This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Star in July 2000.

TRP racers put thought into dangers on track

Two recent deaths of NASCAR drivers are reminders of mortality, precaution

By Ed Odeven

Two NASCAR fatalities in the past two months created a somber mood at Tucson Raceway Park Saturday night. The U.S. flag was flown at half-staff, and a pre-race invocation was dedicated to the memory of late driver Kenny Irwin.

Irwin, 30, died at the New Hampshire International Speedway Friday when his car ran into the wall while going 150 mph during preparations for the New England 300.

Adam Petty, grandson of the legendary Richard Petty, was killed eight weeks ago at the same track.

While gearing up for another Saturday night of racing, local drivers offered their thoughts on the risky business of being a race-car driver.

Jeff Huebner, who celebrated his 38th birthday Saturday competing in the Super Late Models division, said the recent deaths make drivers ponder their own mortality — not just during races.

“It kind of makes you wonder ー could you be next?” he said.

Huebner has been racing for 22 years. He currently works as a manager at Dix Motorsports in Tucson.

In Huebner’s brother, John, was competing on the open-wheeled midget circuit in Dallas. His car flipped several times and he was hospitalized for five days.

Chris Saylor, 29, was in serious condition after suffering head injuries while racing at TRP during the 1995-96 Winter Heat Series. He was hospitalized for over eight weeks after crashing his car into the wall.

Initially, Saylor began racing when he was 17. He said that once he started racing, thoughts of danger never crossed his mind. He was always focused on all the nuances of staying on course and getting to the front of the pack.

Peer pressure has kept Saylor from getting back behind the wheel.

“If I went back, a lot of people would kill me,” said Saylor, now a racing official at TRP.

Wayne Cassidy began racing at TRP in 1995. He currently competes in the Super Late Models division, but began his racing career on the New England Dragway in Maine and raced at various tracks in the region.

Careful, cautious preparation is critical, according to Cassidy.

“Just do your same check list every week, and then have somebody else double-check the list,” he said. “And then go out and do the same thing every week.”

Cassidy is an avid auto racing fan and while viewing it on television he’s able to expand his knowledge of the fast-paced sport.

Two weeks ago, Cassidy’s car was in an accident just past Turn Three. Two cars spun out and his vehicle was hit before going airborne, two feet above the ground.

“It just mainly rang my bell,” said Cassidy, 47, who plans to continue racing as long as his family supports him.

Rick Henderson, who oversees media relations for TRP, raced professionally from 1948 to 1973. He won the California state championship six times and was the Busch Grand National champion in 1959. All told, he won 1,033 feature races during his great career.

“Racing was a lot more dangerous then,” Henderson said, “because you didn’t have roll cages, fire extinguishers.”

Henderson said it was more common years ago for there to be 11 or 12 racing fatalities a year. Nowadays, Henderson believes the media’s increased coverage of racing has made the public more aware of the sport’s perils.

To cope with the danger, Henderson said the old-school drivers knew the importance of keeping their distane socially.

“We had a lot of good friends in racing,” Henderson said. “We just didn’t get too close to anybody. We stayed in the same fraternity.”

Henderson believes NASCAR has done a fine job of preventing hazardous conditions whenever possible.

During his lengthy career, Henderson avoided life-threatening crashes, but he did manage to break his neck, shoulder and back, and once had to get 380 stitches in his face.

TRP hasn’t escaped tragedy. Troy Rause died on Aug. 2, 1992, at the then-dirt track at TRP when his car flipped over. He was 21.