Commentary

Joplin destruction not lost on NASCAR

Updated: June 3, 2011, 4:37 PM ET
By Joe Breeze | ESPN.com

KANSAS City, Kan. -- They will race this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

They will fire up their cars and practice on Friday, they will qualify on Saturday, and somewhere around 4 p.m. CT on Sunday, one of the 43 Sprint Cup drivers entered in the STP 400 will pop a bottle of bubbly and shower his teammates in Victory Lane.

In the grandstands, the beer will flow. So will the profanity. Fans will question Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s heart. They will curse Kyle Busch. They will shake their fists at Juan Pablo Montoya. And they will wonder whether Jeff Burton will ever get another top-10 finish.

[+] EnlargeTornado cleanup
Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesWind speeds in excess of 200 mph likely explains how a board can do this type of damage to a vehicle.

Some 160 miles to the south, in storm-ravaged Joplin, Mo., they, too, will race this weekend. They will race to restore clean water to the townspeople. They will race to find homes for the homeless. They will race to begin moving the mountains of debris. They will race to restore some semblance of routine two weeks after the deadliest tornado in a half-century unmercifully battered this rural community of nearly 50,000, cutting a mile-wide, miles-long path of mayhem.

In Kansas City, NASCAR will carry on: prerace meetings ... driver introductions ... and the race itself -- 267 laps on this 1.5-mile, D-shaped oval. Drivers will pursue vital statistical leverage from fastest qualifying lap to most laps led to top average speed.

The statistics in Joplin will be grim:

How many funerals will be attended? How many more remains will be identified? How many more will die from the injuries they suffered on May 22 when the EF-5 tornado -- a beastly, relentless twister with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph -- touched down in the heart of this town?

The numbers as of Thursday were unsettling: 134 confirmed dead.

This storm was not selective, either. Reports said it damaged or destroyed an estimated 8,000 structures in all. It took out businesses. It took out water treatment plants and sewer facilities. It took out schools and a hospital. It destroyed a church. It leveled one-third of the city and obliterated entire neighborhoods.

But the tornado did not destroy this town's spirit. Dented it to its core, perhaps. But the will of those left behind seemingly has not wavered.

One Joplin resident, Sally Smith, perhaps summed up the town's resilience best on one CNN report last week:

"Life goes on."

The story unfolding in southwest Missouri has not gone unnoticed by NASCAR. Racers arrived in Kansas City here with guarded anticipation, knowing that they will be running for points and a trophy when families in Joplin may be identifying remains. Still.

But for some, it is more than that. Much more. Three Cup drivers -- Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards -- and a slew of their crew members have roots in the heart of this country. Deep roots.

No one was more impacted by the devastation than McMurray, who once called Joplin home. He was anxious early this week to visit his hometown on Thursday to see the destruction firsthand.

"The only part left of my house was actually the address left on the front wall," McMurray told reporters at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past weekend. "But when you look at the pictures of the house, there's no background. There are no trees or homes or landmark in the background to define what you're looking at.

"Really, the tornado took the whole neighborhood out."

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip Autograph
Michael Waltrip Racing Michael Waltrip on his visit to Shawnee: "We didn't know if there'd be five people here or 500 people here. But we know we have a truck out front that's almost full of supplies ..."

Racers not so directly impacted are reaching out, too:

• Michael Waltrip and two of his drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann, and JTG Daugherty Racing's Bobby Labonte spent part of Thursday evening collecting fan donations in nearby Shawnee and Olathe, Kan.

In addition, Michael Waltrip Racing will make available the hoods to Truex's No. 56 Toyota and Reutimann's No. 00 Toyota to an online auction for tornado relief, along with the firesuits, gloves and shoes worn by the drivers. Fans can bid on the items the week after the race at NASCAR.com/unites.

"The families woke up that day with a normal life, and it was ripped apart," Waltrip said between autographs and photo ops with fans at the Aaron's store in Shawnee. "We're trying to help them put it back together."

Labonte, who went through his share of hurricanes growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, said it was difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the destruction in Joplin.

"When I woke up in the morning, my wife and I were like, 'Hey, we got coffee, right? Yeah.' We got coffeepots, we got coffee mugs, we got this, we got that," Labonte said. "When these people woke up, the next day, they didn't have anything. ... It's just incredible."

• Bowyer appeared at a Bass Pro Shops fundraiser for Joplin relief Thursday in Springfield, Mo.

"It's horrible what has happened to the folks down there," Bowyer said Friday from his hauler. "It meant a lot to me to be able to go over there and participate in that. ...

"I mean, I don't know the words you can say to talk about that. It's very devastating and very sad."

• Joey Logano's No. 20 Toyota will carry a special decal in honor of the Home Depot store that was hit hard in the storm.

"I can't begin to understand what the store associates and the people of that community must be going through," Logano said in a team release. "We are keeping them in our thoughts and prayers."

• On the heels of all the recent devastation caused by storms in the Midwest and beyond, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Helmet of Hope campaign has added the American Red Cross to its collection of charities that will be featured on Johnson's helmet during the Richmond race on Sept. 10. Each of the 13 charities will receive a $10,000 donation.

• The American Red Cross will be accepting cash and check donations at Kansas Speedway on Saturday and Sunday. Fans who donate a minimum of $25 will be allowed to drive their personal vehicles around the track on June 24. A $50 donation will allow spectators to drive their own cars around the track on June 18 as part of the speedway's first event under the lights.

"In times of crisis, it's important for everyone to come together and help those in need," speedway president Pat Warren said in a release. "We have several ticket holders in each of these devastated areas, and we wanted to make sure they know that they, along with the rest of their communities, are not forgotten during times like this."

For the most part, it will be business as usual for NASCAR this weekend in Kansas City. But the drivers will wonder: How will those folks manage, having had their world turned upside down and inside out?

How will they?

They will race on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

They will race this weekend in Joplin, too. They will race to rebuild their lives, one tear and one 2-by-4 at a time.

Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn.com