Across the storied history of NASCAR, very few have been tasked with pacing the field around the track just before the green flag waves for the start of the race. For NASCAR official and Senior Director of Transportation Robert “Buster” Auton, it means a lifetime of relationships built and memories while driving the pace car through over several decades of motorsports history.
A native of Conover, N.C. in the Charlotte area, Auton and his family have deep roots in the sport of automobile racing. Auton’s father Robert “Hoot” Auton worked as a NASCAR official himself for over 37 years, and Buster’s brother Wayne currently serves as Managing Director of the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Undoubtedly a family affair, motorsports is built, Auton says, not by the racing on track but by the relationships you make along the way.
“I can get up every morning and say I love what I do,” he says. “It’s about the camaraderie with the people you meet – they’re family more than anything.”
Now a Senior Director with the company, Auton has travelled to nearly every major NASCAR event in an official role for over four decades.
Many NASCAR races host big-name celebrities and stars from other sports – anyone from Tom Cruise to Peyton Manning – as honorary pace car drivers during pre-race festivities, many of whom actually drive around the track as they lead the field. But before being allowed behind the wheel for a race, they must complete mandatory safety training.
Who sits shotgun as they go around the track? You guessed it: Buster.
Five-time NFL MVP and honorary pace car driver Peyton Manning gets instruction from Auton during pace car training before the 2018 DAYTONA 500.
“I’ve been able to interact with a lot of people, talk to all kinds of people, and get to see a lot of the country,” he says.
Before working for NASCAR, Auton served in the United States Army from 1971-1973. When he returned to North Carolina, he began as a part-time NASCAR inspector in some of the lower racing series and worked his way up from there.
Growing up in a racing hub like North Carolina, Auton came up through the industry ranks with a few other notable racing legends.
“Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Sr., (I) came up through the ranks with those guys, so I knew a lot of them that way,” Auton recalls.
In those days, it was not uncommon for the race leaders to press closely to the pace car while going around on caution laps, sometimes even nudging the car in jest.
In the moments leading up to the 1997 DAYTONA 500 – the first in which Auton paced the field – Earnhardt Sr. had a few words for his contemporary.
“He came up to me as we were getting ready for the race and he tells me, ‘You’re the same age as me, I’m going to wreck you one of these days,’” Auton says. “They used to bump us pretty good.”
Of course, the quips were all in good fun.
“I remember that day as we were going around for the parade lap, I had Bill France Jr. in the car with me,” Auton says of the race in 1997. “Then he gets out and says, ‘It’s all yours.’”
Just as the millions of race fans that have entered the hallowed grounds of DAYTONA over the years, Auton is just as in awe of the place now as he was from the very beginning.
“It’s the Super Bowl of NASCAR, it really is,” he says. “It’s a fascinating place, it’s so big you don’t even realize it until you’re there. It’s a joy to be there.”
Auton paced the field for the first time at DAYTONA for the 1997 DAYTONA 500, won by Jeff Gordon.
Anyone who has ever attended a race might tell you that there is no feeling like the anticipation of the field coming around, the pace car dropping off to pit road, and the pack roaring through the turn and across the start/finish line.
“Coming off of Turn 3 when you turn them loose,” Auton says. “Now that’s a good feeling!”
When it comes to interacting with the motorsports family, there’s nothing like the energy of the garages on race day. As strong as the competition can get, the brotherhood between drivers, teams, and the racing community is second to none.
Last year at Dover, driver Jimmie Johnson decided to play a joke on Martin Truex, Jr. by filling up his hauler with children’s bicycles, to be auctioned off later to charity. But in order to pull off the prank, Johnson had to request special permission from NASCAR officials to enter the garage after hours.
Auton joined in on the fun, allowing Johnson into the garage, where he wheeled in the bicycles by hand and loaded them himself onto the hauler.
“That’s the kind of stuff that makes this sport so great,” Auton says.
Auton and 2016 DAYTONA 500 honorary pace car driver, WWE star John Cena.
With over 45 years of firsthand experience in world of motorsports, Auton has seen the evolution of the industry all the way from local short tracks to the commercial success of the modern era.
“Technology is so good now, and NASCAR has kept up with it,” he says. “You’ve got to keep up with the Joneses to keep the fans coming back, and they’ve done that.”
When reflecting on the many years of service, Auton has nothing but gratitude for the time spent on the road and at the track, travelling across the world, being given the opportunity to be so close to the sport that his family has worked in for generations.
“When you get to get up and say, ‘I’m doing what I love to do,’ ” he says. “That’s a neat deal to get to do.”
“I don’t want to retire,” he adds with a laugh.
Over the years, Auton has no doubt touched the lives of many, not only those that have been given the chance to ride around the high banks of DAYTONA but the countless fans who have watched the officials in action week after week.
“It still excites me to this day, it’s a thrill to be able to do this, and that’s what I keep telling people.”