Remembering Senna

Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna died 20 years ago today in a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix. (Photo: Getty Images)

He was one of the greatest. Then he was gone.

Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna suffered fatal head injuries in a crash while leading the San Marino Grand Prix. His death came a day after Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a crash there during Formula One qualifying.

For some NASCAR drivers, Senna’s death remains poignant.

Marcos Ambrose called Senna his idol. Senna was a hero to many, winning three Formula One championships and 41 races. Only Michael Schumacher (91) and Alain Prost (51) won more F1 races.

Ambrose, who was 17 at the time, recalls, watching the race when Senna died.

“I was in disbelief like everyone,’’ Ambrose said. “Senna’s passing feels like yesterday. One of the greatest of our generation, no doubt about it.’’

After Senna’s death, the Brazilian government declared three days of mourning and more than a million people reportedly lined the streets of Sao Paulo to bid farewell.

In the United States, the impact was different for many.

Brad Keselowski was 10 years old at the time but Senna’s death stands out to him.

“My dad and brother used to wake up early and watch the Formula One races,’’ Keselowski said. “I can remember my dad was a big Senna fan, and I can remember that he was never really a loud cheerleader type but I can remember him being more so of that than anything else I have ever seen. I just remember the somber tone in the household. My dad raced and so that brought up a lot of questions as a kid that I would ask my mom and dad. 

“There was a sequence of untimely accidents at that time. I can remember that one and the death of this one driver – my dad raced in the ARCA series at the time and there was one driver I was a huge fan of outside of my dad and he had died. His name was Chris Gehrke, and I remember when he died my parents wouldn’t tell me.

“We were watching TV one night and one of those memorial pictures came up. I remember that and my parents rushing me off to go take a bath, but I had already seen it. It was too late. That brought up a lot of questions when I was a kid and it was really hard for them to explain to me.”

Jeff Gordon wasn’t as big a Formula One fan at the time - Gordon had yet to win his first race in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and was focused on his career. Gordon has become quite a fan of that series and developed a better understanding of Senna since.  

“It was certainly a big loss,’’ Gordon said. “Since then, watching the races as avidly as I do, watching the documentary ‘Senna,’ getting more information, now you realize how a big a loss it was. This was a guy who was really in the prime of his career.’’

Jimmie Johnson said that Max Papis and others have told him stories about Senna and given him a better understanding of the driver.

“His legacy still lives on and it’s a beautiful thing to see the respect that he has worldwide,’’ Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter the discipline of motorsports, people still respect his abilities today and it’s an amazing thing. And, truthfully, the documentary kind of opened up everyone’s minds as to what he was as a man in and out of the car. 

“I wish I’d had a chance to meet him, and certainly wish I had the chance to race against him. I know a lot of drivers who wish they could have had that opportunity.” 

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