I bid you welcome gentle readers, and wish you the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous time of your lives in the New Year just begun. Every year at this time, we, the race fans, begin looking forward to the roar of engines once again. Daytona can’t be that far away! It is, however, a week farther away than it used to be. Remember the times when the NFL recognized that the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day belonged to NASCAR, and that Sunday was the day we ran the Daytona 500? They scheduled what I like to call their version of the Daytona 500 around us! NASCAR was respected and revered as one of the premiere sports in the United States of America.
So when did all that end? I guess it was about the time that Brian France heard an unfounded and untrue rumor that the NFL “might” go to an 18-game schedule, and did something neither his dad nor granddad would ever have done… moved the Daytona 500 off an extra week. Of course, the NFL still runs a 16-week schedule and can barely field enough players able to walk, and many of those are limping, by the end of it. Did we ever move our premiere race back to its original time slot? Oh no… that would make it appear that someone in Daytona Beach made a huge boo-boo and that is never admitted, even when as evident as the weather outside your window. This year, once the IMSA Tudor United Sports Car Championship (We used to know that as the Grand-Am series) is done running for 24 hours on the Daytona road course on January 24 and 25, the following weekend will boast not an auto race, but the NFL game that we’re not allowed to mention by name because they hold a copyright to the name of the game. I call it the Stupor Bowl, and this year it’s found a home smack in the middle of Speedweeks at Daytona. Really Brian? Really?
Eventually though, we will get to Daytona, with the Sprint Unlimited being run on Valentine’s Day… featuring yet another major change in eligibility that allows almost anyone that fits behind a steering wheel to be part of it. The ARCA race will precede it on that day, and the following day the Cup cars will qualify for the Daytona 500. Well, to be precise, two of them will. The rest will be subjected, as always, to the Twin Demolition Derbies the following Thursday. Various and sundry practice sessions will run throughout both weeks, and finally, on February 22, a full field of snarling, growling, nasty tempered V-8 engines will roar to life and take to the track for the 57th running of The Great American Race… the Daytona 500! For us… the race fans… that is when our New Year officially begins.
But, you know what, gentle readers? Try as we might, and wish as we might, not every New Year winds up as happy as it starts out on that magical day in Daytona Beach. Back in 1957, I was only 19 years old, and I recall that for the most part it was a very good year… as most are when we’re 19. Come fall though, the Southern 500 on Labor Day in Darlington claimed the life of Bobby Myers, and what had been a good year ceased to be fun as a pall fell over the racing community. It had been only 2 years before that I saw my first Grand National race, and though Bobby Myers hadn’t made the Northern Swing that year, his death was the first that would impact me by bringing home the knowledge that the men inside the cars were human; they live, breathe, and have families that expect each of them to return home after every race. Sometimes, they don’t make it.
When 1964 was introduced to Planet Earth, it was a very good year. It would be the year Don and I bought our first home, and lived in it for 30 years. Still, for the racing world, it was a year we’d all rather forget. January 19 of 1964, Little Joe Weatherly, 1962 and 1963 Grand National Champion, lost his life in the race at the Riverside California road course. May 24 brought us the World 600 at Charlotte, and a fiery crash that would, 40 days of unbearable pain later, claim the life of Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. Just six days later, on Memorial Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fireball’s best friend, Dave MacDonald, a young and coming Sports Car driver, lost his life along with veteran driver, Eddie Sachs. The year was only 5 months old. Four months down the road, on September 22, Jimmy Pardue was running tire tests at Charlotte, when a tire blew. His Plymouth hit the guardrail and burst through it, literally sailing down the embankment, through a chain-link fence, and finally coming to rest near the entrance of the tunnel leading to the infield. Jimmy lived only 3 hours before succumbing to head injuries sustained in the wreck. All in all, 1964 was anything but a “happy” year, new or old.
There have been so many deaths in racing over so many years, it’s hard to single out only a few, but your scribe has no eye toward creating a War and Peace sized volume. One of the ugliest in memory had to be when young Don MacTavish hit an oil slick only 8 laps into the Permatex 300 Sportsman race at Daytona in 1969. (That would be called the Xfinity series this year). MacTavish hit a gate in the wall at about 185 miles per hour, bounced off amidst a wild shower of car parts as his Comet disintegrated, and was struck head on by a car driven by Sam Sommers. Those close to the wreck said that about the only thing left for Sommers to hit was MacTavish himself. Sommers was uninjured in the crash. There is video of this available, but it would make most folks sick, so it won’t be shown here. (Author’s judgment call)
In more recent years, the names will become more familiar to most that read here. When we wished each other a Happy New Year in 1989, how many of us foresaw the death of Tim Richmond, huddled away in isolation in a Florida retreat after being stricken with a strange disease that few understood at the time? In 1991, this race fan was fortunate enough to meet J.D. McDuffie when he pulled Old Blue into the parking lot of our motel in Florence after the Darlington spring race. That year became terribly sad when J.D. was killed in a horrific crash a few short months later at Watkins Glen. Then in 1992, word came that Clifford Allison, youngest son of Bobby and Judy Allison, had been killed in a practice crash at Michigan International Speedway.
Heaven knows, we all thought that 1993 would be a most Happy New Year, with the first true Independent racer as reigning Winston Cup Champ in the person of Alan Kulwicki. We thought so until the approach of the Bristol race that spring, when a plane crash at the Bristol airfield claimed that Champion and four others aboard the private plane. Can it get any sadder than losing a reigning Champion? It was April 1, known as April Fool’s Day, but I assure you, no one was laughing. Three months later, in that same unhappy year, young Davey Allison, sure to be a star in the sport, flew his helicopter into a pole at the Talladega Superspeedway and died the following day from massive head injuries. That crash was on my birthday.
next year never even got off the ground as far as racing was concerned, when
Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr were taken from us in practice sessions, three days
apart, before the Daytona 500 was even run. Though both were running them,
Hoosier Tires were never “proven” to be the cause in either death. On May 1,
1994, came a death that saddened the entire world, when F1 superstar Ayrton Senna lost his life during
the Italian Grand Prix in San Marino.
Most of you reading today can recall 2000, and the multiple times that year proved to be an unhappy one. Heir to the Petty throne, young Adam Petty was killed in practice at the seemingly harmless New Hampshire International Speedway. Eight weeks later, in an eerie repeat, Kenny Irwin was killed in an almost identical practice crash at the same track. Truck driver and part-time Busch driver Tony Roper was taken from us in a separate accident at Texas Motor Speedway.
Then on February 18, as 2001 was just getting underway, on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and in the final turn, Dale Earnhardt was abruptly gone from racing, from family, friends and fans alike. If Senna’s death had saddened the world, Earnhardt’s rocked it almost off its axis. Even those that loved to hate him when living, loved him like the rest once he was gone. It was hard to conceive that someone so vibrant and alive, someone as tough as nails and sharp as a tack… someone so loved and admired by so many, could really be gone, and his departure left an echo reverberating throughout racing that is heard to this day.
Yes gentle readers, that was almost 14 years ago, and the death of Dale Earnhardt proved to be the catalyst that got several respective fannies off their chairs in a certain well known Beach town and got them in motion, making moves toward safety that were long overdue. Long overdue!
Now, all these years later, most are complacent in thinking there have been no racing deaths since we lost Dale… but you’re as wrong as wrong can be. There are facts about racing that we seldom hear because they are seldom spoken of or written about. Just a short while before this piece was started, I read an article from last August… one of thousands inspired by the on-track death of Kevin Ward at Canandaigua Speedway. Within was quoted a number which I had known to be growing over the last several years, but have not written about before now. It said that in the last 25 years… that would be going back through 1990… there have been 512 on-track deaths in auto racing in this country. 512! That is 512 families that are no longer complete. Each is missing a father, brother, son, sister, daughter or even a child, as I know for a fact at least some of those no longer with us were far too young to vote, and some even too young to drive on our streets.
The cold fact is that yes, the big tracks… the tracks that NASCAR and I believe it’s safe to say IndyCar as well, race on… have SAFER barriers, mandate the use of head and neck restraints (HANS) and those major series have made upgrades in safety to the cars themselves, including mandated tethered parts that will not be free to enter a grandstand, contoured safety seats that keep a driver securely in position, 7-point harnesses to hold that driver as tightly as possible, and many others that neither you nor I probably understand. These things have been afforded to all that can afford them. Aye, there’s the rub…
Like all else in racing, it’s all about the money. The small tracks of America and Canada cannot possibly afford the cost of SAFER barriers. Most do not mandate any safety equipment. As the old folks say, “You run what you brung”, and hope for the best. Most of the deaths included in that figure occurred on short tracks or small drag strips across the continent. This scribe has been jumped on many times for saying that racing is not safe. It is, in fact an inherently dangerous sport that can and sometimes does end in death. No amount of saying that NASCAR hasn’t had a death in 14 years can erase the fact that 512 folks, racers just like you and me, have lost their lives while racing a motor vehicle over the past 25 years. Just think about that, gentle readers. Just keep it in mind as Daytona draws closer. Keep it in mind the next time you wish someone “Happy New Year.” I can guarantee that won’t be the case for someone, or many someones.
It’s time now for our Classic Country Closeout. We haven’t had any requests for a while here. How about it? Surely there are old songs you loved in your youth. Ask and ye shall receive! Since it is a brand new year, I’m reminded that one of Country Music’s very best passed away on New Year’s Day in 1953. That of course, was the late, great Hank Williams, gone now for 62 long years, yet still so well known and loved wherever Country fans gather. In his honor, let’s hear today some excerpts from one of his old radio shows, The Health and Happiness Show, featuring Hank and his Drifting Cowboys. Please enjoy:
There are three more of these, but Jim gets testy with me if I play too much music… don’t ya Darlin’? (Jim says: "It's not me...it's the web team!") Let me know if you like ‘em and I’ll play the rest next time around. They’re taking me all the way back to being a freshman in high school.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!