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Drags to Riches

Two images.Two moments frozen in time.They don't tell the whole story of Medford drag racer Mike Austin's remarkable ascent in a high-priced, fast-paced sport despite a decidedly unremarkable pedigree.

They only show how it started and how it ended.

The first snapshot is from a hot day last July in Sonoma, Calif. The anguish on Austin's face is unmistakable as he watches a man he considers to be like a brother get smashed, shaken and flipped in the kind of violent crash you'd expect at more than 250 miles per hour.

Then there's the other image. It's in a lavish Las Vegas banquet room. Austin is on the stage and in the grips of a hero's welcome, caught by surprise and relishing it fully. It's six months after he'd come to a brother's aid as his replacement driver, after confounding all by conquering the elite, after weathering emotional and political turmoil as the points battle spiraled down to the season's final race.

It's a snapshot from earlier this month of Austin being rewarded publicly as the National Hot Rod Association Pacific Division top-alcohol driver of the year.

— Privately, Austin had already been rewarded. He found out how he'd do with equipment that forever seemed beyond his means.

You go week in and week out like we do, says Austin, who owns Lad Automotive in Medford, and we don't do that good. We do very good for what we have, but you start not believing it after awhile. How many times can you make the excuse that, 'If we only had the stuff to win with.' That weighs on you.

At least, it did.

Austin, 37, has been in drag racing for 21 years, the past five as the owner and driver of his own car. He can fit his crew in a phone booth. There's Jim Young, the clutch man who works in a dealership parts department, and Tim Ponzoha, a high school auto shop teacher who helps out wherever he can.

They were racing their normal schedule in 2005 of five divisional races and three national races when they arrived at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma the first weekend in July.

Also there was the Peen-Rite team, headed by crew chief Jerry Maddern and driver Chris Demke, Maddern's stepson who was far and away the top-alcohol points leader after winning three races to start the season.

Because it normally was only Austin and Young at the races, they needed help just getting their car to the starting line. Maddern and Co. would often lend a hand there and in other ways, and a friendship that began years earlier when Austin worked as a crew chief for another owner, grew stronger.

The events at Sonoma would turn the friendship into a partnership.

Austin had just finished his qualifying pass and was at the top of the track when Demke took his turn.

I was watching them coming at us when he crashed, says Austin. It was the worst thing I've ever seen. It was horrifying, a really bad accident.

Demke lost control, pinballed off both retaining walls and slid upside down past the finish line, still going more than 150 mph, says Austin.

He was airlifted to a hospital, where it was found he suffered a skull fracture and swelling of the brain.

His season was over.

When it was learned Demke would fully recover, Maddern, who lives in Tujunga in Southern California, set out to buy a new car, put it together and find someone to drive it.

The point standings are based on drivers, not teams, and Maddern's goal was to bring in someone to block the No. 2 man in points, Robert Perkins, from overtaking Demke.

Soon after, Austin was offered the ride of his life.

He wants to drive so bad, but it's just kind of expensive, says Maddern, one of the few owners who doesn't race his own car. Several people wanted to drive for me, but I figured I'd give him a chance. I knew he was a good driver.

The deal worked out even better when, at the same time, Maddern's team lost their clutch man to another crew, opening a spot for Young, Austin's friend since childhood.

There was little to suggest Austin would be the man to save Demke's standing against Perkins. Austin had won only one round at the divisional level in five years of competing. He'd captured rounds at the national level, but those fields are larger and diluted with lesser talent.

Rounds are the stages after qualifying. Normally, the top eight advance to the first round, with drivers going head-to-head based on how they qualified. The semifinals and finals follow.

Even though Austin was in the midst of his best season with his own car ' he was 10th in the division and 35th nationally in points ' he didn't hesitate to join Maddern.

It was his call to the big leagues.

It's crazy, says Austin. When I first got started running top alcohol, I knew I didn't have the money to do this. All I ever wanted was to be able to be out there. I love racing. It's what I've dedicated my life to. I eat, sleep and drink racing.

Maddern had the money. He replaced the &

36;11,000 car Demke crashed with one that cost &

36;25,000.

Austin's first race with his new team was in mid-August, 1&

189; months after Sonoma. They went to Acton, Mont., for a divisional race, and Austin was the last car to qualify ' which pitted him against No. — seed Hillary Will.

He beat her in the first round, then had a bye in the semifinals, putting him in the finals.

I'd never raced in a final round at the NHRA level, says Austin.

The drama intensified when he learned his opponent would be Perkins, the man Austin had been hired to fend off.

Little was said as the showdown approached.

They didn't put any pressure on me, says Austin of his teammates. Nobody said anything like, 'This is the whole reason why we put the car together and are taking you to Montana.'

But I knew. I knew they were looking to me to get the job done. I didn't want to let them down because they were such good friends to me, and I knew how much it meant to them. There was definitely a lot of pressure in that final round.

When the lights on the tower blinked green, Austin was gone in a blink.

They call it a hole shot.

Perkins had the faster car at 255.53 mph, four-tenths of a second quicker than Austin's. And his pass of 5.578 seconds bettered Austin's 5.599.

But it was a hole shot.

His car was faster, says Austin, but I got their first because I had a better reaction.

His first-ever NHRA divisional win couldn't have been sweeter, couldn't have validated more the idea that Austin indeed belonged regardless of the vehicle beneath him.

It was an unforgettable day, says Austin. The NHRA people, the track people, all the racers, they know at what level I'm at. For someone like me to finally get a chance to win one of those races ... it was an extremely emotional win.

And a sign of things to come.

Three weeks later at Fallon, Nev., Austin qualified third, then won his first-round run, setting up a semifinal pairing with national points leader Steve Federlin. Federlin supplanted Demke at the top after the latter's wreck.

It was like bragging rights, says Austin of Maddern's crew, to show their team is still the best team.

Austin had both a near-perfect light and the fastest car.

We actually beat him really good, says Austin. It was very good.

Two races, two wins and a jump to third by Austin in the division point standings.

I was looking at the points and thought, 'Wow, I'm really making a dent in them,' says Austin.

He wasn't the only one to notice. The team that hired him to protect Demke from Perkins was now shifting their focus to the man in their car.

They started watching that, says Austin. It was something that was on the back burner.

A week later, it moved to the front burner.

At Fontana, Calif., Austin qualified first, then set a track record in the first round with a pass of 261.93 mph en route to his third straight win.

They basically wanted me to block for them, says Austin. But it got out of hand because I won so many races. I don't think anybody would have dreamed that.

His success had a divisive effect going into the season's final race at Las Vegas. Austin needed to make it to the finals to overtake Demke, a possibility that didn't sit well with others, notably Maddern's wife and Demke's mother, Dixie.

I think everyone wanted him to go ahead and try to win, says Maddern, but my wife didn't.

It was big fight. She said she'd go lay on the track to stop him.

There was another issue at hand. Austin had also been racing in a vintage dragster series and led that points race. The finals were in Bakersfield, Calif., the same weekend as the NHRA division finals in Las Vegas.

Here I am, a low-budget racer who hasn't done a lot of winning, and all of a sudden I'm stuck with which championship to contend for, says Austin.

He'd put his life into top alcohol. If the Maddern team would let him, that's the title he would chase.

I'd never see another chance like this, says Austin. I wanted to capitalize.

But as a backup, Austin drove to Bakersfield, qualified in the vintage series, then chartered a plane to Las Vegas, still not certain he'd get the green light.

Maddern picked him up at the airport.

He told me we're gonna go for the win, says Austin. Put everything aside and go for the win.

As it turned out, where there was a Will, there wasn't a way. Hillary Will, that is, who defeated Austin in the first round. Austin, the No. 4 qualifier, matched Will's reaction time, but his car, despite running 263.77 mph, was nearly four seconds slower.

He finished second in points and, ultimately, did what he was called on to do as Perkins finished third.

Austin has been back at work the past couple months with his own bare-bones operation, eagerly anticipating a return to the track.

His fairy-tale rise is a fond memory.

I think I'm about ready to turn into a pumpkin, he says.

Austin hadn't given much thought to returning to Las Vegas two weeks ago for the division's annual awards banquet, but Maddern called and invited him, in part to share the experience as Demke was recognized for his points title.

During the ceremony, they doled out points money to the drivers. That's when they called on Austin. What he heard next nearly floored him.

... ...

It was a well-kept secret.

Nobody knew, says Maddern, who was named crew chief of the year. I was very happy. I didn't even know they had that.

It was an award voted on by the racers, and that meant more to Austin than any points title.

They obviously watched what happened, says Austin. I've never received any kind of award like that. It was shocking. They evidently could see how much it meant to me. Even though I didn't win the points title, I guess I left some kind of an impression on everybody.

And those images aren't likely to fade soon.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail Drags to Riches "ttrower@mailtribune.com.

Austin still looking forward

Mike Austin no longer has a steady ride with top alcohol dragster owner Jerry Maddern, but they do have some unfinished business.

Austin leads the NHRA Pacific Division point standings for the Jegs All-Stars, a series that will bring together the point leaders in each of seven divisions nationwide for a prestigious competition in June in Chicago.

There are two Arizona races left in the series, which stretches from midseason to midseason, and Austin has such a commanding a lead, he might need only to qualify in the Phoenix and Tucson events, says Maddern.

Maddern will let Austin use an old car of his for the two events, and if he holds his standing in the points ledger, he would then use the owner's primary car in the Jegs.

Maddern says he would like to have Austin drive regularly for him, but running two cars would be too expensive.

And Austin, despite his tremendous success in the second half of 2005, isn't holding his breath waiting for other opportunities.

My dreams have been on a lower scale, says Austin, and maybe since this has happened, my goals have broadened a little bit. Deep down, I would like to get to the top-fuel class, which is the top class.

Top alcohol is the entry level class to top fuel, but seldom do racers make it to the latter purely on driving ability, says Austin.

You really have to catch a break, he says. You have to bring some form of sponsor to the table to make that level.' Tim Trower

Medford drag racer Mike Austin has made a name for himself behind the wheel. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli