When Dale Earnhardt was killed at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, I was reporting on an NHRA national drag racing event near Phoenix.
Reports trickled into the media center about the nature of Earnhardt’s crash. No one could believe the news.
I had interviewed Earnhardt about a month before, when he was testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I was intimidated; he was annoyed once the red light on TV cameras clicked off.
When his death was official, I was miffed — I had a telephone interview scheduled with him for a few days later to discuss his on-racing businesses.
I was selfish, just thinking about a lost opportunity to interview him privately.
I didn’t grasp the human aspect of his death until noticing a longtime friend and publicist — Jay Wells — crying behind the dragstrip tower at Firebird International Raceway.
I learned Jay was a close friend of Earnhardt’s. He told stories of when he lived with The Intimidator; of when Earnhardt would buzz Wells’ home with his helicopter.
Drag racing at that time was a safety cocoon, even though five years before Earnhardt’s fatal wreck popular Top Fuel driver Blaine Johnson had died in a crash. But that was a freak accident, we all thought.
Today, death in drag racing is not new. And it’s getting old.
Wells had to endure another tragedy Saturday when Scott Kalitta, 46, died after crashing his Funny Car at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.
It was the second time in two years an NHRA pro died after a racing mishap. Eric Medlen died four days after a testing crash in March 2007 in Gainesville, Fla.
Before Kalitta’s fatal crash, the last driver to die in an NHRA Funny Car race was Jerry Schwartz in 1969. I never have heard of him.
Before Saturday, Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell, the Las Vegas champ in 2001, was the last pro to die in NHRA competition, in 2004.
Funny Car driver Jerry Toliver raced on his scooter to the Kalitta pit area moments after Kalitta’s crash. In an ESPN2 interview a few hours later, Toliver said Connie Kalitta, Scott’s father, told him Scott was gone.
"You mean gone to the hospital?" Toliver asked.
"No," Connie replied. "He’s gone."
Those familiar with racing assumed he had been killed when his body was placed into an ambulance instead of a medical helicopter.
No one dies — officially — on a racetrack. They are pronounced dead at a hospital to prevent an event from being stopped like it was Saturday at E-Town, partly for repairs but mostly because police at the track declared it to be a crime scene. Not because a crime had been committed but to begin investigating the incident.
Countless racers have repeated that "Scott died doing what he loved to do." That refrain provides solace for those who recite it, but it is shallow nonetheless.
"There’s a dark cloud over drag racing right now that won’t be lifted for quite some time," Toliver said this week. "We’ll march on as Scott would have wished and do the best job we can."
Death is part of racing, but it doesn’t take away the stink.
Kalitta never received international fame for winning two Top Fuel titles, but he did for being killed in the crash. A friend traveling in Europe read about Kalitta’s crash Monday in newspapers.
I watched three drag boat racers die during my career as a racetrack publicist from 1988 to 1995.
Since 1999, I’ve written about the racing tragedies of Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in NASCAR; Greg Moore, Tony Renna and Paul Dana in the Indy-style cars; and Russell, Shelly Howard, Medlen and now Kalitta in drag racing. That’s 11 racing fatalities in nine years.
A quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway but disputed by some scholars says, "There are but three true sports — bullfighting, mountain climbing and motor-racing. The rest are merely games."
It’s too bad death makes motor sports unique. And it’s too bad it always will.
Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog throughout the week at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/.Watch AP Video of Kalitta crash below.