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Driver knows where he stands

It’s tough finding local heroes these days.  Kids are in Quarter Midget at age 4, move to Bandoleros and Legends in short order, are in some kind of Late Model by their teen years, and if they aren’t in the Truck, Nationwide or Cup series by age 19 they are done. There is no interest in running a weekly track or regional series in the spirit of Ray Hendrick, Bugsy Stevens, or Dave Rogers.

 

South Boston Speedway in Virginia is a study in contrasts. Their grandstands are named after local heroes who went on to fame and fortune at the highest level of NASCAR, and their grandstands are full of people wearing either a Philip Morris or Lee Pulliam T-shirt.

A rookie Late Model driver in 2012, Austin Thaxton knows exactly where he stands.  

“I started racing four years ago,” said Thaxton. “I’ve spent it all here at South Boston.  My grandma and grandpa have run racecars their whole life, they’ve been here the whole time.  The Speedway has a really good deal with my high school here with the Motorsports Academy. I started there with a Go Kart.  The next year I ran a Limited Late Model and ran the Limited for three years.  This year I moved up to Late Models.

“I’ve been pretty happy with it. We have a second and a couple of top fives. We haven’t torn anything up, so I’d say it’s been a pretty good year.”

Thaxton’s grandmother is Dolly Fallen, widow of Goo Fallen. Together they ran Late Models for what can be considered the royalty of South Boston.   

“Ward Burton drove for my granddad, so did Timothy Peters and Brandon Butler; we had a bunch of guys drive for us over the years,” said Thaxton. “If you just go back and look at pictures of our cars there are so many people around them.  We’ve always run pretty decent. My grandma said it’s a big difference now with a family member driving because we never had a family member drive. My shop is only two miles down the road, so it would be kind of stupid to run anywhere else.”

Three years in Limiteds was a long apprenticeship, and Thaxton sees similarities and differences in his first year in a Late Model.  

“Driving a Late Model is about the same as driving a Limited car. There is so much competition at South Boston in the Limited class you’ve got to be on top of your game if you’re going to finish in the top five. With a Late Model you’ve got Philip Morris who won the national championship last year, Lee Pulliam (who won) the national championship this year. There are just so many drivers, the competition is tough.”

Reconsidering, Thaxton said, “It’s been a big transition to tell you the truth.  I feel like you had to have a lot of car control with the Limited car to keep it free enough to win, but with a Late Model you’ve got to keep it tight enough and not burn your tires off, so it’s been a change.”

While Thaxton is focused on his racing, he’s also pursuing his education at Danville Community College and his efforts in high school paid off with a scholarship funded by the late Dr. Joseph Mattioli, whose family owns South Boston Speedway.

“I applied for a scholarship,” said Thaxton. “I’m going to DCC to be a machinist.  One of my buddies, Chris Rice, he’s a crew chief on John Wes Townley’s Truck in the Camping World Truck Series, and his dad, Allen Rice, is my crew chief.  We’ve been real close my whole life. If I can do this maybe I can get my foot in the door.  I never got a chance to meet Doc Mattioli, but from everything I’ve heard he was a really cool dude. “ 

Thaxton ended the season fourth in points at South Boston. He’ll try to qualify for the big season-ending shows, and then next year it’s back to South Boston, because he is a local hero.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the November-December issue of Late Model Racer Magazine and is being reprinted with permission.