Those lost won't be forgotten
Sports reporting isn't supposed to be like this. Sports are fun. They're not supposed to hurt.
As NASCAR Nation mourns the loss of the 10 Hendrick Motorsports plane crash victims, countless written statements from around the sport have been issued. Reading like carbon copies, each echoes the other's sadness with nearly identical boilerplate phrases. They've been respectful but predictable. They seem the same, except one.
Penske Racing South wrote, "In a sport that has seen tragedies occur throughout its existence, this is by far the worst that it has ever experienced."
Undoubtedly some will challenge that statement and ask, is it worse than Dale Earnhardt's death? Is it more heart wrenching than Adam Petty's? While it's difficult, if not impossible to weigh the magnitude of tragedy for the sake of comparison, my personal answer to those questions is, yes.
Four, seven and one -- that's the number of wives, children and grandchildren left behind. There are hundreds of crew members that worked with these individuals. There is also one uncle, brother, father and team owner who is now faced with grief beyond imagination.
To guess, nearly everyone in the garage had a genuine personal relationship with at least one of the victims. I'd like to think I was a friend with two.
In the winter of 2002 Ricky Hendrick was an upcoming star. He was preparing to jump to the Busch Series after becoming the youngest driver (21) to win a truck race when he was victorious at Kansas the season before. As part of a sponsor commitment to CARQUEST -- he was the guest, I was the emcee -- we were scheduled to fly to New York together on a Hendrick plane.
I remember boarding that morning not knowing what to think. I'd interviewed him before but was about to be cramped into a little plane with him for two hours. I was nervous. He was a privileged kid on the verge of stardom and I was just an average Joe 10 years his elder. What would we talk about?
Ricky eased my worries by starting the conversation. We covered everything, racing and otherwise. It felt just like hanging out with a friend.
I remember thinking it was funny as he told a story, referring to his firesuit as a costume. It's a reference I've since stolen from him. Anybody who's seen me wearing a suit jacket and tie in the garage knows I call that my costume -- a direct Ricky-ism.
Returning to Charlotte, Ricky cemented an impression in my mind with a simple act of kindness. He called his pilot and ordered food for the return trip. When we arrived at the plane however, there was only one sandwich. Ricky, without hesitation, cut it and gave half to me and half to Jason Leffler, who was also aboard. Ricky refused to eat so his guests wouldn't starve.
That's the kind of person Ricky was, polite and selfless. As much as he had going for him -- good looks, intelligence, bottomless bank account -- it didn't seem to matter. To him everyone in the sport was an equal.
It's especially painful knowing Randy Dorton was lost. Hendrick's engine guru was a man of wisdom and rock-solid character. He was also my primary go-to guy at the track for technical engine information. He was a straight shooter, honest and always helpful.
It still amazes me that in 2002, after losing three motors in the same race he was gracious enough to allow an RPM 2 Night crew into his shop the next day to explain what happened. Despite the embarrassment he took full responsibility, on camera, and took us step by step through the process of the valve spring breakdown.
Dorton's loss may be the most difficult for Hendrick Motorsports, as a business, to overcome. He was as important to that organization as Mariano Rivera is to the Yankees, or Tom Brady is to the Patriots. He's been called a genius by his peers and has overseen an engine department that has produced five champions. Without his ingenuity who knows how many wins Jeff Gordon would have, or more important, will have in the future.
Adding to the cruelty of this story is its timing. The tragedy occurred just four races from the completion of Hendrick Motorsports 20th anniversary celebration. Perhaps just four races from their sixth championship. In the grand scheme of things though, that doesn't really matter. Gordon is second in the standings at 96 points back, and while a title would help the healing process it would be a small consolation for what the team has already lost.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., close personal friends with Ricky, had an honest reaction saying, "It's like a hammer to the chest. It takes the wind out of you."
It sure does.
As I wrote this my sons, 3 and 1-year-old, were playing behind me. Laughing, screeching, banging on the modern day noisemakers they call toys. Ordinarily this is when I'd ask my wife to take control or simply leave the room so I could work. Not today though, sometimes deadlines have to wait. Tragedy has a way of putting life's priorities in perspective.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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