything we asked,” Pat said. “He did all the training for football, baseball and wrestling. He did that since he was 6 years old.”
But something unexpected happened when Drew left for Central in August of 2012. He quit after three weeks of fall football camp, and withdrew from school before it began.
“I lost my drive for football after high school,” Drew said.
He took a job at a sporting goods store for six months before being hired as a truck driver by Puyallup-based Olson Brothers Pro-Vac, which cleans out storm drains and pumps septic tanks.
As life settled down, his desire to get into drag racing reignited.
“At first, I was hesitant,” Pat said. “Drag racing is a dangerous sport. I told myself, ‘If we get started in this thing, and (Drew) did not look comfortable in the car, or something just doesn’t feel right, I ain’t doing it.’ I won’t hurt my kid.”
Every part of Drew’s front-engine dragster is new, built out of the Randy Parker’s Race Shoppe in Puyallup. The chassis is 225 inches long. And the internal combustion engine designed by Walt runs on nitromethane fuel.
The dragster is capable of getting up to 230 mph, and covering a quarter-mile track in the low 6-second range.
After Drew earned his racing license, the Austins first tested the car at Woodburn, Oregon, in May, then at Kent’s Pacific Raceways in June.
And from July 19-21, Drew ran in his first event at the NHRA Division 7 stop at Sonoma Raceway in California.
“My dad told me you’ve got to drive by the seat of your pants,” Drew said. “I never really understood that at first. But everything happens so fast, you don’t have time to think. You just do it.”
Drew’s first Heritage Series race will likely come at the season-ending California Hot Rod Reunion in mid-October in Bakersfield. Then the plan is for him to run the full 10-race circuit the following year.
And Pat said the family will travel to all the stops, mostly by motor home. That will include Pat’s wife, Keila; daughter, Allison; brother, Mike; and neighbor, Ken Dinsmore, who owns a Mazda dealership and is the team’s primary sponsor.
“Growing up, I would have videotapes on top of videotapes of my dad racing, and I spent three to four hours just watching him,” Drew said. “Now the great thing is I get to do this with my best friend, idol and hero — my dad.”