In racing, we often talk about the cost of the sport. After all, racing is expensive, and to be competitive at the top levels takes millions of dollars. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots seems a mile wide, and the smaller, poorer teams never seem to be able to catch up to the big powerhouses, to the dismay of many fans. Sanctioning bodies bat around cost-cutting measures that never really seem to cut costs to the teams that need them the most, and the playing field gets less and less level. Yes, racing costs a lot.
And it isn’t just money. It’s people.
We were reminded of the real cost of the sport on Wednesday night of this week with the death of NASCAR driver Jason Leffler in a sprint car race in New Jersey. Fans in attendance reported hearing a noise from Leffler’s car before the crash, as if a part had broken on the car. The exact causes of the crash and of Leffler’s death remain unknown, but they don’t really matter, because a driver is gone. A son, father, and friend is gone.
Nobody likes to think of the human cost of racing. It’s expensive and it doesn’t matter how well-off or how poor a race team is, death treats both equally on the race track. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fellow driver, team member, media member, or fan, all are affected when a driver is lost to the sport he or she loves. None of those who knew the victim will ever be the same, will ever view the sport in the same way. It’s just not possible.
You don’t hear about most of the drivers who pay for their sport with their lives, because most of them weren’t among the sport’s elite and their deaths were relegated to the local news or the obituary section of the local paper. But according to the Charlotte Observer nearly 400 drivers have paid the highest of costs in the last two decades. Nearly 400 families are left to grieve, to wonder why, to wonder how similar tragedies can be prevented in the future.
The first racing death that I really remember was Adam Petty’s fatal accident at New Hampshire in 2000. Petty, the last hope to move Petty Enterprises into the 21st Century, was killed in a practice crash when the throttle on his then-Busch Series car hung open and he couldn’t make the entry to Turn 3 at the track. Petty was just 19 years old. He had a smile of a world beater and the charm that had sent his family to popularity among the fans. And he was gone. I remember sitting in the stands for the race the next day, and what had been forecast as a beautiful, warm early spring day was instead cold and damp, fitting the mood of the fans in attendance and even more of the teams and drivers in the garage.
When tragedy strikes the racing community, something extraordinary happens: differences are set aside and everyone from drivers and crews to fans, grieves as one. Rivalries and favorites no longer seem to matter, at least for a little while. Everyone remembers together, cries together, heals together. That’s a side of the sport both terrible and beautiful. It’s also a side that we don’t like to have to see.
I was at Loudon just two months after Petty’s fatal crash, and when Kenny Irwin crashed in the same corner, from the same cause, there was only stunned disbelief. Nobody wanted to believe the worst, but the blue tarp that quickly covered the car and the life flight helicopter that was quickly fired up only to be just as suddenly shut down told everyone in attendance that this wasn’t going to end much differently. And it didn’t. The still-raw wound from May was opened again, and the process started over. It never really healed over the next months as we could only watch, stunned as Tony Roper, Dale Earnhardt, and Blaise Alexander were all lost before the following season was out. It was just too much, too many, too fast. The memory of Greg Moore, killed in an open-wheel crash in 1999, was still strong as well. Just three years later, tragedy again struck when a Hendrick Motorsports airplane, headed to a race in Martinsville, crashed in the fog and ten people were lost. The sport was sent reeling again.
Yet racers are resilient. They found solace in racing and the sport ground on, with the occasional news of a driver’s death dampening the spirits. There was a lull in the big-news tragedies until Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011. But we always knew the risk was still there. No barrier on a track or attachment to a helmet can ever guarantee that every driver will walk away. (Though it strikes me that so much more could be done to prevent fatalities, especially on America’s short tracks, where SAFER barriers rarely are seen. Why is there no program to help them afford the technology? Racers have charities for children and veterans, but not to help local tracks and local racers. Are those causes not trendy enough?)
In a way, tragedy brings out the best in people. The outpouring of thoughts and prayers from complete strangers must be of great comfort to a grieving family. Drivers with a less-than-sterling reputation often show their true colors. Stories are told that might not otherwise have been heard by most people. Nothing makes a loss hurt less, but there is comfort and healing in the banding together among fans and rivals. It doesn’t matter who you root for when a racer is lost, because that loss affects everyone.
A few drivers show a side fans don’t know. Brian Vickers won the Nationwide (then Busch) Series title with an extra piece of inspiration in his car: Adam Petty’s hat. Petty and Vickers were childhood friends and the hat became a good luck charm for Vickers, who lost a second close friend in that 2004 plane crash. Ricky Hendrick was Vickers’ friend and spotter, and he had been planning to take Vickers out after the race to celebrate Vickers’ 21st birthday, which was that same day. The celebration never came.
Jimmie Johnson has a small decal on the front bumper of his race cars in the shape of a flame with the initials “BR” (for Blaise Alexander) and the tail number of the Hendrick plane inside of it (before the crash, the decal simply said, “Blaise”). It’s there every race, has been for every title. Johnson and Alexander were close friends, and Alexander’s fatal crash came just hours after Johnson qualified for his first career Sprint Cup race. The remembrance has always been there. It’s placed on the front bumper and not the door post so that Alexander, a fierce rival as well as a close friend, crosses the finish line first, every race. That side of Johnson isn’t one that’s often seen, but it’s there, on his sleeve, for anyone who looks hard enough.
The list goes on. But for other drivers, the greatest tribute to a fallen rival and friend is simply to do what they know deep down that person would have wanted: they race on. So do the crew members, the media, and the fans. They race on because it heals better than anything else they could do, because it honors the driver who’s no longer among them. It’s not callous, it’s necessary and, in the end, it’s right.
The cost of racing isn’t always paid in dollars. Sometimes, despite the best efforts to stop it from happening, the sport takes a life in payment for some unknown debt. To love the sport deeply and intimately is to acknowledge, and on some level, accept that the risk is there that someone won’t get out of the car at the end of the race and go home to his family. Tragedy can bring out the best in the motorsports family, even as they try to comprehend the very worst. It’s a part of the sport, and one we shouldn’t—can’t—forget exists. We race on, because if we didn’t, the cost would all be for nothing. And that would be a tragedy as well.
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