IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon died today after a wreck in a race in Las Vegas, Nevada. I didn’t know Dan or his family, and I haven’t been to an IndyCar race in years. Anytime we have a death in the racing community, though, it ripples through all of us. I am therefore moved to post this piece.
You’ll find that this post is a departure from the usual fare on this site, but the subject matter is close to my heart. It’s excerpted from my Master’s Thesis, DRIVE: A Season in the Life of a Dirt Track Racer (or: Confessions of a Dirty Girl). I “followed” a Sprint car driver, Paul Sides, through a season at the (dearly departed, I’m sad to report) dirt track at Memphis Motorsports Park. I wrote about Paul and his life and family. I also wrote about NASCAR, God, fate, death, luck, and beer.
My thanks and love always to David Wharton, Charles Reagan Wilson, Ted Ownby, Janisse Ray, Nash Molpus, Hedge, Schultz, Joe-Joe, Amy, Mary Beth, Bruder, Paul Sides, DeAnna Sides, Mark Hardee, Debbie Hardee, Jen Hardee, and their families.
I’ve broken the longer essay into two pieces – one, my account of the night a Sprint car driver died, and two, a brief examination of religion, fate, and death in racing.
Caution: there’s some rough language, and there are also quotes from Kirkegaard, Hemingway, and Humpy Wheeler. Beware! I can forward the bibliography to anyone who’s interested. You’ll also note that the academic piece dates itself by referring to the “Winston Cup.” That is SOOOO early 2000s.
Arkansas native Sonny Sayre died from massive internal injuries sustained during the first Sprint car race of the 2004 season at Delta Bowl Speedway in Tunica, Mississippi, on Saturday night, March 27th. On lap three of the twelve-lap B-main feature, Scott Bolden flipped over and over. Sonny, with nowhere to go, drove right into the airborne car and died on impact. He would have turned 33 years old on the next Wednesday. Racing continued at the track, except for the mini stock class. Those drivers voted not to run their feature. Everyone else was “business as usual,” through their fear and heavy hearts.
The hard part about writing about it is that I have to live backwards for a while, and the whole racing ethos is that you always move forward. You don’t go back and live in anything. Not a win, not a loss, not a mistake, not a fatality. So I’m backwards when I run my hands over that night, feeling for details I missed on the first telling, trying to get it all, and get it all right – to honor my friends and the world we live in, and the world we sometimes die in.
We’re having such a good time on Saturday night at Paul and DeAnna’s house. Racing won’t start at Memphis Motorsports Park until next weekend, and Paul’s car isn’t finished anyway. He’s got more sponsor stickers to map out, affix, and seal to the body. He doesn’t much care for Delta Bowl, truth be told, and we don’t enjoy the dusty, 1/3-mile track much, either. We’re happier, tonight, to get together and relax and celebrate the opening of racing season. The garage door is open, and we are grilling steaks, pork chops, and chicken. We are ogling Paul’s beautiful new Sprint car and shaking pieces of ice off of our beers as we lift them out of the cooler. Ever the good host, Paul wipes my cans dry with a shop rag. We’re looking at pictures, telling stories, pinching rear ends, and flipping through the numbers in Paul’s cell phone and deciding whom to prank call. Steve Kinser? Danny Lasoski? That guy who works for ESPN?
Just like at every gathering, cell phones ring constantly. Debbie’s daughter Jennifer has gone to Tunica, and she reports on the car count, the results, and the scene. Paul’s on the phone to find out how his brother Jason is faring in the World of Outlaws race in Houston.
It starts with one particular phone call to Paul. We don’t pay attention until he summons us. Hey. Hey y’all. We need a press conference. We need a press conference. We gather obediently. His face is still. There’s a wreck. Bolden went up and flipped, and Sonny hit him, and they say it don’t look good for him. As if someone spun the room on its axis, we all split off, twisting away, ducking our heads to try to grasp that There’s a wreck and It don’t look good.
Then we move, fast. Out of the garage, away, anywhere. Paul says, maybe to me, maybe not, as I fly out the door after DeAnna, It’s all part of the dance. I’m not sure whom he’s trying to reassure. He turns with cigarette and beer to worry about where to put the stickers on the car and how the orange on his number 11J doesn’t exactly match the orange of the car’s frame. Jamie returns to the car’s shiny headers, the product of his elbow grease. It’s all part of the dance, and our job is to dance hard and loud.
DeAnna and Debbie and I are in the kitchen fussing with things, just as the men are out with the car, fussing with it. We are angry and scared, but it is warm and safe there. We can relax into our disbelief, fear, and the beginnings of a grief.
DeAnna’s deciding where to throw up, it’s inevitable that she’s going to throw up, and we are stirring things that don’t need stirring, straightening the goddamned baked potatoes on the oven rack, doing anything, anything to do something. Debbie had gotten through about half of a baked potato when Paul called the “press conference,” and now she can’t think about food. Ain’t no way I’m eating anything now, DeAnna agrees. I, on the other hand, eat well. Would that I had your defense mechanisms, I say to the girls as I slice into a baked potato, pile out the baked beans, devour the perfect and pink filet that Paul chose for me. DeAnna opens a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts to share. The nuts are oily and sweet, the expensive chocolate is dense, and I want a thousand of them, but I only have three. This is an improvement for me.
Out in the garage, Jamie proposes that we pray for Sonny and his family. Nobody bites. People actively do not respond to this suggestion that stuns us because it feels so wrong, even though it’s perfectly appropriate. Well, we can do it on our own, he says softly. We are all praying, in our own ways, but to organize, to hold hands, to all say Amen at the same time, isn’t what we want, now. It would make it seem final, even though we would just be praying for strength and help, not for Sonny’s soul. Not long after, Jamie suggests that we spill a beer on the ground. For our homies. Was he a drinker? He asks. Is he a drinker? – nobody’s sure about tense at the moment – Paul laughs, Hell yeah he was. Jamie still wants to have a ritual, any ritual: if not prayer, then sacramental, sacrificial beer-spilling, but Paul refuses. I join in, laughing, He’d say, don’t spill that beer! You need to be drinking it! It’s as if any meaningful gesture would admit defeat.
I feel strange because I’m so shaken and undone, even though I only knew Sonny slightly. I realize, though, that I’m so undone because it could have been Paul, or his brother, or any one of the drivers that I’ve come to know and love so much. I’m also undone because they’re all brothers, and we’re all family. This community of racers is so close, any loss cuts very deeply, and is very personal.
No fewer than four cell phones are lit up at four different ears at once, and the rest of us are glued to the ones who are glued to their phones. Everybody is so connected, but nobody knows anything. It’s not final, we keep telling ourselves. News travels second- and third- and tenth-hand from the pits and stands at Tunica, to us, out to other people’s homes, across to other states where other drivers have run other races. We’re still getting updates on the World of Outlaws. Steve Kinser, the King of the Outlaws, won his 500th race that night and called Paul to tell him. Some wee celebrations, pockets of smiles.
Debbie’s hearing from Jennifer, who went to the race by herself. Jennifer didn’t go to many races last year because Ginger Gray, married to their cousin Terry, a racer, died in a passenger car wreck just before the 2003 season started. Jennifer so associated the track, and racing, with Ginger, it was too sad to be there without her. When Jennifer did come to the races, she read books while other car classes competed, but she kept diligent records of the Sprints’ lap times. Debbie is beside herself with worry that Jennifer will again be unable to go to the races, that she will be too hurt and too burned, that she is there at Tunica all by herself in the confusion and misinformation passed from mouth to ear like the old “telephone game” everyone played as a kid. Debbie even held off telling Jennifer, late that night, when we had the final word that it was final, because she knows her child well. Jen might not sleep, might not eat the Krystal she stopped to pick up on the way home from the track. Best to wait to tell her.
In the morning, when Debbie tells her Sonny didn’t make it, Jennifer reacts calmly. I’d had a feeling, she says, that he wouldn’t.
Perhaps the rumors and phone calls sustain us through the night. Perhaps we need the background buzz of information, right or wrong. Any crumb makes us feel less powerless and less far away. A steady stream of news, too, keeps Sonny alive. DeAnna tells me He had no pulse for twenty minutes, then He wasn’t breathing for twenty minutes, and then They said his guts were hanging out of him, I’m guessing his belts cut him, either that or something in the wreck.
The culprit, the thing that gives Sonny irreparable internal injuries, is called the “sissy bar.” Paul’s old car had one. His new one doesn’t. The sissy bar is, essentially, an additional crossbar on the right side of the frame. It gives a little more protection and stability, but is not a required part of the car’s structure. Let’s face it. It’s for sissies. Early in the night, Paul had shown me where the sissy bar isn’t on his new car. Without it, he is still enclosed and safe, but not so caged, as such. That’s all. And it broke off and lanced through Sonny’s middle. His ample middle. A rampant rumor is that They weren’t sure he didn’t have a pulse, they just couldn’t find one because he’s, uh, a big fella. Someone else laughs, He’s fat as hell! Most drivers are like horse jockeys, small and lithe. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule.
As DeAnna and I are sitting around the coffee table dotted with its racing stickers, “Huggins Cams” and whatever-else, she says, This is when I hate racing. This is when, when people get killed, when this happens. Not if. We’ve seen this movie before, and we’ll see it again. The guy dies, we cry and fret, we question ourselves and our lives, and then we race the next weekend, or the next night, even. This is when I hate racing. This, which has happened before, and will happen again, maybe to the man she loves. This is when I hate racing, but this is also when I keep coming back. Accept it, or go home. To use a racing phrase, “drive it or park it.” It’s up to you.
All night as people swirl around and through the garage, I duck in and out of the kitchen to take notes. I sit at the kitchen table, writing with my ink-fading pen from, good Lord, a funeral home in Covington, Tennessee, it was a freebie that I got at the track, good God how awful. I scrawl on a piece of paper I lifted off of Paul and DeAnna’s printer and folded in half, words and phrases, one after the other.
DeAnna bangs in the door, cherry-faced, during one of my crib-note sessions. I am out of my chair to embrace her. I try to make soothing sounds. Her head is on my shoulder; her face is in her hands. Dammit, she says. Dammit. We don’t stand there for long, because we have to get it together. She moves to the stove to stir the baked beans again. That is one well-tended side dish, tonight. We are quiet, and then I say, gently, You know? Normal people? They – do jigsaw puzzles. They decoupage. I don’t know. She chuckles through her tears and replies, Yeah. We are far from normal, though. Far from normal.
Debbie comes into the kitchen at another point when I’m writing furiously, and I start with guilt, and she teases me, Writing your memoirs? She says in a rush, It’s my worst nightmare to get a call about Paul or Jason or Terry – I don’t know if I – and you get all excited about it starting up again, and this shit happens, and you think, is it worth it? She is almost out the door now, back to the garage. It’s not the money, it’s not the money with them. It’s something inside of them.
It’s not final yet, we are reminding ourselves, when word comes that they got him breathing again, and the Life Flight helicopter has left the track. We’d heard that it wasn’t leaving for the longest time, and that’s a terrible sign. When the helicopter doesn’t take right off, that means it’s not in a hurry. But they got him breathing and the helicopter carried him off. Paul cracks a beer. My friend was DOA. And they brought him back to life. That’s something to celebrate. The women who work in the medical profession, who know people in the medical profession, who know too much about how these things go, hope that the Life Flight will take him to the “Med,” Baptist Medical Center in Memphis, not to the hospital in DeSoto, Mississippi. They killed my Paw-Paw, Deanna says of DeSoto. Bastards.
Now that Sonny’s out of the track, an even-more feverish scramble for updates is on. Hey, what’s Sonny’s dad’s name, Paul asks, lifting his cell phone away from his mouth as he calls the Med, ready to impersonate a family member. He’d claim to be the Pope if he thought it would help him learn something. DeAnna shakes her head. You’re not going to learn a damn thing over the phone. Because of HIPAA. They’re all scared of lawyers. Paul protests, We ain’t lawyers, but he knows she’s right and he’s not going to get anywhere. At least he feels active when he tries.
They talk about other racing deaths. A driver was decapitated in an accident at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa, and his helmet, with his head still in it, hit Toby Brown’s car when he drove by under the caution. Fans threw blankets and coats, screaming to cover up the body. Paul remembers a fatality at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa, Florida, not long ago. DeAnna remembers, too. Paul was in that race, and he the first one to the car after it happened. Deanna tears up when she says, If we had been there tonight, that’s where he’d be. That’s Paul. The driver who died at East Bay was named Rodney, and he had a dog, Checkers, who went everywhere with him. When Rodney didn’t come back to the pits after that race, Checkers looked all over for him. He went up to the track entrance and sniffed the ground, looking. That’s when I damn lost it, DeAnna says. Little Checkers.
We don’t not talk about death. We are like any grieving family. We recall details about Sonny, about how much he loved kids, not having any of his own. He’d give any kid a ride through the pits on his four-wheeler. We worry about Wade, another young driver who is very close to Sonny, and about Sonny’s girlfriend. We are not, not talking about it. We skim over it, touch down until it hurts too much, and then skate away to talk about Thus-and-such and So-and-so’s divorce is final, I saw it in the paper today. Wasn’t that awful fast? Well, it was uncontested, so yeah.
I flip through the Simpson driving suit catalog, adding my two cents as Paul selects and designs a new fire suit for the 2004 season. Simpson will take 500 bucks off if the company letters its name across the chest or down the leg or arm. Paul likes the two-ply suit, which is fire-rated at twelve. That means it’s twelve seconds from when the thing is ablaze, to a first-degree burn. The three-ply is cheaper, but it’s only rated a nine, and it’s hotter, even without a fire, which is something to consider in July and August. We talk color schemes. Paul’s predominant colors are orange and blue. The suit needs to be dark on the bottom half, because that’s what really gets filthy in a dirt track race. Anyone with an all-white driving suit is either a fool with lots of time to do laundry, or he got it on sale. Paul also needs a new helmet because they played with the old one too much. He’d have people put the helmet on, and then he would whack them in the head with a Big Bertha driver. A blow like that should take you out, but in the helmet, it’s just kind of fun, I’m told. Paul offers to let me give it a try: I’ll just whack you a little bit in the side of the head. I pass. Thanks.
On my notes, I actually kept track of what I ate and drank that night. This is how anal retentive I am. 8 beers, 3 mac nuts, filet – baked potato, baked beans, some potato chips. And now, a couple of days later, I’m remembering that I forgot to log the potato chips into my computer program of chub-be-gone that’s been dominating my life almost as much as the racing does. There’s something deeply wrong with me.
There’s been no new news, and we’re all exhausted and in limbo, when Debbie says she’s ready anytime I am, and I say I’m ready anytime she is. We go out to the garage to say our goodbyes. I hug Paul hard, and I mistake his somber face for his don’t-leave-me pouty face, so I tell him, Don’t be mad, I’ll be here next week, I love you brother – and he interrupts me. Kendra. Kendra. You didn’t hear.
I stop. Hear. What. They pronounced him at the hospital. I lurch forward to drop my forehead on his shoulder, which is so low, he’s so little and vulnerable, and we fold into each other. A nurse friend called a friend at the Med and (illegally, yes) got the news. I feel the scratch of Paul’s cheek and chin scrape my skin as he gives me a hard kiss on the back of my neck.
I had asked Paul earlier in the night – we’d been talking about lots of things from the previous season – I’d asked him about fear. Was he scared? Fuck yeah, but you can’t think about it, you wouldn’t race. As Debbie and I leave, DeAnna and Paul both flash a lilting, lifting nod with a watery smile: Chin up, that means. It’s our worst nightmare, but we have to accept it or walk away, so Chin up.
In the car on the way home, Debbie says, You know, when it’s his time, it’s his time. And if he wasn’t racing, and he was crossing the street and got hit by a bus, well then, damn. Best to go how you’re happiest. We’re not sure how much that helps now, but Dale Earnhardt used to say, You could choke on a biscuit at the breakfast table. The implication is, when you go, you’d better go like a man. Being a man is about being tough, powerful, and independent, but don’t forget that being this kind of man also means being passionate and focused. You’d better die when you’re at your best, doing what you love, or you’ve wasted everything. You’d better live at your best, too, doing what you love. Nothing, not even your life, will have been wasted if you know in your heart that you have lived Hammer down, baby.
The best we can do is our best. The most we can give is everything. The fear and the loss are as much a part of the dance as the joy, so we grab it all, suck it all down, and turn our eyes to the next race. As much as I hurt right now, and as terrified as I am that something might ever happen to Paul, I would not trade this life for a cleaner, safer model, and I would not have him do it, either.
Paul said calmly, as we hugged goodbye and my grip told him that I was scared for him, so scared – I’m still here. It’s all right, he was telling me. I might not be tomorrow, or I might not be next week, but right now, I’m right here. Sonny may not be, but be still, I’m still here.