At 11 years old, Junior Late Model driver Austin “First Place Ace” Edwards has already been racing more than half his life. This year, he became one of the members of one of the strongest movements in all of racing, the LoanMart Madera Speedway Junior Late Models (JRLM). This weekend, I was invited to be part of his team, watching him place third in his 50-lap JRLM main event.
Austin comes from a family line of race car drivers. Grandfather Cal, father Tony, and now Austin all have a history of winning in race car #18, a number that originated as grandfather Cal’s assigned number in his first race in the 1960’s. Austin started his racing career like many of today’s superstars: in go-karts, and at the age of 5. Coached by dad, Austin was given a competitive foundation early on. He was taught racing fundamentals like driving lines, strategies, and handling characteristics. Since then, he has raced INEX Bandoleros, Southwest Tour trucks, and mini stocks. He has already accomplished a track championship and a California state title in the INEX division. Austin is now part of the inaugural class of the JRLM. These young stars, aged 10-16, pilot identical stock cars as their adult counterparts, but for two differences: a 6,000RPM rev limiter and a restrictor plate under the 4-barrel carburetor. They’re still using the same 500+ horsepower, fire breathing small-block V8 engines, and their lap times are only fractions of a second off of the adult fastest qualifiers.
The JRLM series was designed to discover tomorrow’s superstars and give them a pathway to Cup racing. These kids are on course to become household names and on television sets across the country. Madera Speedway track promotor Kenny Shepherd has been planning this class of young racers for a decade. Overcoming understandable resistance to the concept of putting young drivers in high horsepower, full-sized racers, the JRLM has proven not only to be viable, but to be hugely successful. It is the fastest growing race class in the area, gaining national attention, and national television time. Austin Edwards’ and fellow competitor’s names have been conversations at the very top levels of NASCAR, and plans are being drafted for expansion and a structured escalation path to Cup racing.
Austin has lofty career goals and is on the hunt for corporate sponsors ready to enter the professional motorsports arena. He has the talent to make a career out of racing, and is building a support network to help get him there. His mom, Heidi Edwards, often refers to this support as their “village.” Austin is genuine and humble. His work ethic and sincerity are attractive, and a key reason his village continues to grow. At the track, Austin can be found working alongside his crew as they prep the car. He’ll jack the car up on stands. He’ll fill the ice chest with drinks. He’ll unload equipment out of the trailer. Eventually, he’ll finally change into his driver suit and climb into the car. Off the track, he’s already been taught to maintain a premium level race program. The car is always spotless inside, outside, and even underneath. The trailer is always organized. Organization and efficiency are the expectation. Hard work and sweat are part of his job.
Austin has another passion, animal rescue. Austin donates much of his free time, and a portion of every sponsorship back to YAPS (Yucaipa Valley Animal Placement Society), a no kill shelter with furry friends looking for forever homes. Austin has made several speaking engagements and fund raisers for YAPS and at the time of this writing, has raised more than $10,000 for their cause. Austin also donates his time to local schools and “Career Day” events, speaking to his peers about what it means to be a race car driver.
Austin will enter middle school this month. He has a natural inclination for math and maintains great grades, even with all his extra curricular activity. Austin started piano lessons at the age of 8 and recently performed his first solo at church, Foothill Bible Church in Calimesa, California.
As a driver, Austin is a very calculated. He’s a thinker and a precision driver. During this weekend’s main event, Austin raced three wide for several laps with the #12 of Kyle Keller and the #88 of Kolby Berry. This battle was also a testimony to his patience. Never frustrated, Austin capitalized on his opponents’ mistakes and worked past them both, finishing third after his sixth position start. Austin admits to being focused more on the long race than the short battle. In practice sessions, Race-Monitor showed him as having the second fastest lap times of the afternoon. When I asked him about his 6th place qualifying effort, he explained “I’m still learning how to be faster in qualifying. I do better in the race because I get into a groove. My head clears and I’m in a different place.” It was surreal listening to such a young driver talking to his crew chief, contrasting the car’s handling characteristic on corner entry versus exit. I don’t know many 11-year-olds who ask for cross weight adjustments or even know what brake bias does.
Earlier this year, Austin took first place in Round 2 of the JRLM season, a race that was televised to more than one million viewers. This weekend, he came into Round 5 looking to climb the season standings leaderboard. This weekend’s 50 lap main event would be a podium finish for him, claiming P3, and putting him in fourth place overall with only three more races this season. The final three races for Austin and the Junior Late Models will happen on August 27, September 24, and October 8, all at LoanMart Madera Speedway in central California.