NASCAR fans troop in from all over to watch races. NASCAR drivers strive for the same level of dedication while following their local NFL team, such as the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers.
Consider Austin (left in photo above) and Ty Dillon (right), brothers who, like many in the NASCAR, call Charlotte, NC, their home. As kids growing up in the area, Austin (25) and Ty (23) went to games with their grandfather, team owner Richard Childress—who, incidentally, they drive for now. “We’ve definitely been fans since they started,” says Ty, who was three when the expansion Panthers made their NFL debut in 1995. “That’s all we’ve really known.”
The Dillons’ racing jobs pay well enough to afford PSL seats at Bank of America Stadium. But, with a weekend work schedule, getting to homestands can be challenging with Ty racing on Saturdays in the Xfinity Series and Austin running on Sundays in Sprint Cup. So they aim for weeknight games. “We need as many as we can get,” says Austin.
Austin’s obsessive Panthers fandom brings out the contrarian in Tyler Rader, an ex-West Virginia offensive guard (he blocked for quarterback Geno Smith in the Fiesta and Orange bowls) who lives with him and pumps the gas for his No. 3 Chevy. “He bought a ticket to a Panthers-Cardinals game and wore red!” Austin says.
At least he didn’t marry into a Seahawks family like Ty—whose wife, Haley, is the daughter of a former 12s cheerleader. The NFC Championship Game, which his in-laws flew in for, made for a bit of an awkward afternoon. “It’s been pretty tricky the last couple years when they play each other,” Ty says. “But usually one of our teams is going pretty far.”
Now it’s the Dillon boys’ turn to cheer on their team in the big game. Their plan is to be at Levi Stadium, clad in blue and black in support of a group of players they now call friends—like cornerback Josh Norman and tailback Fozzy Whittaker. The Dillons expect the Panthers to turn the game into another rollicking, meekly controversial good time. “It’s funny that people just want you to go about your job,” Austin says, about the demonstrative antics by Carolina stars such as quarterback Cam Newton that have come under fire. “But I love that they dance, that they have fun, that they play so freely. It’s great.”