History is many things – interesting, amusing, informative. It can also be tragic. Time, the mechanism through which history is made, can be a healer in its quest to make bad memories fade… but it can also serve as a cruel reminder of events not easily remembered. It’s that dark side of history that can make moments personal on so many levels, long after they first reached your head and touched your heart.
I can’t believe it’s been five years this week. That’s where it’s personal for me – I cannot believe that five years have passed since the fall of 2001, since the day that I heard the news,
I was in my car, on the way to a teacher’s conference and then to the airport for my first trip to Charlotte for a race. The racing world was still reeling from the death of Dale Earnhardt some eight months before, and the whole world was reeling from the events of September 11th. I even remember where I was on I-93, just south of Exit 23, when the news came of the death of another young, promising racecar driver.
Blaise Alexander, just 25 years old, passed away on Oct. 4th, 2001, after injuries sustained in an accident in that night’s ARCA EasyCare 100. Good friend Kerry Earnhardt was racing the young man hard for the win with three laps to go when his car touched Alexander’s No. 75, sending it into the retaining wall beyond turn 4 even as Earnhardt’s car was sliding on its roof toward the tri-oval. That slam into the concrete was all it took – in the blink of an eye, racing lost an up-and-coming star, and the sport lost another shred of innocence that had not been taken by the other losses – Adam, Kenny, Tony, Dale – that were still fresh in our minds.
A young man on the verge of a long career in NASCAR, the keyword for Alexander’s racing career was promise. In 68 ARCA races, he posted 38 top-10 finishes – that’s a rate of more than 50% of his starts. He also raced on and off for several seasons in NASCAR’s Busch and Craftsman Truck Series, posting a handful of top-10 finishes in underfunded equipment. A hard-nosed, aggressive racer, Alexander had a style befitting his mentor, Jimmy Spencer; but he was also a driven, hard-working racer, befitting his hero, Mark Martin. With plenty of raw talent, Alexander’s biggest asset may have been the way he carried himself off the track. He had the type of personality that made people take notice, made strangers want to be his friend. He had so much to give… yet all it took was one tragic accident, and the shining light of Alexander was quickly snuffed out.
I’m likely not the only one who remembers hearing the terrible news in too much detail. Alexander’s family was with him at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and had the horrifying experience of watching tragedy unfold before them. Mentor Spencer, forever partial to the fellow Pennsylvanian he hoped to bring to the top, never did erase the note Alexander left on his dry-erase board that Monday before he died. Back on that tragic day, close friend Jimmie Johnson had just experienced the joy of qualifying for his first Winston Cup race; now, he was left reeling, never able to share his happiness of running in his first Cup event with a man whose mere presence was enough to make all those around him happy.
Ironically, before the Alexander tragedy Johnson and Spencer had both recently noted the lack of safety on the ARCA cars in comparison to the equipment that NASCAR had recently mandated in the wake of Earnhardt’s death. ARCA had quickly sprung to action themselves, requiring a neck collar designed to support the head; ironically, it was a device which prohibited the use of a HANS device. Unfortunately, that device could not prevent the tragedy for Blaine that night; no one will ever know if the HANS would have made a difference. After the accident, ARCA moved to make the HANS mandatory for all drivers, but that was small consolation in the face of another life lost on the track; the accident, like so many before it, left friends and family reeling and media and officials asking the right questions much too late.
At first glance, Alexander didn’t have time to leave the legacy in NASCAR as Earnhardt or some of the other young drivers racing lost in that tragic span. But he left a lasting impression on those who knew him, on Earnhardt and Spencer and Martin and Casey Mears. In fact, in one small way Alexander crosses the finish line in every NASCAR Nextel Cup race. If you look close enough, just under the left headlight decal on the No. 48 Lowe’s Monte Carlo, there is a small black flame decal that bears just one word: Blaise.
“It means a lot to me that Blaise has a presence on the front of my car,” Johnson said a year or so after the crash. “That way, every time I cross the finish line, he’ll always finish ahead of me.”
So, the memory of Blaise Alexander works hard to continue to stay alive in its own way, for history will always demand that we remember the sport’s greatest drivers, tracks, and events; we have to tell the stories of who and what was. But sometimes, history also reminds us of what went so terribly wrong. Five years ago, the potential of what was to come simply became the tragedy of what might have been.
It isn’t kind… but That’s History.