EVERY MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, hordes of fans around the world watch the three biggest auto races of the year: Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix, IndyCar's Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Last May 26 more than 14 million Americans saw at least one of these races. That means they also saw at least one harrowing crash.
This is an article from the May 19, 2014 issue
In Monaco, Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela rammed into a barrier on the street course at nearly 150 mph, producing a noise like a bomb going off, smashing the car into hundreds of shards and leaving the barrier splayed across the track. At Indy, J.R. Hildebrand lost control and slammed into the wall at 210 mph, obliterating the rear of his car. And in Charlotte, Aric Almirola and Jeff Gordon collided at 170 mph, sending both of their cars into the outside wall in a hail of sparks and smoke.
All four drivers climbed out of their cars unharmed. Today, in fact, racers in NASCAR, IndyCar and F1 routinely walk away from crashes that would surely have been fatal in earlier eras.
Far from the TV cameras, big money and big crowds, however, at more than 500 dirt tracks across the U.S., drivers are often not so lucky.
JERRY BURTON had seen death. Growing up in Bloomington, Ind., in the 1970s, he spent Friday nights with his father, Jack, at Bloomington Speedway, a quarter-mile dirt track hunkered down in the countryside. Sitting in the wooden bleachers, the teenaged Jerry saw two drivers die in sprint car crashes. Jack, who made $12 an hour working at the local RCA plant, explained to his boy that life itself was dangerous and that every reward involved a risk. "That's just racing," he said. "All drivers know the potential price."
As a kid Jerry never had nightmares of ambulances speeding away from the track with their red lights flashing. Heck, no. He wished he could be one of those dirt-track daredevils; he longed to feel that adrenaline every time the engine fired, the thumping of 850 horsepower under his right foot.
His dad couldn't afford to buy him a $25,000 sprint car, but even so, as his classmates headed off to football and basketball games on Friday nights, Jerry went to that dirt oval, seduced by the speed, the danger, the acrid fumes. His longing for independence was stirred by this sport that pits one man and his machine against everyone else. His father preached self-reliance and walked out the door every morning at 6:30 to head to the plant. But in Jerry's mind no one could match the bootstrap tenacity of successful dirt-track racers. Those were his heroes.
He kept going back to the track even after he graduated from school, married and went into business for himself. In 1991, Jerry and his wife, Darlene, had a boy, Josh. Before Josh could walk, he sat on his dad's lap in the Bloomington Speedway grandstands. Jerry's company, Jerry Burton Masonry, flourished, and he bought Josh a four-wheeler when the boy was five, a go-kart when he was seven, a winged sprint car when he was 19. Watching his son power past other drivers on the dirt, Jerry beamed. "I couldn't do it, but Josh could," he says. "But over time racing can become a disease, like gambling: Even when you know you shouldn't do it, you do."
By last Memorial Day weekend, though, Jerry had begun to think that his son's racing wasn't a matter of could or should. It was a matter of money. Jerry had already spent more than $60,000 on two sprint cars, and he didn't know how much longer he could fund his boy's passion. But Josh, 22, was a dreamer. Blond and brown-eyed, with a dazzling smile, he wanted to be the next Steve Kinser, a dirt-track legend in Indiana who has won nearly 600 Sprint Car races in his 35-year career and earned millions in the World of Outlaws series. Racing against weekend warriors and other young hopefuls, Josh had won two main-feature events and dozens of heat races and had been named the 2012 rookie of the year at Bloomington Speedway. But Jerry kept reminding his son that racing was a hobby, not real life. The plan was for Josh, who worked as a foreman for his dad, to take over the family business one day. "That one day is not now," Josh said to his father as they worked on the sprint car in the garage of the family's three-bedroom ranch house, where Josh still lived. "Not yet. I've got races to win."
On the afternoon of May 24, Jerry and Josh installed $1,000 worth of parts in their orange-green-yellow-and-white number 04 sprint car. In the driveway they secured every bolt and lug nut. Jerry watched his boy: He had such a sense of purpose about him.
As they drove to the track together just before 5 p.m., Jerry knew he was kidding himself: He would never stop writing checks to cover Josh's expenses. There was no price tag too steep for the look of excitement on Josh's face as they neared Bloomington Speedway.
Since Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, there have been no fatalities in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series, none in Formula One and only three in IndyCar (Tony Renna in '03, Paul Dana in '06 and Dan Wheldon in '11). That racing at the highest levels is no longer a death wish—in the 13 years before Earnhardt died, there were 12 driver fatalities in NASCAR Cup racing, F1 and IndyCar combined—is largely attributable to numerous safety innovations: energy-dissipating soft walls called SAFER Barriers, carbon-fiber seats, head-and-neck restraints known as HANS devices and crushable materials in the body of the car.
"Racing can never be 100% safe, but there's no question it's much safer now than it was 10, 20 years ago," says Jimmie Johnson, the six-time NASCAR champion. "I've been in a lot of crashes where you think, Uh-oh, this could be bad, and the next thing you know, it's over and you're getting out of your car. It's pretty amazing how safe our sport has become."
IN THE universe of 11-year-old Lacey Richardson, her dad was the sun. Dave Richardson wasn't home much—he operated a 24-hour truck- and trailer-repair company and an auto-repair shop in Truckee, Calif., and often worked 100 hours a week—but in 2012 father and daughter discovered a shared love: racing. Dave competed in local dwarf-car events. On many weeknights Dave, 63, tinkered under the hood at his shop with Lacey by his side. Dwarf cars are replicas of vintage hardtop race cars from 1928 through '48 and have a top speed of 130 mph. Fascinated by their internal components, which fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Lacey got her fingers greasy as Dave explained how the parts worked.
The more hours they spent together in the shop, the more their discussions veered into real-life topics: school, values, family, dreams. In the dim light of the garage they began to high-five and hug each other, things they rarely did at home. This was their sanctuary, where Lacey laughed and smiled and felt loved.
In 2012, Lacey began racing go-karts on Saturday afternoons at Fernley (Nev.) Speedway, a 3/8-mile dirt track in the barren foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, 60 miles from Truckee. Piloting a kart that her dad had souped up to go 50 mph, she was always the only girl in the field—and she always won. A natural, Dave called her. Lacey's grade-school friends, busy with music lessons and scrapbooking and soccer, thought she was out of her mind. But she had no interest in their pursuits; she just wanted to be with her dad.
"My friends don't understand racing because they're just scared," she told her mom, Kari, and Dave one day. Thing was, Lacey was scared too—close-your eyes, hide-your-head-under-the-pillow scared ... for her dad.
The dwarf-car races at Fernley followed the go-kart events. In 2012, five years after Dave began blasting around the track, Kari quit attending the races. The way the dwarf cars bounced on the dirt and slid through the corners terrified her; she had nightmares of seeing her husband in a coffin. She didn't ask him to quit, but he knew the torture she went through every Saturday night. "When I get out on the track, all my problems go away," Dave explained to Kari. "I forget about everything else. To me, being at the track is almost like going to a picnic. It gives me purpose. I can't stop. Can't."
That left only Lacey to watch him race, but no more calmly than her mom had. After Lacey climbed out of her go-kart, she sat by herself in the grandstands with her hands pressed tightly over her eyes. "He just goes so fast," she told Kari, "and those guys are crazy out there."
Last May 25, two days before Memorial Day, Lacey and Dave wrenched on Lacey's go-kart in the Fernley infield, preparing for her race. But soon after the green flag dropped, Lacey's engine shut down. It was the first time in nearly two dozen starts at the track that she didn't win. "We'll get 'em next time," Dave said, wrapping his arms around her.
In the pits, as they examined the kart, Lacey and Dave talked to Leroy Kay, another driver. There were 15 men who routinely competed in dwarf car events at Fernley. It was purely a hobby for them: The winner of the main race usually earned a check of about $150. The oldest drivers were Dave and the 67-year-old Kay, who on the evening of May 25 felt as though he'd been given a second chance in life. For more than 30 years Kay, who lived in Yerington, Nev., had worked as an independent mineral driller throughout the West, often driving his 18-wheel rig through the night to reach his next job. He savored the solitude of the road, but the work was hard on his body, so he retired in March 2007. Two weeks later he attended a dwarf-car race at Fernley and was mesmerized by the Wild West action on the track. "I'm going to become a racer," he told his friends in the stands. Two weeks later he drove to Sacramento and paid $9,200 in cash for his first dwarf car.
Kay had been a reclusive, reticent man in his days as a driller, but racing changed him. He became a life-of-the-party extrovert. In the pits he called everyone "Sonny." Like a favorite uncle, he would put his arm around the younger drivers and their kids and ask how life was treating them. More than the races themselves, Kay enjoyed lounging on the back of his flatbed after the events with other race people, drinking beers and swapping tales—some taller than others. Asked by his girlfriend of 24 years, Donna MacGill, if he was going to attend an upcoming family reunion, Kay responded, "Hell no. My family is at the track. I'm going racing."
On this night Lacey couldn't stay at the track to watch her dad because she was sleeping over at a friend's house in Reno. Dave handed her $50 to go shopping in the morning. "I love you," he said. "I'm so proud of you. See you tomorrow."
Dave and Leroy talked for several minutes. Twilight swept across the desert. The two old-timers couldn't have been happier.
An average of 15 drivers a year have died on dirt tracks since Earnhardt's fatal crash. The actual average surely is higher, but in the every-man-for-himself world of grassroots racing, there are no official statistics. In the last 11 months there have been two high-profile dirt-track wrecks: former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler died in a sprint car race at Bridgeport (N.J.) Speedway on June 12, and three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart broke his right tibia and fibula at Southern Iowa Raceway on Aug. 5. Races on the dirt are far less regulated than those on the NASCAR and IndyCar circuits; in most dirt-track races, drivers aren't required to wear HANS devices, and the vast majority of tracks don't have soft walls—which means they aren't as safe.
But on dirt tracks the drivers are known for their frontier spirit, a sense that taking the ultimate risk is what makes the sport so exhilarating. "My son, Billy, died in a sprint car in 1983," says Bill Marvel, the executive director of the USAC Benevolent Foundation, which raises money for families of drivers who are killed or injured on dirt tracks. "I've had a lot of time to think about this, and I don't have regrets about him racing. I wish he was still with us, but when you grow up in racing, it becomes a powerful love. You accept that it can take everything from you, but you still do it because of that love."
Resources are limited at tracks such as Bloomington and Fernley, whose owners struggle to keep the gates open. Prerace inspections are cursory, if they're performed at all. At Bloomington the racers need only a valid driver's license—there is no required training—and a sprint car that meets certain specifications, from type of seat belt to wheel width. For dwarf events at Fernley, racers present a driver's license and then an official usually examines the cars for three to five minutes.
TONIGHT WAS going to be special. Josh Burton believed that the new parts in his sprint car, which had a top speed of 160 mph, would make him the driver to beat. At 5 p.m. he and his dad parked outside the track and unloaded Josh's car from the trailer. Josh signed in for the race in a small white wooden shed. Jerry studied the car closely, examining it one last time. It looked perfect.
A while later Josh strolled down pit road in a T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops, one fluorescent pink sock and one fluorescent green sock, the class clown making his adversaries smile. Jerry, just behind him, shook his head at his son's flamboyance; that sure wasn't how racers looked back in the day. Behind the wheel, though, Josh drove with suitably old-school fearlessness. In one race at Bloomington, he hit another car and was launched like a missile, 20 feet into the air. He barrel-rolled 70 feet into a grass field. It was the worst-looking wreck Jerry had seen in his 40 years at the track, and his heart beat madly until Josh emerged from the mangled machine. "If you can't win the show," Josh told his dad with a grin, "be the show."
Only 5'11" and 140 pounds, Josh was what is known in Bloomington as country tough—just like his dad. On July 4, 2011, Josh and another driver crashed at Bloomington. Both were upset, but after talking for a few minutes in a hauler, they shook hands. Still, one of the crew members from the rival driver's team kept badgering Josh, calling him a "p----" and a "b----." He told Josh, "I'm drawing a line right here in the ground, and if you want some, cross this line."
Grinding his teeth, Josh stepped forward and was immediately hit in the neck by the 6-foot, 180-pound crew member. But then Josh threw a right hand that broke the crewman's jaw and knocked out two of his teeth. The next day drivers started calling Josh One Hit Wonder. His legend grew with every retelling of the story, and now, on this spring evening at the track, his father looked around with pleasure at the 400 fans—including Josh's grandmother Judy—in the crowd of 1,800 who were wearing Josh Burton T-shirts that read ONE HIT WONDER. Sitting on a hill above Turn 4, two dozen of Josh's relatives donned the shirt, ready to roar.
Dave Richardson walked to his dwarf car, which sat only a few feet from the machine of Leroy Kay, who was holding court in the pits with his buddies. Richardson and Kay knew they had virtually no chance of winning the race—neither had ever won a main-event race—but that wasn't important.
A few days earlier Kay had told his girlfriend, MacGill, "If I have to die, I sure hope it's in a race car and not some drawn-out thing in a hospital."
Three weeks earlier Richardson had said to a friend, "I'll die on the track before I quit racing."
Just before 9:30 p.m., Kay and Richardson cranked the engines in their dwarf cars for the main event of the night.
Josh Burton was in trouble. As he drove through Turns 3 and 4 at 80 mph in a heat race that would determine which drivers qualified for the main event, a driver cut to his inside. In dirt-track racing this maneuver is called a slide job, because upon exiting the turn both cars slide up the slick track. That usually forces the driver on the outside to brake to avoid wrecking or flying off the track, but Burton didn't lift off the gas, and the two cars collided. Burton's sprint car flipped several times, bouncing off the track like a rubber ball.
The entire Burton clan rose to its feet, and the crowd fell into silence. The smell of methanol was heavy in the air. The family collectively exhaled when Josh leaped out of the cockpit. The track reporter ran to get his comment. "I ain't got time to talk to you," Burton said, his voice echoing over the vintage-1960s P.A. system. "I've got to get this thing fixed."
For the next 45 minutes Burton and his dad worked on his car, replacing broken parts. This was heaven for Jerry, being under the hood with his son. Josh still had a chance to qualify for the final race of the night if he could finish in the top four in the 12-lap Last Chance Showdown. With less than three minutes to go, father and son completed repairs on the car. Josh fired the ignition, and the crowd roared; One Hit Wonder still had a shot.
Josh rumbled onto the track. In the pits Jerry smiled at the dust his son left behind, sensing Josh was going to win the next two races. To celebrate they would return to their house and drink Bud Lights deep into the night—just as they always did after Josh took a checkered flag. Fans and other drivers would stop by, toasting Josh's promising future. Jerry would hug his son and then sit to the side by himself, watching Josh soak it all up.
Jerry was demanding of his boy, rarely failing to point out how Josh could have done his job better at work or taken different lines during a race. But seeing Josh at these victory parties was evidence that the tough love paid off. Josh was fast becoming a cult hero among race fans in Bloomington, the kind of driver Jerry had idolized when he was a kid.
Dave Richardson's nickname was Day Late Dave, because he was perpetually running behind. The name also described his on-track performances, because he rarely ran at the front of the field. On this night in Nevada, though, things were different: With only one lap left, Day Late Dave was in fourth place out of 13 cars. Leroy Kay was four positions behind him.
With the crowd of 400 on its feet and whooping, the drivers charged for the checkered flag. But then everything went wrong. Reece Wilson, 27, who was in second place as he motored out of Turn 4, only a few hundred feet from the finish line, ran over a deep rut in the dirt on the high side of the track. He lost control, hit the outside wall and bounced back into the middle of the track.
Richardson rammed into Wilson at full speed. Kay, hoping to avoid Richardson, turned to his left, but he didn't have enough room. At 90 mph Kay hit his buddy's car in the rear with his right rear tire. The collision was so violent that it sounded like a 747 had crashed in the desert. The crowd gasped.
MacGill, Kay's longtime companion, was watching from the cab of his truck, parked between Turns 3 and 4. "Oh, no!" she cried, scrambling toward the smoking wreckage. "Oh, no!"
Josh Burton started in the back of the 14-car field in the Last Chance Showdown, but as soon as the green flag waved, he passed one car after the next. For the first eight laps, he put on a dirt-racing clinic, displaying the talent and aggressiveness that made many longtime Indiana racers believe he would be their sport's next big thing. Three laps left, one car to pick off, Jerry thought in the pits. He's got this.
Entering Turn 1 at 95 mph, Josh's right front wheel flew off. The wheel bearing, which Jerry and Josh had put on minutes earlier inexplicably broke. Before every race Jerry spent hours awake in his bed going over every twist of every lug nut in Josh's car, praying that he and the boy hadn't missed anything. Now, as the wheel hurtled through the air, the right front of Josh's car dug into the dirt, sending the car cartwheeling into the top of Turn 1. Everything happened so fast. Josh's car was still rolling when the third-place driver plowed into the top of Josh's open driver's cage. The front end of the oncoming sprint car struck Josh in the helmet at more than 90 mph.
The race was red-flagged, but cars kept humming around the track as Jerry hopped on a four-wheeler and cut across the infield. He nearly flipped over before reaching his son. The track's medical team surrounded Josh's car. "Is he breathing?" Jerry yelled. "Is he breathing?"
He was—faintly. Jerica Burton, Josh's sister, sitting on the hill, called her mother at home. "Get here now," Jerica said. "There's been an accident."
Seven minutes later Darlene Burton was at Josh's side. Unconscious, he was placed on a gurney and lifted into an ambulance. As it sped to an emergency room—siren wailing, lights flashing—Darlene sat with Josh. Jerry rode shotgun in a trailing emergency vehicle. Through the back window of Josh's ambulance Jerry could see paramedics performing chest compressions on his son. "God, no," Jerry said. "Not Josh. Not now."
Over the radio scanner Jerry heard the words "Code blue!" He wanted to get out of the vehicle and run to this boy, but the ambulance carrying Josh had darted through a red light and now Jerry was stuck at the intersection. Josh disappeared into the distance.
Minutes after the crash at Fernley two medical helicopters rose into the sky from a Reno hospital. One landed in the middle of the infield, but it was too late: Dave Richardson and Leroy Kay were pronounced dead on the track, both from blunt-force trauma to the head.
Kari Richardson was in her living room in Truckee when the phone rang. She thought it was Dave calling to tell her about another race he had lost. What she heard instead made her collapse to the floor. Medical personnel had lifted Dave out of his cockpit, laid him on the dirt and put a tarp over his blood-covered body, just as they had over Kay's.
Kari curled up in the fetal position on a couch and prayed for guidance on how to tell Lacey, still at her friend's house in Reno, that her father was gone. Kari would wait until the next day to break her daughter's heart.
Kari didn't get to say goodbye to Dave, as Donna MacGill got to say to Leroy Kay. At first, track officials didn't let MacGill close to the accident scene, but then they relented. She bent down on the dirt, lifted the tarp and kissed the forehead of the man with whom she had shared a home for the last 24 years. "I love you, I love you, I love you," she said. She wrapped her arms around him. "You died happy—I know you did."
Josh Burton stopped breathing in the ambulance. Paramedics resuscitated him, but 10 hours later doctors informed his parents that the swelling in his brain was so severe that it was about to crush his brain stem and kill him. Josh was an organ donor, so doctors needed to keep him alive for about 45 more minutes because the recipients weren't ready for his organs. As doctors performed chest compressions on Josh, father and mother held their son's hands. When Josh finally passed away, Jerry felt as if every hope in his life had just been extinguished. Oh, my God, what have I done? he asked himself. What have I done?
Lacey Richardson knew something was wrong. Seven cars were parked outside her house when her friend's mother dropped her off on Sunday. Taking her daughter's hand, Kari led Lacey to her bedroom. "There's been an accident, and Dad is in heaven," Kari said.
Crying, Lacey walked to a window. Looking at her go-kart in front of the house, she said, "I never want to race again."
Donna MacGill stands outside of Fernley Speedway, pointing to where Leroy died. It's a windy afternoon, and dust blows into her eyes as she talks.
"I never thought he'd get injured," she says. "When I told him I was worried, he'd say, 'Oh, criminy, the cars are safe.' After the accident I didn't sleep for several weeks. It's still ... hard. Yep, it's still hard." A single tear rolls down her left cheek.
Lacey gazes at photos of her father: He's at the track surrounded by friends, he's in his race car, he's hugging his baby girl. The pictures sit in her bedroom and hang throughout the house. She couldn't bring herself to look at her dad in the casket at the funeral, and she never said goodbye. But he's still with her—in her dreams. "I wake up after a dream [he was in], and I'm so happy," she says. "But I miss him so much. It's so hard. At least he passed away doing what he loved. I like to think of that and how happy it made him." A moment later she is crying and can't stop.
Dave wasn't wearing a head-and-neck restraint, even though he owned one. "It's too restrictive, and I can't see with it," he frequently said.
"I can't help but think that the HANS could have saved his life," says Kari, sitting in her kitchen in Truckee. "They should be mandatory at these races." After a pause she says, "I have good days and bad. Saturdays are the worst. Those were his racing days. I'll never get over this."
Lacey has kept her vow and hasn't raced since that day. Her go-kart used to sit in the garage, but she wouldn't even glance at it, as if it were a monster lurking in the corner. She sold it, and now her most precious possession is the passenger-side door of her dad's race car, which is nailed to her bedroom wall. She looks at it every night before closing her eyes.
Jerry Burton wakes in the night. He walks to the garage, where one of Josh's sprint cars is still parked. He speaks to his son. "I'm so sorry, Josh," he says. "I got you into this, and I kept you racing. I could have stopped it, I could have, and you'd be with us today. I was hard on you, and I'm so sorry." In the dark garage, tears fall from Jerry's eyes.
In the silence, he says, he hears his son speak from the grave: Suck it up, Dad. I lived my dream. Suck it up. Get on with your life. Jerry moves inside and takes a seat on a recliner in the living room. Nearby, in a photo, Josh smiles as if he hasn't a care in the world. He's in the cockpit of his car, about to start a race.
Jerry stares at the photograph for seconds, minutes, hours. If he keeps staring long enough, he hopes, he'll find peace.
Memorial Day weekend of 2013 marked the deadliest 36 hours on dirt tracks in recent history. The deaths of Josh Burton, Dave Richardson and Leroy Kay reinforced a widely held belief in motor sports circles: The biggest risks in American racing aren't in NASCAR or IndyCar, in which drivers earn millions each year; they are on local dirt tracks.
Thirteen drivers regularly raced with Richardson and Kay at Fernley; all but two are still climbing into their dwarf cars. "I've got to be around to take care of my family," said Jesse Bankol when he explained why he was giving up the sport. Frank Hinds also quit. He told the other racers, "I'm taking my kid fishing."
Burton had a dozen close friends who were sprint car drivers. All continue to race at Bloomington.