Army Ranger returns to NASCAR as gas man for Austin Dillon's team

WELCOME, N.C. — For much of five years, Tyler Rader was the gasman on Austin Dillon’s pit crew, celebrating an Xfinity championship with him in 2013 and a Daytona 500 victory in 2018.

But they were more than co-workers. They were close friends. Rader even lived with Dillon for three-plus years after joining Richard Childress Racing.

So when Rader asked Dillon to join him for lunch one day in 2018, Dillon had no idea what his friend was about tell him.

“I’m going to join the Army,” Rader said.

Rader left the team in 2019 and went on to serve as a fireteam leader in the 75th Ranger Regiment of the U.S. Army. He is back from active duty and has returned to be Dillon’s gasman. Last week’s Daytona 500 marked Rader’s first race on pit road in five years.

“His story is so special,” Dillon told NBC Sports. “Successful college athlete. Wins the Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl. Comes to NASCAR. … Wins the Daytona 500 and an Xfinity championship. Then goes on and becomes an Army Ranger for two years.

“It’s like, ‘Alright what’s next? You going to become an astronaut?’”

No. Rader is fine with being Dillon’s gasman again.

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But Rader nearly didn’t make it to NASCAR.

The offensive lineman for West Virginia University was not drafted by any NFL teams after his senior year. He looked to join the military but was told by a recruiter that he weighed too much at 300 pounds. While he pondered what to do next, his father found out about a combine for prospective NASCAR pit crew members and Rader — who came from a family of Dale Earnhardt fans — decided to try it.

Dillon was helping at the combine. He was stationed at a treadmill, which was turned off. The prospects got on it and ran as fast as they could for 30 seconds. Dillon had marked a line on the tread and stood by counting how many revolutions the tread made in the allotted time.

“We were trying to see who was in shape,” Dillon said. “Tyler stepped up there. At that point Tyler was a lot heavier. He was in football weight. I was like, ‘I wonder what this guy can do.’

“Even at a heavy weight, he killed everybody. He did like 36 revolutions in 30 seconds. Oh yeah, I remember it. It was the top of the list.”

Tyler Rader pit stop RCR photo.jpg
Tyler Rader pit stop RCR photo.jpg

Richard Childress Racing soon hired Rader. He was headed to a long career on pit road until one day a special forces member visited the team and told the pit crew members that they wouldn’t be able to handle the military training he had.

“It kind of lit a fire under my butt,” Rader told NBC Sports.

Rader jokes that this was his mid-life crisis — at age 29. He notes that if he was going to join the military it was either then or his opportunity would likely pass.

“I feel like everyone should serve in some capacity,” Rader said. “I just felt like I needed to answer that call.”

He informed the team that the 2018 season would be his final year with RCR. He stayed on to pit Tyler Reddick’s car in the 2019 Daytona 500 before joining the military.

While in the Rangers, he led a four-man team. He served one rotation in the Middle East and said he never got into any firefights.

“I’m not saying (being on a pit crew) isn’t a cool job,” Rader said. “But serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment to me was like the highlight of my life. What the U.S. government entrusts in the 75th Ranger Regiment and to be a part of that and to lead men into that, there’s no better feeling.”

He uses that training each day and follows the Ranger Creed, which includes a passage that states: “Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.”

Rader said the Ranger Creed “rewired me. I will live this even when I’m out of the Ranger regiment. I wake up, and I try to live those standards and those qualities and that creed every day.”

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He carries a copy of the Ranger Creed in his wallet.

“It’s a part of who I am,” he said.

So, why did he leave? Rader admits the Ranger Regiment “is a young man’s game” and at age 34, it was more challenging to maintain his physical level compared to younger soldiers.

As he considered what to do beyond his service, he looked at returning to Richard Childress Racing and pit road. While, pit crews have become more athletic, there is still room for those in the mid-30s and beyond, especially at the gas man position.

He asked the team if he could return and compete for a job.

“They opened their arms and brought me back, which was a 100% gamble on their side,” Rader said.

He showed that he could still gas a car efficiently. The gas man has become more important since Rader left the sport. With the single lug nut on wheels, tire changes can complete their work before a fueler can fill the car’s fuel cell. So pit stops now wait on the fueler. If a fueler doesn’t plug his can into the car properly, then it extends the pit stop and costs the team positions on the track.

That he’s back with Dillon and the No. 3 car makes this even more special.

“I don’t know if I would have came back if I wasn’t on the 3 car,” Rader said.

Because no other team was like the No. 3 team for Rader.

“I just wanted to come back to ... family,” he said.