SC Featured: Harli's Hero

Two years later, the mattress is still there. It leans against the wall in the hallway.

Every night, Donnie Ray Crawford's mother and father carry it to the floor of their living room, place it down and cover it with a sheet and blankets.

That's where they sleep. Two years later. The bedroom just isn't a place where they can rest, knowing what they know.

Knowing that Donnie Ray rests just a few hundred yards away, on a patch of ground beneath a lone shade tree, in the family cemetery they built for their son.

In a way, the path of Donnie Ray Crawford's life was laid out from the moment he entered the world. It was the shape of an oval.

The Crawford Family

Jodie Crawford on her son Donnie Ray's role in Harli White's accident: "He didn't want the credit for it. He just said he was a vessel."

He was less than a week old the first time he visited a racetrack. His father, Donnie Crawford, was a sprint car racing champion in Oklahoma, and his grandfather, Ray, a racer before that. Donnie Ray III, son and grandson of race car drivers, was the next generation, born into the family passion.

"It's in our blood," said his mother, Jodie. "We have other things in our life that are important to us, but racing has created a family bond like no other."

The Broken Arrow, Okla., native was 11 years old when he started his first midget sprint car race and, as his family tells it, Donnie Ray's talent was clear, his attitude bold. If he was second and there was a fraction open to move into first, he found it or made it. That's racing in the tight bullrings that pass for dirt tracks in the Plains.

"Sometimes he scared me coming around for that checkered flag," Jodie said. "He wanted to win."

From the start, he raced hard and won often. On the track, Donnie Ray Crawford had the one quality perhaps more essential to greatness than speed: He was fearless. That quality is what mattered most in the moment that defined his racing career.

Like Donnie Ray, Harli White came from a racing family.

She was 12 years old when she made her first competitive start in a midget sprint car. It was April 5, 2008, at the I-44 track in Oklahoma City. On a turn that night, she skidded along the wall and turned the car over on its side. The fire started almost immediately.

With Harli trapped inside, track officials tried to extinguish the flames as her father, Charlie, ran to the burning car. As hard as he tried, pulling on both of her arms, he could not free his daughter.

"I tried to pull her and she's like, 'No Dad, I can't, I'm stuck, I'm stuck,'" Charlie recalled. "My little 12-year-old girl ... she's gone, she's burned up."

Donnie Ray had the pole position for the next race scheduled that night. From his headset, he heard the report of the fire. In his fireproof suit and helmet, he left his car, ran across the track and went straight into the flames.

"I reached into the car," he recalled in an interview with the Oprah Winfrey Network three years after the accident. "I grabbed the seat belt, and I was able to grab her and free her from it. I pulled her out of the car. She was still on fire, and I laid on her to smother it out."

"All I remember is I was in the car and I gave up," Harli said. "And then, I open my eyes and I'm laying on the ground."

"He was just seeing a big ball of fire and he ran right straight in the middle of it," Charlie said. "Not knowing if it was going to explode again, not knowing if he was going to come out of it, not knowing if the person inside was alive or dead. He just knew that there was somebody in trouble."

Charlie shook his head in awe and wonder, pausing at the memory and the truth -- Donnie Ray Crawford saved his daughter's life.

"People started coming up to him afterwards and calling him a hero and just shaking his hand and grabbing him," Jodie remembered. She was at the track that night and watched from the stands as her son ran toward the fire. "He didn't want the credit for it. He just said he was a vessel."

Whatever the mysteries of heroism and origins of courage, the night at the track was a set of events simple in their unfolding and profound in their result.

A situation. A reaction. A repercussion.

For Harli White, there was survival. For Donnie Ray, there was something else.

"He was traumatized," Jodie said.

The White Family

Harli White and Donnie Ray Crawford met after her accident and supported each other while competing on the same racing circuit.

Donnie Ray carried the fire with him despite trying to deflect the attention and acclaim he never wanted to receive.

"He would talk about the smell," his mother said, "the smell of her hair burning, the smell of her flesh burning."

Donnie Ray was 20 years old when he rushed into the fire. For a period of time after the incident, he went to school to become an emergency medical technician. He thought of pursuing a career as a firefighter. But his mind and heart never left racing, and he never stopped winning. Point championships. Tulsa Shootouts. Rookie of the year titles. He was a burgeoning star on the midget circuit.

At Port City Raceway in Tulsa, six months after the accident, Donnie Ray met Harli for the first time. After receiving third- and fourth-degree burns over nearly half her body and undergoing multiple skin-graft surgeries and months of grueling rehab, she was determined to race again. The reunion was overwhelming for Harli and her family.

"She was with her mom and I was with my mom," Donnie Ray recounted in that same 2011 OWN interview. "It was a pretty emotional deal. Both moms starting busting out crying."

"Being 13 years old, I didn't know what to say," Harli, now 18, said. "What do you say to somebody that saved your life?"

The meeting led to a friendship and bond between the drivers and their families. For the next 3½ years, the Whites and Crawfords saw each other at tracks across the sprint car circuit. Donnie Ray became a mentor for Harli, as the two swapped stories, laughs and advice in their respective trailers, even as they competed against each other.

"I loved looking over there and seeing the two of them conferring with each other," Jodie said. "I know there were a couple of times that he told her, 'Harli, be a little bit more aggressive.'"

As Harli's own wins total started to climb, Donnie Ray's path was changing. At the start of 2012, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering. The Whites lived in Lindsay, close to the Norman campus, and Donnie Ray planned to live in their house at the start of his collegiate career. A bedroom had already been set up there, and he already decided what his last race for the foreseeable future would be -- the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa in mid-January. Harli was set to race there, too.

On the morning of Jan. 14, 2012, Donnie Ray got out of the shower and went to his parents' bedroom to let them know when they should head over to the track for the races later that day.

We're kind of stuck. We don't want to go back down the lane of memories, go places, do things that we did with Donnie Ray, because he's not with us now. But we don't want to create new memories without him.
Jodie Crawford on trying to move on after the death of her son, Donnie Ray

Donnie Ray shared the house with his parents and maternal grandfather, Daniel Garcia.

Without warning, the morning was broken with gunfire.

"My son's standing there right next to me, right next to our bed, and all of the sudden, I just heard a shot," Jodie recalled. "I heard the sound come out of Donnie Ray's mouth and, simultaneously, he turned a little bit, and that's when I got the first glimpse of my father."

Garcia, 74, who according to the family had a history of mental illness, previously served prison time following a 2004 arrest for assault with a dangerous weapon.

He continued into the Crawfords' bedroom that day. Jodie, in tears, recounted what happened next.

"There was a struggle, and we got my father down to the floor. At one point, we all three had our hands on the gun, and we were just kind of in a standstill motion. We were frozen, all three of us. I looked over at Donnie Ray ... and the way he was laying, he was looking straight at us."

She paused for a long time. "I never dreamed he was dead."

In the struggle for the gun that followed, Jodie was wounded. Her father was killed, as was her son.

Donnie Ray Crawford was 24.

The news of Donnie Ray's death reached the track in Tulsa later that day and devastated the racing community. Harli White, coming off the track, learned what happened from her father.

Courtesy of The Crawford Family

The Crawford family came out to support Harli White when she clinched last year's OCRS sprint car season championship.

"It hit me so hard," Harli said. "He is my hero ... he saved my life, but yet he's gone?"

Charlie White continues to struggle with it.

"He was an angel. He was a hero. He was superman," Charlie said. "Why? Why Donnie Ray? Here we are, racing, and the young man that pulled her from the car -- that we should be doing whatever we can for, for the rest of his life for saving my daughter's life -- he gets murdered? Why? Why?"

In time, Donnie Ray's death only left Harli more determined. In 2013, she won the OCRS sprint car season championship in Wainwright, Okla., becoming the first female driver to claim a sprint car title in Plains region history. She drives on toward her dreams, carrying his memories.

"I try to honor him by doing the best that I can do, and by winning as many races as I can," Harli said.

Jodie Crawford feels the connection, too. "We have to look at her as our miracle. We have to look at her as part of Donnie Ray."

After their son's death, Donnie and Jodie went to the track to see Harli just once, when she clinched her championship. It was all they could do and what they could bear.

For months, they left their house in Broken Arrow where it happened. But the ranch's rolling land and hundreds of acres have been in the family for a long time. Friends helped remodel much of the interior, trying to build a new home for the Crawfords' return, a place for new memories.

There are pictures of Donnie Ray and their beautiful daughter, Chassi, on the walls and tables. There is a scholarship foundation to help others in racing pursue their educations. There is Boomer, Donnie Ray's big golden dog, wandering the house and eager to play. There is strength in a family's perseverance and faith in their tolerance.

But there is no racing. Not anymore.

"We're kind of stuck," Jodie said. "We don't want to go back down the lane of memories, go places, do things that we did with Donnie Ray, because he's not with us now. But we don't want to create new memories without him."

Under that shade tree where Donnie Ray Crawford rests, on that peaceful plot of land in the family cemetery, there is still no headstone at his grave. In the house, there is still no one sleeping in his parents' bedroom. Two years later, they try to forget. They always remember.

Courtesy of James Pratt

Donnie Ray Crawford is buried under a shade tree just yards from his parents' home in Broken Arrow, Okla.

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