Sometimes things happen that remind us all that no matter how passionate we are about racing (or anything else), it’s really just a diversion from life. And life was especially hard this week for so many people that racing and other diversions seem almost trifling in comparison. And on one level, they are.
As the death toll from the worst tornado outbreak the South has seen in nearly 40 years rose to nearly 300 and climbing, we’re reminded that some people lost everything they had and more.
As a young driver spends Friday in a hospital bed instead of in his racecar, we’re reminded of the fragility of each and every one of us.
And suddenly the racing doesn’t matter very much. Or does it?
There are races at Richmond International Raceway tonight and Saturday night. There were races last night, too. On one level, they seem suddenly silly. On the other hand, they mean so much more.
While life happens, sometimes cruelly, racers-drivers, team owners, crewmen, tracks, and fans-racers have something beyond the laps on track, beyond the cars and the prize money and the glamor: they have each other. The NASCAR community is a strong one, tight-knit through the singular passion for racing. And that community has always pulled together in times of need.
One of Thursday night’s races was hosted by the Denny Hamlin Foundation to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and camps and hospitals for children with the illness. 10% will go to help the tornado victims. Hamlin is just one of many drivers whose charitable efforts help children, families, schools and even animals who need a helping hand for one reason or another. It’s not just about the money, though plenty is raised for worthy causes. It’s about people feeling that these athletes really care about them, about others. For everyone who helps a driver’s cause with money or time, it’s about feeling like a part of something more. It’s a reminder that no matter who you are or where you come from, there’s always someone who needs your help. And the NASCAR community helps.
Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, one of the hardest-hit states in the tornado outbreak, was one of the first to think of a way to help. Anybody who makes a donation of $50 to the Red Cross at the track next week will be allowed to drive his or her personal car around the high banks. That’s not to say that the track needs to entice people to donate-I hope that’s not the case-but rather because they found a way to say “thank you” and to help people find something special in the center of the tragedy.
It’s not just about donating. When Eric McClure takes the green flag in tonight’s Nationwide Series race, he’ll be doing so with a lot more than the prize money on his mind; McClure, his wife, and their three children lost their home in the tornadoes overnight Wednesday into Thursday. Nobody would blame McClure for not racing; some probably wonder why he will. But for McClure, the decision wasn’t difficult-racing offers a solace from the other choice-looking at the damage and wishing it had never happened. It’s about being there, being a part of something normal, thinking about something else for a little while. The NASCAR community will give him that.
It’s not always about taking part. Trevor Bayne won’t take the green at all tonight. Instead, the 20-year-old Daytona 500 champion will watch the race on television, sidelined by a mysterious ailment which doctors haven’t yet pinned down. It has to be terrifying to be ill and to not know the cause. It has to be even more terrifying to consider some of the possibilities. Bayne’s team will race tonight with Chris Buescher behind the wheel, and perhaps racing instead of packing it in will help the crew keep their mind off the fear they must share. Perhaps seeing his car will give Bayne something to hope for; the power of positive thinking is strong.
That resilience, that pulling together, is why racing goes on in the face of dark tragedy. It’s why Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated took to the track-and won-the week after Earnhardt’s death. It was Earnhardt’s dream, and he lived on through it. It’s why the Petty family built Victory Junction Camp in the wake of Adam Petty’s death. It was Adam’s dream, and he lives on through it. It’s why so many drivers have donated to the camp-Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kurt Busch among them. They know how fragile life is; they see that on the racetrack, live through the losses. So they give what they can-life is too precious not to.
And none of that is really about the racing, and yet it has everything to do with racing, too. Not only does racing bring entertainment-perhaps a tornado victim or a sick child can watch a race from a hotel room or a hospital bed and forget about that for a few laps-it brings a sense of community, of belonging. It connects drivers and fans with a common purpose-and that purpose helps many people, in many ways. At a time when racing should be secondary, in some ways, because of the community it has created, to some people, it’s everything.
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