FORT WORTH — Tim and Megan Cindric knew Austin was a precocious child, but his approach was so serious and measured that it made them wonder what their 9-year-old wanted.
“He grabbed me in the hallway and said, ‘I need to have a life-changing discussion with you and mom’,” recalled Cindric, the president of Team Penske. “I said, ‘Austin what’s this all about?’ He said we needed to go sit down and have a talk. So, we did and he says, ‘I’ve been thinking about it a long time and I’d really like to try and become a professional race car driver.’ ”
Cindric and his wife stared at each. Both had worked in the industry and both, he said, shared the belief that their son racing was “the last thing we really wanted.”
The motor sports community is laced with such stories, but each path has been undertaken with slightly different steps and apprehensions. USA TODAY Sports spoke with four father/son duos, including NBC Sports’ Marty and Myatt Snider, Jeff and Harrison Burton, and Steve and Tyler Letarte, about their experiences.
Megan Cindric probed her son’s resolve quickly, noting that being built like his father — a former college basketball player — would likely preclude fitting in race cars.
“He said, ‘That’s not true mom, Michael Waltrip is bigger than dad is’,” Cindric remembered.
The Cindrics attempted to let it blow over. He persisted. Austin Cindric had never known a time when his father worked anywhere else but Penske. The founder and owner of the expansive team, Roger Penske, had taught the boy how to shake hands, firm, with a meeting of the eyes.
When it became apparent this wasn’t going away, Tim Cindric begrudgingly began to explore how to indulge his son’s ambition. The process began in 2008 when then-Penske driver Ryan Newman speculated publicly about leaving, prompting a series of cold calls from interested suitors. Among them was Mike Wallace, whose children were racing in introductory-level Legends cars.
“We had that conversation, and I said, ‘Hey, I hear race cars in the background. Where are you tonight with your kids?” Cindric said. “And he said Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Summer Shootout. I didn’t even know what that was.”
The Cindrics eventually visited Wallace at the track for an introduction to developmental racing, and the process hasn’t stopped. Austin Cindric, now 18, already has raced in multiple sports car and stock car regimens including ARCA and is currently driving in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule for Brad Keselowski Racing, including this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.
Having completed his end of the bargain with his parents to keep his grades high and find his own funding by the time he graduated high school — he did so this spring — he’s on his way to paying off the pitch made in the family living room.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of forethought, it was just action,” Austin Cindric said of that meeting. “I didn’t understand at that time what went into making a career in racing, and obviously I knew I was way in over my head after a little while, but it started as something to be a little bit fun and it was always something I wanted to do, but I didn’t understand the steps it took. And the more I got immersed in the sport, the more I understood how involved I had to be to make this a reality.”
Steve Letarte followed his dad into the world of motor sports and felt that telling his son, Tyler, that he could be anything except a racer was not only hypocritical but not "good parenting." That’s not to say Letarte expects his son, now 13, and a regular in a North Carolina mini Outlaw karts series, to become a professional.
There is no next phase already plotted, he said. This is about fun and lessons in life.
“We are doing this no different than kids play football or soccer or baseball or golf,” Letarte said. “It’s to learn about life with no expectations. ...There’s no next plan. That doesn’t mean there’s not a next. But there is not a set plan. We go out, we race, we have fun. I don’t look at this like a springboard. I look at this like a kid growing up.”
Still, Tyler said he sometimes senses extra scrutiny his last name conjures on the track. “The expectations are a little higher, but I don’t let it get to me,” Tyler said. “It doesn’t matter what your last name is. It matters what you have.”
The Letartes have learned much about each other while racing — Tyler that he likes to tap into his father’s expertise, Steve that he’s not good at “casual racing. … I am just not wired that way,” he said.
Jeff Burton, who won 48 races in NASCAR’s top two series before becoming an NBC analyst, has opinions on numerous subjects and the desire and capacity to share them. When his son, Harrison, now 16, convinced his family that he wanted to race as did Jeff, his brother Ward and his nephew, Jeb, he had a wealth of racing information to bestow. Jeff Burton offered it willingly, he said, because not to do so with a kid would be “irresponsible.”
“It’s kind of a two-way street,” Harrison Burton said. “It’s hard to learn lessons in racing by just hearing it. I’ve heard all kinds of things about aero and stuff about the car, but the first time you experience getting aero tight or sucked around another car, you don’t know about it.”
At some point, as Harrison Burton ascended through NASCAR’s developmental ranks to his current position running occasional truck races with Kyle Busch Motorsports (he also won his only ARCA start this season at Toledo Speedway), his father decided he had to learn on his own.
“It’s a tough balance,” Jeff Burton said. “You want your kid to not to have to learn the lessons you learned because typically you had to learn the lessons the hard way and typically you want to shortcut that for them. The older he’s gotten, the less we talk about it. We talk more big-picture than we do the minutia. ... Early on, it was constant, me saying things to him and at some point, I realized that had to stop and he has to be his own guy. He has to be his own driver. He doesn’t have to drive like I drove. He had to be Harrison.
“Now he has permission to tell me to shut up whenever he wants to, in regards to advice about racing. I think we do it well, we have a good relationship.”
The moment of truth
Marty Snider knows the day is coming, and he wants nothing to do with it. Not professionally, at least. As a pit reporter for NBC Sports, Snider’s job is to plumb stories for a broadcast and illuminate viewers on the personalities that spice up a sport. Undoubtedly, the story of his son, Myatt, 22, eventually reaching NASCAR’s top level would qualify.
But as much as Snider wants to see it after years of helping his son make the proper connections in racing and securing the funding to alleviate the financial burden on his family, he doesn’t want it played out on television. Not by him, at least. His joy and anguish, he hopes, can be worked through in a secluded spot as they currently are when his son competes in truck series races for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“I’ve always told (NBC executive producer) Sam Flood, my boss, that I’m never covering one of his races,” Snider said. “And he says, if he’s in it, you need to cover it. I don’t know. That’s up to Sam and (NBC vice president of NASCAR production) Jeff Behnke. If they want me to do it, I’m happy to do it. … I don’t know. ... I don’t want to.
“I like being a dad at his races. Kevin Harvick always gives me grief, ‘You gotta get away from him, you bring nervous energy to him. Stay away because he’s a talented kid.’ If I had his pit, I would be worried about him. If I didn’t, I’d be worried about him. I don’t know if I would do a very good job.”
Said Myatt Snider, who won in the ARCA series last season: “You always want to make him proud because we both pour out hearts and souls into this.”
Burton, too, said he would struggle to analyze a race with his son, Harrison, in the field because “I’ve had that with Jeb and I’ve tried to be neutral, but I give Steve and (play-by-play caller) Rick (Allen) the sign because I don’t want to be a part of that. I think the fans have the right to hear an unbiased point of view, and there’s no way I can be unbiased talking about someone I love.”
Through his work in IndyCar, Snider has had occasion for frequent conversations with Tim Cindric about Austin, who was a teammate of his son in legends cars.
“We talk about boys, what you are doing, how are you doing it?,” Snider said. “I’ve done the same thing with Jeff. Jeff and I are living the same lives and I work every day with Jeff.”