The Card Is Dealt Matt Mclaughlin


The 2002 NASCAR season has often been fraught with controversy, but until Wednesday afternoon we had been spared any fatalities. Tragically that streak came to an end during an ARCA series practice at Charlotte when series rookie Eric Martin lost his life on the track.

It’s an unsettling fact of life that Death is always at the racetrack. Safety innovations over the decades have banished Death the cheap seats rather than setting him center-ring as in darks years gone by. Most newer fans simply would not be able to comprehend the brutality of the 1964 season. Until 2000 most of those newer fans had never seen Death do his handiwork at the racetrack and knew of him only be report. They’d see fuzzy old black and white photos of guys with names like “Fireball”, “Tiny” and “Little Joe.” But after a long hiatus Death took center stage again Mother’s Day weekend in New Hampshire, with a brutal sense of irony at the same track just over a month later, at Texas during a truck race that fall, and on that indescribably horrid date of February 18th, 2001. Most of us were still shell-shocked and caught off guard when Blaise Alexander died in the race ending ARCA series race at Charlotte last fall. Alexander’s death finally tipped the scale to the point where NASCAR mandated head restraints for all drivers in their top three series. More recently Sterling Marlin’s brush with mortality and paralysis opened anew the debate of the effectiveness of the HANS device versus the Hutchens device. But Eric Martin was wearing a HANS device when he was killed.

In the absence of solid information rumor flourishes. It’s natural after any tragedy that people want to place blame. The sad fact is placing blame doesn’t bring the deceased back. Analyzing what went wrong and taking steps to prevent it from happening again eliminates needless tragedies. Some people have said the track was oiled down causing Martin to crash, a second car to spin and a third to broadside Martin’s stricken car eighteen seconds after it came to rest following the initial impact. Others have said the striking driver’s spotter must not have been paying attention, or that there was a blind spot where he couldn’t see the track from atop the team hauler. And of course a lot of people are asking angry questions why the striking driver, Deborah Renshaw, didn’t see what was happening in time to react, or in some cases whether she even deserved to be out on that race track. They claim were she not a female she wouldn’t have landed a ride in such a fast car without adequate experience. I’ll contend she wouldn’t be facing such strident criticism if she wasn’t a female. Dale Earnhardt was a local sportsman racer when he was given his first chance to race a Cup car at Charlotte. In his third Winston Cup start, the 1978 Dixie 500, Earnhardt was behind Dick Brooks who slugged the wall and bounced back into traffic. Earnhardt hit him head on, and the Johnny Ray Chevy Dale was driving launched into a sickening series of rolls. And folks thought back then that Earnhardt kid was just in a car because of who his daddy was, didn’t have enough experience for Cup, was too bullheaded to learn and should have been able to avoid the wreck. A year later Earnhardt was Rookie of the Year in Cup. A year after that he was Winston Cup champion. And for the record Brooks car had just returned to the track after severe damage from a previous wreck and it’s thought a mechanical failure on his car was at fault for the second wreck.

In a poignantly written column last night, Monte Dutton opined that other than his family and friends, most people will forget Eric Martin’s name as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years. Sadly that may be the case, but there’s one young lady who will recall his name to her dying day and that’s Debby Renshaw. On long sleepless nights ahead she’ll lay awake staring into the blackness wondering if there was anything she could have done to prevent what happened. Even if the official investigation clears her, that name will haunt her the rest of her life. No high will ever be as high again. No low will ever seem the worst possible thing that could have happened. It’s every driver’s worst nightmare though I can think of some drivers currently in Winston Cup who have also been involved in fatal accidents.

A guy I worked with was involved in a tragic accident. Driving home from work, not drunk, not speeding, three blocks from his house, paying attention at twilight on a summer’s evening without a cloud in the sky a little boy ran out from between two parked cars into my co-workers path. By the time this man could get his foot on the brake pedal and cut the wheel hard, the little boy was laying dying on the street and if a fully staffed and equipped trauma center had been right there it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference. After running the normal tests and conducting the normal investigation this guy was never given so much as a traffic ticket. Even the child’s distraught mother who had seen the horrible tragedy never blamed my co-worker. But for at least the next four years, he refused to drive a car again. He said the few times he’d tried before he could get the key in the ignition he had a full scale panic attack at the wheel recalling that August evening.

I’m just hoping Renshaw doesn’t end up tarred with the same brush as Jocko Maggiacomo. On the first lap of the June 1988 race at Pocono Bobby Allison radioed his crew that he felt he had a tire going down and that they should be ready for him to pit that time by. But the time gave out before Allison reached the pits, his Buick struck the wall and bounced into the path of the luckless Maggiacomo who hit Allison’s car in the driver side numbers. Allison suffered terrible injuries, particularly head injuries, that ended his career, wiped out a lifetime full of memories, and left him having to relearn even such basic tasks as how to feed himself. That Maggiacomo had absolutely nowhere to go when Allison’s car bounced into his path didn’t matter to some. Bobby Allison was one of the beloved drivers in this sport’s history and Jocko was “the guy who almost killed Bobby Allison.” He’d never drive another Winston Cup race.

Some critics of auto racing will doubtless use Wednesday night’s tragedy to once again call for a ban on the “blood sport” of racing. I’ve been a race fan for dozens of years. I know a ton of race fans. We are not a bloodthirsty lot and the drivers I’ve spoken to at all levels of the sport are not a suicidal or stupid lot. As Humpy Wheeler put it, the race crowd wants to see the lion timer put his head in the big cat’s mouth. They don’t want to see him get decapitated. In another bitter irony concerning Mr. Martin, his wife Tammy is a naval officer aboard the USS Gettysburg. As it appears now it is entirely possible Mrs. Martin and the crew of that ship will be in harms way near Iraq faced with the possibility of being attacked by weapons whose killing power are too gruesome to consider at length. Yet any member of our armed services who dies in that war will be considered a patriotic hero, not a mindless daredevil. I can not and will not equate race car drivers with our war dead, but race car drivers do in fact take a path some may call unwise in “the pursuit of happiness” our forefathers described as an inalienable right, one of those freedoms our veterans have fought to protect. For some people happiness is found climbing mountains, riding motorcycles, or skydiving. Or driving specially prepared cars at high speeds around dedicated racetracks. Others are content with bird watching, painting or baseball. But no matter how sedate a person’s lifestyle is, there’s no gauruntee when that person leaves his or her home in the morning they will return, as the tragedy of 9-11 all too clearly indicates.

I’ve been at racetracks where a crowd of over 100,000 fell dead silent after a particularly severe accident that was potentially fatal. The silence lasted until either the driver climbed out and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause from the crowd, or news was had that driver was awake, alert and not in life threatening danger. When Davey Allison crashed at Pocono in 1992 almost all of us were certain he had been killed and I saw grown men burst into tears. As recently as a month or so ago there seemed absolutely no way Mike Harmon could have survived that Busch practice wreck at Bristol, but moments later he was standing, albeit unsteadily, surveying the wreckage with barely a scratch on him. I think that’s what made the death of Dale Earnhardt so shocking. We’d seen him take so many hard hits, some that at least looked worse than last year’s last lap Daytona 500 crash, and like a magician Earnhardt had always climbed from the car and scowled as he surveyed the damage, the potential things could have been a lot worse seemingly not phasing him one iota even after Talladega in 1997. The hard lesson of the 2001 Daytona 500 was that if Dale Earnhardt was mortal, not only were other 42 drivers mortal, so were we all. We all know we’re going to die someday. We just don’t often have to stare death in the face looking at those pitiless black eye sockets and knowing there is no court of appeal.

Blaise Alexander was from Montoursville PA. That’s not far from here and I’ve driven through the town a few times. Prior to 1996, five year’s before Alexander’s death, most of you had probably never heard of the place, and perhaps even now it’s tugging at your memory trying to remember where you’ve heard the town’s name before. In the fall of 1996 TWA flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island for reasons we may never know to our satisfaction. Aboard the plane was a large contingent of high school students from Montoursville, the French Club, and their chaperones. There were no survivors of Flight 800. They were young people off on an exciting adventure whose lives were tragically ended far too young. I don’t recall any pundits calling for a ban on air travel, learning French or European vacations after that 747 rained fire onto the Atlantic Ocean in full view of horrified locals standing on their beachfront decks. No pleasurable pursuit is entirely without risks. Remember the “End of the World” doomsday predictions in the final months of the year 1999? One local fellow had built a fully supplied bunker in the basement of his home. He got so worked up about the terrible things that were going to happen that New Year’s Eve he dropped dead of a heart attack in his “survival cell.”

Auto racing will survive. Every tragic death will spur more innovations intended to protect the drivers just that little bit more. Eventually something will be done about making the drivers side door of a race car more able to absorb energy in a violent crash. My guess is within a decade NASCAR will not run races at any track without some sort of energy absorbing walls, and our children will gape at us in open mouthed in disbelief when we told them the drivers who were our heroes used to race on tracks lined with concrete walls. But the sad reality is no matter what innovations are made, no matter how much safer racing is then than it is today, occasionally, hopefully very rarely, a driver is going to be killed. That’s no excuse not to try to make racing as safe as possible, but a sober admission that Death will always find a way to get into the race track and do his unspeakable work on days he’s already gotten circled on his calendar. For all our human arrogance about the wisdom of our species, a benevolent God in his Heavens already knows what will be in the future so distant that our society will be forgotten except to archeologists. We can rant and rail about the unfairness of it all and try to assign blame, but in the end it’s just watering your lawn in the rain.

My thoughts and prayers as well as those of everyone on the SpeedFX/Racing One crew go out to Eric Martin, his family and friends, and to Deborah Renshaw as she recovers from her physical and emotional injuries.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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