Commentary

Herbert takes 'For My Boys Tour' into Top Fuel Countdown to 1

Doug Herbert's life was forever changed when his two sons died in a January car accident. Seven months later, the Top Fuel driver realizes he still has plenty to live for -- on and off the track, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: August 30, 2008, 7:15 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

Doug HerbertAP Photo/Auto ImageryDoug Herbert says he can sense the presence of his boys: "I can just feel them cheering me on."

CLERMONT, Ind. -- Seven months later, the pain hasn't lessened. There are still reminders at every stop on the NHRA calendar, from donations to pictures to heartfelt condolences.

When Doug Herbert's two sons -- Jon, 17, and James, 12 -- were killed Jan. 26 in a car accident near their home in Lincolnton, N.C., the Top Fuel driver's existence was changed forever. But at the U.S. Nationals -- where a year ago he was riding the wave from one of the biggest moments of his professional career -- Herbert is a man with increased drive on and off the drag strip.

[+] EnlargeDoug Herbert
Doug Herbert Doug Herbert keeps this photo of sons Jon and James in his Top Fuel dragster.

There's still a lot to live for, even after your life is turned upside down.

"My life's changed, my life's gonna be different," Herbert said. "The only thing that I can do, hopefully I can try to pull something good out of the situation by helping other kids or other parents to not have to go through the tragedy that I went through."

Herbert's BRAKES (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe) program -- started in the wake of the accident with help from his sons' classmates -- has raised thousands of dollars from corporate sponsors and racetrack donations from fans. Herbert takes the message of the program to schools and recently announced the creation of safe-driving schools for teenagers.

Long after Herbert, 40, leaves the driver's seat, this will be his legacy. There's still work to be done in the car, however. Herbert is secure in the Countdown to 1 in Top Fuel and could start as high as seventh in the reset points depending on how he runs at the Big Go.

Herbert's SnaponFranchise.com dragster won six weeks ago at Norwalk, Ohio, and has had three consecutive top-5 qualifying efforts coming into the U.S. Nationals, though all of those ended with first-round losses.

"His team has really jelled. They felt the pain, they had to go on," said Pro Stock Motorcyclist Steve Johnson, a close friend of Herbert's. "They were driven -- not that they tighten the bolts tighter or anything like that, but there's an aura in teams, in NASCAR, in football, in drag racing. The aura and persona of his crew, he's fed off of. He can feel that.

The feelings and signs are everywhere.

'I'll smile for you'
James Herbert was the feisty middle child between Jon and Jessie, Doug's 10-year-old daughter. A regular presence at the track, he loved to ride around in the team's support vans, and he developed a feisty relationship with Kenny Bernstein, the Hall of Famer and father of Brandon Bernstein, one of Herbert's rivals.

"He was kind of afraid of me at first, he was a little shy," Bernstein recalled. "I'd say, 'What you doing, big boy?' He'd shy away. One day he turned around and looked at me and said, 'Why don't you smile? You don't ever smile.' I said, 'OK, I'll smile for you.' And we became good buddies."

That's just how the boys were, Herbert said. Good kids, never mean, the kind who appreciated smiles. Both worked at Herbert's race shop and were active racers themselves, from Junior Dragsters to Motocross.

My life's changed, my life's gonna be different. The only thing that I can do, hopefully I can try to pull something good out of the situation by helping other kids or other parents to not have to go through the tragedy that I went through.

-- Doug Herbert

They were also teenagers. Jon had a small Mazda turbo, and on a Saturday morning in January he and James made a McDonald's run and never came home.

"Jon made a poor driving decision and a poor judgment," Herbert said. "But I was 17 before, also. I know I've made poor decisions before. We've got to try to get these students and young drivers to realize that the consequences are very severe."

Jon was estimated to be driving over 80 mph on a road with a 45 mph speed limit when he lost control, crossed the center line and was struck by a Hummer. Herbert drives the same road every morning and night to and from his race shop and racing-parts business. The skid marks are still there.

For a time he could never pass the crash site without crying, and there are still those days, but mostly Herbert now tries to think of a positive memory of the boys on his commute. He remembers how Jon would sit in the passenger seat of his car, rocking whenever the Beatles' "Hey Jude" came on the radio ("Twelve-year-olds don't like the Beatles," Herbert said).

They also loved to see him win. They would have loved being at the track in June when Herbert scored his 10th career Top Fuel win. In a way, Herbert thinks they were.

"The NHRA has stats -- I have the No. 1 reaction time [0.060 seconds, fastest among the top 12 in Top Fuel]. I can feel them," Herbert said. "I feel like they're an inspiration to me, I can just feel them cheering me on: 'Come on, Dad, I know you can do this, let's beat this guy.' That's what I feel from that.

"There's a million things that are good, really only two things that are bad. One thing that is bad is that I'm not going to see them again, because they're not here, in this life, and the second thing is that I'm not going to be able to make any more new memories. But I've still got the ones I have."

Picking up speed
The death of the Herbert boys hit Doug's 80-year-old father, Chet, especially hard. The boys spent much of last summer in California with the drag racing Hall of Famer, and the grandfather took a big interest in the boys' racing exploits. After their deaths, Chet didn't get out of bed for two weeks.

Now, spurred in part by their shared loss, Doug and Chet are building a car to take to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to take a shot at a land-speed record.

"I just want to do something with my dad," said Herbert, who is getting plenty of help with the car from friends in NASCAR country, North Carolina. "To have something that him and I can do together, I guess I just didn't realize how important that was before Jon and James' accident. To be able to do something with my dad, it's making him feel good, it's making me feel good."

Herbert isn't done finding speed on the drag strip. Last year, when the first Countdown debuted at Indy, he got into the top 10 by winning the cutoff race at Reading, Pa., the only way he could qualify for the playoffs. This year his position is secure without any late heroics necessary (this year the U.S. Nationals serves as the cutoff race), and with his recent performance he feels the team could be peaking at the right time.

"I think we've been a little more consistent this year. The feeling is good. I've got a new tuner and crew chief in Kevin Poynter and Keith Stewart, and we've got some different working relationships going," said Herbert, who last made the finals at the U.S. Nationals in 1993. "I think we're actually better off than we were at the beginning of the year, and we're kind of picking up speed."

He had a lot to drive for before. Perhaps he has more drive now.

"He's done awful good for what's happened," Bernstein said. "He's been awful strong to continue on and function in the race cars and run a business. Trying to go on with your life after something like that has to be a difficult thing. I look at him as having a lot of strength.

"I don't know if it's made him a better driver, because he's won anyway. I do know that when I talk to him, he's got absolute focus."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.