NASCAR driver delivers meals -- and talks wheels -- at Arlington homes

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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ARLINGTON -- Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County is always looking for volunteer drivers. On Tuesday, it got one from NASCAR -- in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 Chevrolet Camaro pace car, no less.

Rising star Austin Dillon, who was NASCAR's Rookie of the Year and finished third in points in the Nationwide Series last year, delivered meals, autographs and warm conversation to three homes in Arlington, including that of racing hall-of-famer Jim McElreath and his wife.

McElreath, 85, the 1962 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, talked shop with Dillon, 22, as they looked over the racing relics in his garage, including the Indy car that belonged to his late son, James.

"It's very cool," Dillon said afterward. "It's always special to meet a guy like that."

Meals on Wheels delivers about 4,740 meals a day to Tarrant County clients, some of them bedridden. About 4,000 volunteers make up the core of its driver base.

NASCAR staffers got the idea for Tuesday's event from a Star-Telegram report in February about McElreath's 85th birthday party, attended by racing pal Johnny Rutherford. Dillon, who lives in North Carolina, said he thought it would be a good way to promote the cause and connect with the community while he was in town.

At Dillon's other two stops, he met race fans Dick and Marian Atkins, whose living room TV was even tuned to a motorcycle race, and their son, Rick Atkins, a former amateur racer who was severely injured in a crash.

"Wow!" Marian Atkins exclaimed after she opened the front door. "What is all this?"

Inside, Dillon noticed an old pilot portrait of Dick Atkins, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who went on to a long career as an engineer at Vought.

"That's a cool picture," Dillon said.

Dick Atkins, naturally, steered the discussion toward racing. He told Dillon that he is a longtime fan of Jeff Gordon but wants to find an up-and-comer to follow as Gordon nears the end of his career.

"I think you're doing terrific," Dick Atkins said. "I took a look at your record."

Dillon, who will compete in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, was appreciative.

"Hopefully we'll win the Nationwide Series this year," he said. "That's what we're racing for. And next year move up to the Sprint Cup Series full time."

A few blocks away, Dillon visited Rick Atkins and traded more racing stories. Like his father, Rick Atkins said he had studied Dillon's stats.

"I'm glad you're driving that No. 3 car," Rick Atkins said.

"It's been fun running it," Dillon told him.

Rick Atkins, who has suffered from other health problems since being injured, said this meeting ranked up there with encounters with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I can't believe [you're] in my driveway," he said.

Meals on Wheels, Rick Atkins said, has been a blessing to him.

"They bring food for my dog. They bring food for me. They bring gifts at Christmastime," he said. "It's a great organization."

Patrick M. Walker,

682-232-4674

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