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Mountain Home Magazine

A Moving Billboard

Apr 17, 2014 04:47PM

Wellsboro’s Jerry Austin has been a stock car racing fan his whole life. As a boy, he felt excitement and pride that his father was a stock car driver, and his fondest childhood memories are of watching him on the racetrack, driving car #27.

When Jerry became a young man himself, his dreams of stock car racing were driven out by the stark reality of serving with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Returning home from the war, Jerry got busy working for a living, raising a family, maintaining a home, and meeting his responsibilities. Like most of his fellow veterans, his youthful dreams of what he had wanted to do with his life no longer seemed to matter. Although Jerry remained a fan of stock car racing, he enjoyed the sport only as a spectator; the idea of competing had long since faded away. Today Jerry, sixty-four, presents as a remarkably calm man of slight stature whose only real recreation has been riding off on his ATV to spend some quiet time alone.

That is, until about a year and a half ago, when Jerry’s teenage grandson, Ryan Austin, did something to re- energize Jerry’s youthful dream. Young Ryan also loved watching the races and could detect the faint throb of thrill still idling beneath Grampa Jerry’s stories. Ryan decided to rev up his Grampa’s dream. He saved up a bit of his own money and bought a cheap, small car suitable to be stripped, strengthened, and modified into a front-wheel- drive class stock car for the Woodhull Raceway in nearby Woodhull, New York, and gave it to his Grampa.

Jerry decided to try to live up to his grandson’s encouragement, his own secret thrill, and his father’s proud example. He discussed the idea with his family, his weekly group meeting of fellow disabled Vietnam veterans, and other competitors in this relatively low-cost and least demanding, entry- level class of stock car racing. He didn’t expect to start out winning races; he simply hoped to have a bit of affordable and somewhat safe fun while trying to realize his long-buried dream.

During the 2012 racing season, Jerry worked on the car until it complied with safety requirements and class restrictions, got a trailer, and hauled the car to the track in Woodhull. Finally, he was living the thrill: he was out on the track racing in car #27, just like his dad. Emblazoned on the hood of his car was a large POW/MIA decal, a reverent remembrance of his fellow veterans who never got to come home.

Over the winter, Jerry got a more competitive race car and chose for it a paint scheme to accentuate his trademark POW/MIA symbol. He added lettering on the rear of the car to welcome home veterans returning from combat.

In the spring, Woodhull Raceway was invited to display their race cars in the Arnot Mall. Most of the other race cars on display were more impressive cutting-edge racing machines. But Jerry’s car with the big POW/MIA symbol seemed to command the most attention. To each who asked, Jerry explained that his race car was a moving billboard to remind race spectators to honor our veterans, past and present, and serving as an example for disabled veterans of the Vietnam and the current Iraq/Afghanistan conflict eras to do all that they can to realize their own life dreams in spite of their disabilities and limitations.

Jerry started off this year’s season with a few impressive showings in qualifying heat races, each week improving his lap times. But while gaining in competence and confidence, Jerry was also mixing it up a bit, suffering quite a number of hard knocks from other cars—and with the wall. The car required minor repairs, but Jerry was taking some painful beatings. Finally, his doctor told him it was time to give his back a rest and sit out the rest of the racing season.

Jerry felt torn between his own desire to race, his real concern to avoid doing any more harm to his back, and his sense of duty to keep his billboard moving. But the solution was close at hand. He approached his grandson Ryan, now nineteen and with some motocross racing experience, and asked if he would be the driver of the #27 POW/MIA racing car. Ryan eagerly accepted. With Ryan behind the wheel and Jerry as crew chief, they had a few rough starts at first. But as the season continued the Austin racing team enjoyed a couple of qualifying heat wins.

Then, in August, the Austin racing team achieved the ultimate goal: Ryan piloted Grampa Jerry’s black and white #27 veterans-honoring race car into the victory circle, after winning not only his qualifying heat, but also the class’s feature race.

Jerry couldn’t have been more excited and proud as the crowd heard the announcer’s interview with Ryan after the race. Asked if there was anyone he wished to thank for making his feature event win possible, Ryan included, along with Grampa Jerry and his family and friends, all of our veterans from past and present conflicts, both missing and returned home.

First-time Mountain Home contributors Ron Hoyt and Dave Muffley are fellow combat veterans and friends of Jerry Austin.