By Brant James, NASCAR Wire Service
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Austin Cindric was precocious from the beginning of what would become a racing career.
First he had to talk his mother, Megan, and father, Tim, the president of Team Penske, into allowing him to race karts. Then he had to overcome each of the obstacles they intentionally placed before him to make sure he truly wanted it. He overcame each of them in turn.
Cindric, 19, could become a precocious NASCAR champion if he betters the three other championship contenders – Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Christopher Bell – in Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).
“He’s an interesting kid. He’s very studied,” Tim Cindric said. “When he was growing up in Bandoleros and Legends and stuff, we wouldn’t let him paint his helmet. The driving suits he had were very generic, not even name-brand stuff. I never felt like he needed to go in there like a Penske kid. He needed to go in there and be a kid.”
He’s a teenager with, as his father describes it “an old soul,” not just in the way he has been able to become rapidly acquainted with — and successful in — a myriad of different race cars including Australian Super Cars, sports cars and the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, but in the mature way he approaches a sobering side of the sport.
The reminder is right there for all of the Cindrics to see, in the worn black rubber bracelet he’s worn on his right wrist since October of 2011, the white lettering worn nearly illegible.
“Dan Wheldon passed,” Tim Cindric said of the IndyCar driver who perished in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “After I got back from Dan’s funeral – Dan wasn’t somebody Austin really knew, he probably said ‘hello’ to him – at that service they had these little black rubber band things and they just said ‘Remember’ on them. I took it home and threw it on my vanity and Austin said ‘Can I have that?”
“What are you going to do with it?,” Tim Cindric countered.
“I’m going to wear it,” Austin answered.
“You didn’t really know Dan,” Tim Cindric responded again. “And he said ‘Us race drivers, we all understand all this.’ You do? It was a little deep for us. And he said, ‘If anything ever happens to me doing this, you and mom just have to remember, this is what we do.’ And he’s never taken that thing off.”
Austin Cindric describes the decision as “just part of my childhood” but said the moment, involving a driver he said he idolized left a mark.
“At my age, that was the first time that it happened that I could remember,” he said during Championship 4 Media Day at the Loews Miami Beach, “and I was watching the TV, watching the race, watching the championship fight and something like that happens. It’s pretty impactful, but it’s part of the sport, part of what we do and race cars are pretty safe.”
It wasn’t the first time that Cindric had surprised his parents not only with his attitude toward the sport, but a connection he’d made with a late driver he’d never met. The previous instance hit even closer to the Cindric home as it involved Greg Moore, who had signed to drive for Team Penske in 2000 but died at age 24 in an October, 1999 CART crash at Auto Club Speedway.
“Greg Moore’s father, Rick, had sent me Greg’s Marlboro helmet. There were only a couple,” Tim Cindric said. “After he passed away, we’d had some made for the test he was going to do and it sits in my basement. Austin obviously sees it all the time, but Austin didn’t know Greg. He was one when that happened. [Austin] said ‘If I ever get my helmet painted, I’d like to paint it like Greg’s.’ He was ten or eleven at the time.
“I said, ‘Austin, you can’t just paint a helmet like somebody else’s without permission.’ I said, ‘If you really want to pursue that, first of all …., why?’ He says, ‘Well, I think he’s very similar to myself. I think Greg and I would have gotten along really well.’ I said, ‘You never met Greg. What do you know about Greg?’ He said, ‘Well, on the Internet I’ve watched videos, I’ve read his book.’ And he went on to tell me more about Greg than I knew about Greg.”
With “that box checked,” Tim Cindric said, he allowed his son to contact Rick Moore, who enthusiastically agreed, telling helmet design Troy Lee that the boy could have access to any designs he wanted.
“Whatever he wanted, relative to Greg, it was his,” Tim Cindric said. “Rick sent him an autographed Greg Moore hero card from every year Greg drove, which I thought was really cool. Greg used to put a little space ship guy, a little Troy Lee icon thing on the back of his helmet. He sent him a pile of those to put on his dash and on his helmets, so he’s always done that to each of his helmets.”
Cindric’s Brad Keselowski Racing is ceasing operations at the end of the season and the driver has no announced plans for 2018. The Bowmanville winner has a breadth of experience, but said he has “committed” himself to NASCAR. Cindric earned his spot in the final amid controversy at Phoenix Raceway, as he made contact with and spun Ben Rhodes in the waning laps, costing Rhodes a chance to run for a title. Cindric said he attempted to reach Rhodes this week but that his call went directly to voicemail. The pair have raced together since childhood and are friends, he said.
“Obviously, the way I handled it wasn’t the cleanest,” Cindric said, “but you’ve got to move on from something like that.”