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Austin describes impact of crash

Local drag racer Mike Austin aches physically and emotionally after surviving a horrific crash on Saturday.

He feels battered physically after his top-alcohol dragster skidded out of control, sailed over a retaining wall, slammed down violently and came to a jarring stop at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.

The 43-year-old Medford resident feels beaten emotionally because his $75,000 investment was destroyed in a matter of seconds, because his racing future is now uncertain and because he can remember every scene of his nightmare: a bad feeling from the beginning and the loss of control; the speed, the power and the impact; and the names and stories of those who did not survive their crashes running through Austin's head as he barrelled uncontrollably toward something that reeked of death.

But the veteran racer also feels love and gratitude for the hundreds of people who have shown him support since, setting his phone ablaze with compassion, and for his Ladd Automotive crew, whom he said worked tirelessly to ensure his safety.

"I have heard from friends and fellow racers," Austin said. "I have heard from fans and manufacturers. I'm at a loss for words."

And Austin feels compelled to tell the story of what happened. It's a story, he says, that just can not be found anywhere in the short, stunning video of his crash.

It's much more complicated.

'Everything that couldgo wrong went wrong'

Austin and his crew ran into trouble early in Pomona. A new lifter in Austin's dragster came apart, causing severe damage to the block and other internal parts of the engine. The team scrambled for used parts and worked late into the night in order to make a qualifying run. Amid the rush to correct the situation, one of the rocker stands did not get torqued down, Austin said. As a result, the engine overboosted and four cylinders were torched.

"So the team had to stay up all night that night working and we had no spare parts at all," Austin said. "We fixed things that we could fix, we borrowed parts from other teams, we patched it together the best we could. When we came out for the first round we had gotten everything fixed. I was amazed by how everything was put together. We really put together our 'A' effort into repairing everything. We had one of the best cars in the nation in the first round and the execution of the repairs was perfect."

But Austin believes now that his team was so bogged down with those fixes "that I never had time to address that there could be an issue with the frame."

And the frame, Austin believes, may have been the culprit.

"It is my theory that the upright, which is located just behind the gas tank, cracked during the transportation of the car from Medford to Pomona," Austin said. "The roads were so rough going there that it cracked the tube transporting the car, because it was not cracked when we left."

'I felt something funny'

On Saturday at Auto Club Raceway, Austin lined up on the right with Jim Whiteley on the left in the first round of eliminations.

"When we started the car up on the starting line I made the burnout and I felt something funny," Austin said. "I felt like the frame rail touched the ground, which is not a normal feeling. I backed up and was kind of thinking that it was odd.

"I am involved in the race so I am just concentrated on everything and when I left the starting line I didn't see the guy in the other lane and I told my guys that if he was pulling away from us I was going to let off. But when I left the starting line I didn't see the other guy and the car kind of made a funny move to the center. It felt loose, the front end felt loose. I made a correction, tried to pull it back straight in the lane, and it didn't really do anything."

With the centerline approaching and Austin still competing, he made "a little more of a correction" before quickly realizing something was wrong and letting off on the gas. The dragster shifted abruptly to the right about halfway through the run. After flipping over on its left side and sailing over the right-side guard wall, it smashed back down onto the pavement between the track and grandstands.

The car skidded before hammering into the right timing and scoring tower at the end of the quarter-mile drag strip.

"I was just thinking about all the other racers who had crashed and what to expect," Austin said of the moment.

A track clock recorded a speed of 147 miles per hour, but Austin said he's not sure which piece of his car reached that speed. He does know that the final impact completely severed the back of the car.

"The last impact was almost unsurvivable, that is all I can say," Austin said. "I would hope in the future that the NHRA will angle the cement retaining walls so that you can not be able to hit them head-on like that.

"If you watch the video I knocked the retaining wall over and that weighs more than the car does. I went into that with the car on its side. If I would have hit that head-on it would have killed me. I couldn't have taken much more impact."

Here is what Austin believes happened before the crash: "It is my theory that when I did the burnout I believe the upright broke and the cable was the only thing holding the car up. And when I launched it it put so much pressure against the cable it could not take it and the cable broke and when that happened the front end turned ... I never even turned it. It turned so fast, apparently when I let off the throttle, it opened, it just ... I don't know."

NHRA emergency service workers immediately came to Austin's aid.

"The first thing I thought about was my family," Austin said. "We had just lost my dad months prior. I just wanted to get to a phone and call my mom (Marilyn Austin) and tell her I was OK because I knew she would be listening to the race."

Austin was on his side, filled with adrenaline, when he said he saw and smelled smoke. He tried to get out quickly — "I wanted everybody to know that I was OK" — but his Head and Neck support device had been caught between the roll cage and the ground.

"They had to come release it," Austin recalled. "It had me pinned. When I got there they kept telling me I couldn't get out of the car ... I became a little claustrophobic. ... They just wanted me to sit there and relax."

Austin eventually walked away on his own power, and was examined and released by medical officials.

The gnarled remnants of the machine are with Austin now. He hasn't opened up the door to the trailer that contains it just yet.

"My car can't be replaced," he said. "I purchased all this stuff over years and years and years of collecting. To go out and just buy everything, I won't be able to do it. I can't.

"I am not a rich man. I am just a guy that loves drag racing and I put all my efforts into fielding one of these cars. And in that instant I lost it all. Maybe people wonder why I got so excited. It is very difficult to deal with and I had to deal with it all in seconds."

The loss was a devastating one for Austin, who had visions of climbing up the NHRA ladder.

"I had been trying to get to the top," said Austin, who still managed to go to work early this week. "After racing with a couple of these other big teams and winning races I had been trying to elevate our race team to that level. I had traded up, I had worked on getting better parts. I felt like we were getting very close. It's all gone."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com