Austin McCarl will never forget Aug. 11, 2022.
In the morning, he and his wife, Alyssa, announced they’re expecting their first child. Then, at night, another life changing first.
While parked at the scales after finishing fourth in the second preliminary night of the 61st NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals present by Casey’s, he saw his dad, Terry, sprinting toward him. A wave of emotions followed.
“I’ll never forget until the day I die my dad running to the scales and telling me I was high point guy (for Saturday’s main event),” McCarl said as tears swelled. “I didn’t believe him… It makes me cry just thinking about it.”
By earning the most points (477) between the two nights of preliminary action for the 61st NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s, McCarl secured his first pole for the prestigious race – set to pay $175,000 to the winner. A victory Saturday would be his first Nationals triumph and first World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series victory.
Along with being the biggest Sprint Car race of the year, Knoxville is like home for McCarl. His hometown of Altoona, IA is less than an hour away from Knoxville Raceway where he grew up watching his father race before making his own laps around the iconic half-mile.
“I remember being a little kid up there (in the Knoxville Raceway grandstands) flagging when [my dad] started on the pole in 2004 and led some laps,” said McCarl as he continued to try and use his smile to hold back tears. “I’m proud for my name to be honest. I don’t know… it’s crazy.”
A few days earlier he’d contemplated quitting. After finishing 17th in the Capitani Classic on Sunday, McCarl said he was so dejected with his performance he couldn’t help but have the thought cross his mind.
Then, he went to the Front Row Challenge at Southern Iowa Speedway (in Oskaloosa, IA) on Monday – an event promoted by his father – and found the confidence he needed in time for the Knoxville Nationals with his Country Builders #88.
“Thank God we went to Oskaloosa because I threw a goofy package on this thing just to try it,” McCarl said. “Honestly, what I was doing a couple of years ago. It worked. I was like, ‘You know what, screw it. Let’s just go in there and do what we did.’ We learned some stuff. It all worked out.
After qualifying fifth overall, placing him eighth in the fifth Heat Race, McCarl began to weigh his options. Having seen few drivers able to make their way to the front from the fourth row in Wednesday and Thursday’s Heats, he thought maybe securing a good starting spot for the Last Chance Showdown was going to be his best option. But before he went out, he saw Tyler Courtney make the run from eighth to fourth in Heat 4, locking himself into the Feature. It could be done.
“Tyler, I saw on the board, was able to get a good start and able to get to fourth, too. And I was like, OK, we have a chance then,” he said.
“Just got a decent start in that Heat Race and knew I needed to be aggressive. I just hit my marks, hit my marks, hit my marks and honestly my foot started shaking coming to the checkered in the Heat Race just because I knew that was huge with last night being such a goofy low point night.”
From then on, the night got easier. The pressure was off. He knew he was in the Feature and knew he secured a good number of points to put him in a good position for Saturday’s finale. However, it was until after his fourth-place finish and a joyous jog from his father that he realized just how good of a position he put himself in.
“I watched Aaron Reutzel do it a couple of years ago with a Rider [Racing Engine] and all this stuff and was like, ‘Man, that can be me one day,’” McCarl said. “You just dream about stuff like this. Honestly, I just never thought… even after that I was just racing. I never thought about points during the Feature at all.
“I’m just pumped. I’m pumped for Country Builders giving me this opportunity. I feel like I’ve been pretty up and down, not as dominant at Huset’s (Speedway) or here as I’ve wanted to be. This makes it all worth it.”
Now, he said, the goal is to not be too hung over in the morning to do maintenance. He can relax Friday, focus on helping his brother Carson, and his father, make the show during the Hard Knox night and then sleep stress free for Saturday.
But he hasn’t lost sight that there’s still work to be done. While he’s happy with his car, stating he felt like he could drive it anywhere, he acknowledged that he still wasn’t perfect. And with 50 laps of racing against a stout field, there’s no room for error at the Knoxville Nationals.
“(We need to) be as prepared as we can for anything we get thrown at us, racetrack wise; weather wise; racing wise and just try to put together 50 laps,” he said. “You never know what can happen. It’s a long, long race. As we’ve seen in years past, anything can happen. You have to be there at the end. We’ll do what we can.”
Until then, he’s going to soak in every second of being the pole sitter for the 61st Knoxville Nationals. It’s a moment that may never happen again, he said. A day he will never forget.
Make sure to follow the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series social channels each night for the latest Knoxville Nationals updates.
For tickets to the event, CLICK HERE.
If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch the 61st NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s live with an annual DIRTVision Platinum FAST PASS subscription.
FINAL POINTS (1-16 A-MAIN; 17-26 B-MAIN):
- 88-Austin McCarl (477)
- 7BC-Tyler Courtney (473)
- 15-Donny Schatz (469)
- 2-David Gravel (469)
- 41-Carson Macedo (467)
- 57-Kyle Larson (462)
- 19-Brent Marks (462)
- 27H-Daryn Pittman (459)
- 49-Brad Sweet (458)
- 25-JJ Hickle (458)
- 1A-Jacob Allen (457)
- 11M-Parker Price-Miller (457)
- 39-Justin Sanders (456)
- 11X-Buddy Kofoid (453)
- 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips (451)
- 8-Aaron Reutzel (447)
- 18-Giovanni Scelzi (445)
- 1S-Logan Schuchart (444)
- 2K-Lynton Jeffrey (443)
- 26-Zeb Wise (442)
- 83-James McFadden (441)
- 13-Justin Peck (441)
- 14J-Cole Macedo (435)
- 2KS-Ian Madsen (434)
- 9-Kasey Kahne (431)
- 3TK-Tim Kaeding (431)