"I didn't walk for months, I was beginning to wonder if I would even be able to walk at all."
The on and off track incidents that marked Austin Hubbard's 2016 campaign failed in every way possible. The two plates and 11 screws in addition to hours upon hours of physical therapy, they failed to end his promising young career. They failed to rob him of his spirit for racing. They didn't make a dent in his passion and energy for the sport he's been a part of for over a decade. It's hard to say what the effect his rollover and hard crash and injury at the Firecracker 100 in June of 2016, or the passenger car crash that left him with a broken foot will have on him going forward. However, it may just mark a turning point, a point where the young Delaware based pilot will start the second chapter of his career with renewed focus and a chance to fulfill and further realize his amazing potential which has demonstrated flashes of brilliance against some of the toughest names in the business.
|Pat Miller Photo|
"I'd still love to have that as my job, it's not out of the question," Hubbard said. "You just have to have the whole puzzle together to run with those guys and if you're going to do it for a living, you've got run in the top five or top three and pick off a win here or there. There's big money races out there but there's a couple of guys that pick off five or six of those $30,000 to $50,000 to win races and they make good money and they get good sponsors. You've just got to get to a good place. It's harder and harder to just build a team and get after them. And on top of money, you've got to know what you're doing."
But even if the national touring level is something that Hubbard never has the opportunity to try again, he's still going to make his mark as an honest true outlaw in the Mid-Atlantic region. And why not? It's home for him, and his personality lends itself to the familiar faces and friends he's grown up with. Hubbard caught the racing bug from watching his father Mike who drove in the legendary Big Block Modified division at Delaware International Speedway (Delmar) as a young boy.
"My dad had a Big Block when I was a kid and I used to go to Delmar and watch. That was pretty much my whole life, I'd always been around it. I started racing go karts when I was four. I saw one and wore my dad out about it. I just liked riding things. Once I'd seen that go kart I was locked on it. All I did was bug him about getting one."
|Pat Miller Photo|
Following a very successful childhood career in Karts and Mini Sprints, Hubbard thought it best to try his hand at the late models as a very young teenager, and called Virginia Motor Speedway home starting in 2005.
"Bill Sawyer had recently taken it over, and it paid well and it had a lot of cars show up and it was becoming a state of the art type facility like we have at other select tracks around the country. It was four hours away and it was a pretty easy choice. They didn't really have crates when I was starting out in a late model. I really didn't want to start in a super and they had a nice steel block class down there. Si we figured what was another four hours three times a month. we'd traveled all over the country with go karts for three years prior to that."
It was probably near that time that he was given his first proper racing nickname (McSling).
"I honestly don't even have a clue," Hubbard says while laughing. "Probably a random night talking about racing I'm sure, when I was dead sideways. I used to be very crooked and never really drove with the front wheels in the beginning when I first got in a late model. So it was probably from driving sideways and a little over excited on the gas."
Hubbard also started to make the first of several important connections at VMS, people that would be important to his development as a driver and also helped him ease into the process of going from competent right foot, to track champion before the age of 17.
"We had Bubba (Hubbard) who had won a bunch of track championships there and he was down there helping his nephew and Bubba had taken a liking to us and we had liked him a lot and we had the same last name which was kind of funny but we weren't related at all. We might as well be at this point though. We kept our cars down there in Virginia and he pretty much did everything. I just kind of came down there and raced and that made it easy to focus on learning how to drive it. So I didn't have to jump totally in the water, and it kind of helped."
|Pat Miller Photo|
Many could begin to see Hubbard had a natural talent for wheeling the car, the kind of talent that wasn't showing an occasional glimpse of confidence, but honest brilliance from time to time as he began to turn heads against higher levels of competition. His consistency needed polishing, but the raw talent was plain to see. And it happened to catch the eye of a legendary car owner who's cars had become synonymous with winning at a high level with high profile drivers.
"Dale Beitler was great. He gave me my first shot to get out there and show what I could do. We were hitting and missing big shows the year before, and had been running pretty well and I'd pit with and Steve Francis at a couple races and Dale didn't live but an hour and a half from us. So we met and had hung out a couple of times the year before and I think he and Steve were just parting ways, wanting to do different stuff. It was kind of the right place at the right time, we talked and went to dinner and he kind of laid out what he wanted to do. It kind of did make sense for us to join up."
Hubbard took the ride like a duck to water and took home Rookie of the Year Honors with the World of Outlaws Late Models in 2010, and not by just finishing enough races to qualify for the award, he was fast and took home his share of top five and top ten finishes. Hubbard would garner wins the following season and spent time in the top three in the point standings. He looked to be on the verge of big things heading into 2012, when Beitler decided to call it a day. It was Hubbard's first test of his resolve. To be given great equipment on a national tour and have it taken away just as he was starting to make a name for himself on a national basis.
"Really, I just drove for Dale and it was my first ride where I was stepping away from my comfort zone that I'd lived in since I was young and that was a good thing and it helped a lot. It was a great experience and Dale was nothing but good to me and we got along great. It's a hard road out there trying to run 60 races going 70,000 miles around the country. Anybody that does it will tell you it's tough, and Dale had been doing it a long time and he had grand kids and they were getting older and I think he wanted to take a step back and be a spectator and watch his grandchildren grow up and you can't blame anybody for that. I had to go forward and figure out what plan B was going to be because it's a hard life trying to make a living racing late models. There's a lot of money in them anymore and there's a lot of people who have all the good stuff, you just hope that you'll be able to have everything you need to win. That's all I've really ever wanted."
Hubbard began the next phase in his own equipment, running his own schedule within his region after making an attempt to run the Lucas Oil Series full time in the first half of 2012, and he remained competitive despite having to slim down his operation somewhat. He found wins in familiar places and remained a force to be reckoned with during the annual Appalachian Mountain Speedweek. He has been happy just to drive regionally, picking and choosing where it makes sense to go, but would love a crack at a national tour again at some point, but has been a bit skeptical of the direction the sport has been taking in recent years. He'd relish the opportunity of a tour that races less times and for more money, but is honest about those prospects.
"That would be great, but it would take a great Kum By Yah from everybody. It's part of the democracy, it's the free market system, everybody's trying to get a piece and everybody's just trying to have their weekend work out perfect. There's just a lot of back stabbing. Definitely the promoting/owning aspect of dirt racing. It's like that in the second tier of sports, it's a lot of moving parts. It's hard to get everyone on the same page. I don't see how any racetrack can survive to just have three or four races a year and that's kind of what it's coming to, the end of the local racing. I'm not saying that that's happening but I don't know how anybody will be able to get better and get after these guys. I don't know what the right answer is. But it's trending that way, there's a lot less local racing."
So he's made his own tour so to speak. Maybe we'll call it the McSling Shootout. And it makes total sense to him and his team and family.
"I would definitely go back and do it (national touring), who wouldn't, but I can't say I hate what I'm doing with the kind of schedule we're running. There's a lot of good racing going on in the North East, there's a lot more series than there has been. Even living with the Late Models in Delaware you can drive five or six hours and race for five grand a night for four months straight this year. There's nothing wrong with that. It looks better when you haven't spent $30,000 in diesel and you've got the arsenal of tires you know you need to have. One guy a long time ago told me that whatever level you can win at is what you should race. I still think I can race Supers, I'm trying to prove it anyway."
But the second test of Hubbard's resilience was yet to come, following the incidents in the summer of 2016, Hubbard was faced with the prospect that he might not race again following massive amounts of physical therapy and a leg and foot that may not come back around. It was then, that his courage pushed him past his doubt and back in a Late Model where he would collect another win before the year's end at Delaware in a $7,500 to win show.
"It works in mysterious ways. It was a possibility that that leg was not going to come back around. I just worked my ass off because I had good support. My girlfriend was helpful and I tried to do all the right things and all the things the doctors told me to do and just thought about getting back out there. The first month or two I didn't even think about racing, it was just so rough trying to get through rehab and get out of the cast. But once I got out of it I went and watched a race and pretty much had my mind set that it would happen sooner or later because I can't go into this winter wondering if I am still me. I didn't know how I would react, I didn't know how my foot would take it. I got an infection after Delmar the first time and I got through it and I went to the Gateway Nationals in December and got another infection. I was supposed to go to Florida and I didn't know how I was going to do and I was really struggling. So I went down and I'd had an extra month or two and I never even thought about it, the nice weather while I was walking around and I was staying on it all the time and it helped. It was a nice month, I never would have thought that it would have rolled that way, especially with my leg the way it's been. It's come around a good bit now."
Hubbard's Florida races, especially in Lucas Oil Series action at East Bay Raceway Park, demonstrated that he was on the way back to being competitive on a national level again as he took home a podium finish and was fast almost every night in competition. But more than that, it caught the attention of many who had wondered what had become of the young driver who once pulled a "Ricky Bobby" in victory lane, removing his firesuit for full effect. The Hubbard kid, the one that looked so promising for a couple years on the big tour, was still alive an well, and has grown in many different ways over the past few seasons. He's learned how to deal with having everything, to having less, and having to deal with it. And also, how to deal with what life might be like without racing. For Hubbard, that would have been a life without feeling what is great about what he loves and what it does for his soul.
"I like the feeling right before you go green, it's a feeling you can't find anywhere else. Good, bad, happy, pissed, whatever, you definitely feel something on the racetrack. Sometimes normal life can get dull and feel repetitive and make you feel like nothing. Anytime I'm at the racetrack I'm definitely feeling something. It's one of the only things in this world that gets me really pumped up. I just love to do it."
Hubbard's resilience and courage have ensured that he'll be racing for years to come. But the things that he's had to overcome, may just make him a better driver as chapter two begins for him this season.