Grubb, Whitesell and Hurd hurting for their school

4/18/2007 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- The sandy-white walls in Darian Grubb's office on the Hendrick Motorsports campus are completely bare, save for a solitary, framed piece of artwork in the middle of the wall, to the left, just inside the door. It was a gift from his wife earlier this year when he became a full-time crew chief, a celebratory, congratulatory link between past and future.

The piece is a rendering of Burruss Hall, the top administrative building on the Virginia Tech campus. It is also the building seen to the right of Norris Hall in the harrowing cell phone video, captured by a student journalist, in the heat of the Virginia Tech massacre.

Grubb is a proud Hokie, class of '98. He grew up 20 minutes from campus, in Floyd, Va. His mother, Wanda, still works in the school's animal science department. He knows "two to three hundred" university employees. His cousin is a student. In fact, his cousin, Travis, was in class in Holden Hall, just next door to Norris Hall -- the building where the massacre occurred -- at the time of the shootings.

And as Grubb sat behind his desk Tuesday, flanked by fellow Hendrick Hokies Brian Whitesell and Caleb Hurd, he tried to digest the past 30 hours, tried to express the profound sorrow and disbelief this unspeakable tragedy, set on his native soil, has wrought.

"I can't ever imagine anything like that happening there," said Grubb, crew chief for Casey Mears' No. 25 Chevrolet. "It changes more and more every time I go back -- it's growing up -- but it still feels like home. It's still [constructed from] Hokie Stone. It feels really cool to drive in there and see that place, every time."

Grubb awoke Monday, his day off, intent on heading into the office for a couple of hours. He peeked in the closet, pulled out an old VT sweatshirt he hadn't worn in a couple years. Halfway to work, he got word of the initial shooting in West Ambler Johnston Hall. Two were dead.

Scared, the first thing he did was call his mother, an academic adviser on campus. Her office was beside West AJ.

"She was in lockdown at the time I was talking to her," Grubb said. "She was OK, just scared. There were cops everywhere. And news vans. She didn't hear any shots. They went through that whole deal last year with that escaped guy from jail, so she was scared."

In August 2006, an escaped convict suspected in the slayings of a hospital guard and a sheriff's deputy was captured near campus on the first day of classes.

At that time, "They had military and were locked in their building and felt safe. But this one -- the only news they were getting was through the [television] news, just like everyone else. And e-mails, constant updates. They were learning just about as fast as we were."

Upon arrival at Hendrick Motorsports, Grubb sought out Whitesell, team manager for the Nos. 5 and 25 teams and a 1987 Virginia Tech graduate.

"Darian came in, ironically in his Virginia Tech sweatshirt, and asked if I'd seen what was going on," Whitesell said. "I hadn't heard, and he explained it to me. At that time, we didn't have a whole lot of information, just knew something was going on.

"As the day went on, it was kind of like a 9/11 -- you remember everything you were doing and where you were. You hate it for everyone up there. All the memories you have are good memories. Now, this will never be out of your mind. Obviously your thoughts are with the families."

HMS officials have televisions in their offices. Whitesell normally never turns his on.

"It was on all day Monday," he said.

Hurd, an engineer and catch-can man on Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team, was a member of the 1999 Hokies football team that played Florida State in the BCS title game. Like Grubb, he grew up just minutes from campus in an adjacent Virginia county, Pulaski. He was at home Monday morning when his wife called with news of the shootings.

"When I first looked at it, they were just reporting about the first two murders," Hurd said. "That, in itself, where we grew up, is a big thing. But the enormity of it all really didn't hit me until [Monday] night, when I watched it all on CNN. It was surreal. Not just because it was Virginia Tech, but being there, knowing what it's like and putting yourself in that situation, is hard to think about."

As undergrads, Grubb and Hurd had classes in Norris Hall.

"Last night, I was trying to go to sleep, remembering walking up and down the halls of Norris," Grubb said. "I had classes in there, too. I probably had classes in those classrooms. I could physically see the walls in my mind.

"I just can't imagine what people locked in there, trapped in there, were going through. I can't imagine, especially the survivors, how they'll deal with that in the future."

Explained Hurd: "It's an old-style building where you have a hallway and classes on both sides. It's not an auditorium. You're stuck. There's one way in, one way out. I can't imagine what you could do [to escape]."

All three men shared frustration with media coverage that centered on campus administrators' decision not to lock down the school after the initial shooting.

"I had classes in there, too. I probably had classes in those classrooms. I could physically see the walls in my mind. I just can't imagine what people locked in there, trapped in there, were going through. I can't imagine, especially the survivors, how they'll deal with that in the future."
-- Darian Grubb

Grubb, normally a quiet guy, had no qualms speaking up about his thoughts.

"Compare it to a normal city -- I want you to shut down five blocks of New York City, and I want you to do it in the next 10 minutes," he said. "How do you do that? It's a huge campus. It's 2,600 acres.

"They reacted the best they knew how. I don't think anyone could comprehend what was going to happen there. I think they did everything they could possibly do with the information they had."

Each of the three said Virginia Tech had much to do with their rise to NASCAR prominence. The engineering school -- one of America's finest -- offers a program with the Society of Automotive Engineers called VT Baja, in which students build off-road buggies for competition.

"Virginia Tech was huge for me," Grubb said. "They have such a strong organization in that field. I was kind of leaning toward motorsports, but never thought I'd do it as a full-time job. But the education there made it very easy to do. The best experience of my life is going to Virginia Tech. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I didn't want to go anywhere else."

There is fear, though, that Monday's tragedy will have a profound effect on enrollment and on the manner in which the school is perceived nationally.

"Absolutely, I fear that," Grubb said. "I hope it doesn't, but I could see that."

They pray, though, that current and future students will persevere, press on and revive a downtrodden campus, community and nation.

"I was thinking about how much going there shaped the rest of my life," Whitesell said. "I hope this doesn't force anyone else to miss out on what someone like myself has been able to do because of going there. The life lessons learned there have meant a lot for me.

"That was one of your homes for many years, and for that to happen at home ... I hope they carry on. Don't let this hold you back. This will be in our thoughts forever. Don't let this hold you back. Grow from it."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all of them, and we're a part of the Hokie family still," Grubb added. "We feel the pain. We're not there, but we're supporting them in heart and spirit. The school motto is 'That I May Serve.' Take that to heart. Do something good."

These three are serving. They all stand atop their field professionally, as fine a group of men as you'll find anywhere. They stand as testaments to the type of folks Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University produces.

"Every time I'm within 20 miles of there, I keep saying, 'I need to go by, I need to go,'" Grubb said. "I will now."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.