Automobile racing, regardless of the venue, is a dangerous business. It goes without saying that those who participate in the racing universe and those who ardently follow the action from the safety of the grandstands or their TV rooms understand the risks.
But even the most rock steady fan of the NHRA and its Lucas Oil Sportsman division has truly been shaken and saddened by the freak accident in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday evening that claimed the life of Top Alcohol Dragster star Shelly Howard and her son, Brian.
The details of the accident will surely be discussed and dissected over time as the tragedy continues to sink in. According to reports, the 59-year-old Shelly was making a test pass in a newly delivered racecar at Tulsa Raceway Park when the dragster's front end lifted vertically somewhere near half-track, sending it into an uncontrollable blowover.
The car crashed heavily back onto the racing surface facing the starting line. Then, with her husband, Paul, looking on helplessly, the racecar accelerated back toward the starting line at high speed, crashing into the team's tow vehicle which was parked at the starting line with Shelly's son, 36-year-old Brian, sitting inside the cab.
Shelly and Brian lost their lives almost simultaneously in what those in attendance have described as one of the sport's most horrifying mishaps. Police estimated the car hit the truck at 250 mph. And while the accident itself is an unspeakably freakish tragedy, the circumstances and magnitude of the two lives ultimately lost seem to add an even greater dimension of inexplicable sadness to what was witnessed.
"She was certainly a great competitor and a great champion with
the NHRA,'' Anthony Vestal, director of media relations for the
NHRA, told the Tulsa World.
"Certainly, incidents involving a fatality are very rare. We
have millions of cars go down the track each year and while there
are incidents, the results being that extreme are very rare.''
Shelly Howard was a standout racer, a former Division 4 champion, a former registered nurse who won respect from everyone she encountered with her quiet manner, unquestioned driving skills, and devotion to her family, fans and crew. She also leaves behind two daughters, Jennifer and Tracy, and a legion of friends who came to know and admire her through her NHRA exploits.
Another bright light has been lost in the NHRA family as the sport has barely had time to heal from last year's loss of Top Fuel's Darrell Russell, another native of the state of Texas.
The cause, the outcome, and the aftermath of Saturday's nightmarish accident in Tulsa are all secondary to the magnitude of deep mourning that has swept across the hearts of drag racing fans everywhere.
Simply stated, this one really hurt and as we all offer our sincerest prayers and condolences to the Howard family, we will have to accept that it will take time to put these painful moments behind us.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.