Every kid has dreamed at one point of being on the race track, behind the wheel of a race car, and competing for victory. Some do it on the quarter-mile drag, others think open-wheel and drinking the milk after the Indianapolis 500, and some want to see their car sitting in Daytona USA after achieving the win in the “Great American Race.”
Many of those dreams begin on the local tracks, where they work their way up through different divisions, waiting for their opportunity to make the big stage.
For 18-year-old Frenchville native Austin Fedder, that big opportunity is coming after five years of local racing. After racing go-carts when he was younger, he got back into racing at age 13. Working his way up through many youth divisions, Fedder has found himself as a strong runner in the four-cylinder category at Hidden Valley Speedway and Thunder Mountain. But, he hoped a big opportunity would come on a much bigger stage.
Enter Bristol Motor Speedway, the 0.533-mile “bull ring” in Tennessee that announced that NASCAR’s spring race in 2021 would be run on the dirt, the first event of its kind since 1970.
So how did Fedder fit in?
The week prior, Bristol would hold the “Dirt Nationals” featuring many different divisions of racing, from modifieds to late models, and even four cylinders. Knowing this would be a major moment for him, and his family, he informed his father, Todd, and his mother, Nicole, that he was going to enter into the four-cylinder division for the Bristol Dirt Nationals.
Initially, both of them thought he was being a prankster.
“If they are running our class, we got to go down. He (my dad) didn’t think I was serious,” Austin said with a laugh. “He didn’t know about it until maybe 5 p.m. that night, but I registered at 10 a.m. that morning the applications opened. He thought I was joking until I showed him the acceptance email.
Todd originally said, “We had agreed we weren’t building any more four-cylinder (cars), but then he got accepted, and I was like ‘Are you kidding me?!’ So we decided to go for one final ride.”
Nicole’s first thought in his head was, “April Fools, but then he showed me the email. I am not as knowledgeable on racing, but I started researching the event, and realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We just had to make it a reality for him.”
The 777 Chevrolet Cavalier that they are bringing down for the Bristol Dirt Nationals has been a work-in-progress ever since Fedder got the official invite, with the car getting a fresh wrap this past weekend, and was still being worked even prior to sitting down for the interview. Fedder and his family have been working on their new car after the one they raced the prior season had seen rust win out. But, what stunned Fedder and his family has been the amount of help that has been coming in from so many people, some of which he didn’t initially know.
“All the people that have pitched in, almost out of the blue, that I never asked, nor expected is unbelievable,” Austin said. “I would get messages on Facebook just asking ‘How can I help?’ It’s mind-blowing that these people are as excited as I am. I knew it was a big deal, but I never knew it would get as big as it did.
Fedder’s family had a lot of concern after seeing the acceptance, not just getting the car ready, but also since this event was still taking place during a pandemic. When the event was scheduled, Pennsylvania still had restrictions in place regarding out-of-state travel. At the same time, Tennessee also could have potentially postponed or cancelled the event. For Nicole, she suddenly went from the excited mother to becoming the health screener, checking on any changes in orders regarding the virus.
“I was checking every five days on the CDC site, along with checking with his (Todd) job, and mine,” she said. “We were actually going as far as getting our test before we came back to Pennsylvania, just so we didn’t have to quarantine. The fact we don’t now, we’re all ecstatic.”
Austin was already in the mindset of a driver, looking at the clay that was brought in for the action. The Bristol Dirt Nationals, along with the following week’s NASCAR event, the Food City Dirt Race, will be run on a clay surface that is similar to what is utilized in Georgia for Supercross and Monster Jam, along with the clay on the Charlotte Dirt Track. Austin looked at the clay and knew a lot of his experience on the local tracks would be beneficial.
“That track is going to be slick, meaning you will need a lot of throttle control. Hidden Valley, even at 1/4-mile, you have to use a lot of throttle. Port, Royal is similar as well, with long straightaways and hairpin turns,” he said. “That’s what makes Bristol exciting on asphalt, but they have to slow way down in order to make the corner. On dirt, we may be able to hold it wide open and slide more than asphalt.
“Personally, I have never actually raced on a red-clay surface. The only track that’s around us that does is Lernerville, and I’ve been not able to make it there for the ‘End of the Year Stampede.’ What it’s going to take is a lot of throttle control, because once the clay gets slippery, it is almost like driving on ice in your car or truck. You have to watch what you do, so it is going to be all about setups, and corner entry. You’re going to have to be consistent.”
Todd himself was amazed at how the track crew at Bristol was able to make their facility go from the concrete surface to the dirt in such a short time, and the opportunity they are giving so many people.
“I give kuddos to everyone behind the scenes at Bristol to make this happen since January. We just can’t thank them enough to give all these local drivers, from all over, a chance to run on one of the great NASCAR tracks,” Todd said.
All the Fedder family agreed that this opportunity was a bucket list event that they just had to experience. The entire Dirt Nationals event takes place between March 15-20, with the four-cylinder feature slated for the final day. Fedder’s class of cars is going to be one of the largest in the country, as 200 entries have been accepted. However, they are planning on leaving this Saturday, so that they can look at the track and get ready for practice the following Sunday. Austin said the practice would be beneficial, as will the heat race, but being able to take much knowledge from one event to another.
“The heat race, we’re running that, and the track, so it is going to be hard as a rock, almost like running on the concrete. But, the four-cylinders are the first feature out, so it is likely going to be wet and tacky, and these cars don’t do terribly well in those conditions,” he said. “We can handle it, but you can’t really take any data from the heat race to the feature.
“The banking actually will help us because, frankly, they are some of the worst handling cars for dirt. Most are throwing their cars into the corner sideways and riding it out, but you have to drive these cars like you would a normal front-wheel-drive car and let the front end bite in. The banking will help with that.”
Fedder knew that making the feature was going to be a challenge, saying, “We have to make the top-24 to be in the A-main. If we can do that, it’s a win in itself. You can see, this is a small town, a small garage, a small team, not just to go out and have fun, but also show what we can do.”
Both Austin and Todd were excited not just for the potential to race in their feature, but they were also going to take in the experience for the larger classes to hit the dirt, such as the modifieds and the late models. At the same time, both agreed that when NASCAR goes to that same track the following weekend for their event, a majority of those drivers will be going in with no true experience on dirt except for the practice session beforehand. A few Cup drivers, namely Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Austin Dillon, are entered into the Dirt Nationals in different classes just to get some experience on the dirt.
Still, despite the cars being completely different, Austin felt that these drivers will have a lot to learn once they are there.
“It is a night-to-day difference going from the asphalt to the dirt. That said, the dirt will get hard as a rock and will get slick, so there may be some aspects of being on a paved track that can relate,” he said. “But, you can’t drive dirt the same way, because you have to use the throttle more than you do the brakes on the dirt.”
This is the first event for Fedder on the season, and he, Todd, and Nicole all agree that the biggest win on the weekend is to leave with a car that isn’t in pieces or heavily damaged. After that, Austin has plans to race the new car at a couple local tracks in the summer. He is looking forward especially to go back to Hidden Valley.
“When Hidden Valley first started, it was a nice slick track. It then sat idle for a long time, and had to do a lot of work to it,” he said. “Every night, they kept doing a little more, making it better. Now, that is my favorite track to run because it is a driver’s track.”
The entire Fedder family is looking forward to their trip to “Thunder Valley” as it is named, just because of the fact what was seemingly a joke suddenly has become very real, very exciting, and also very stressful. Austin said that this opportunity is his Daytona, and with his dad being a former racer, along with both his grandfather (Walt), and uncle (Shawn), this was something he couldn’t pass up. However, one thing that both Austin and Todd did agree on was the first thing they will say when they roll through the doors, before parking in the infield. Austin has said it in comments on his Facebook page, but he was very much looking forward to saying it on-location.
Father and son said three words, the same three words that Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after his victory at the “World’s Fastest Half Mile” in 2004.
With smiles on their faces, they simply said, “It’s Bristol, baby!”
The Bristol Dirt Nationals will be broadcast on racexr.com each night live.