There to help
Motor Racing Outreach counsels in wake of tragedy
Updated: Tuesday February 20, 2001 8:27 AM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As Dale Beaver, the Winston Cup chaplain, headed to Victory Lane to offer a celebratory handshake to Michael Waltrip, frantic word came that he was needed in the infield care center. Dale Earnhardt was in bad shape.
Beaver and Max Helton, founder of Motor Racing Outreach and senior chaplain, would go directly to Halifax Hospital to join Earnhardt and his family. They were present when doctors pronounced Earnhardt dead, consoling his wife, Teresa; son, Dale Jr.; and team owner Richard Childress.
Later Sunday night, after returning with Dale Jr. to Daytona International Speedway, upwards of 250 members of the racing community joined them in a service inside the gated compound that houses the driver and team-owned motor coaches.
"It was real weird," Beaver said. "Nobody wanted to leave. People were walking around like zombies. So I said, 'If guys want, let's come over and pray together and try to find some hope in this.'"
In a sport where danger beckons at every corner, religion and spirituality can play a major role in the life of a driver -- and the non-denominational Motor Racing Outreach provides the structure during the long race season. Beaver travels by motor coach to every Winston Cup stop. On Sunday, a little more than an hour before the start of the Daytona 500, he led a service for the racing community that filled a garage just off pit row.
Beaver was back in North Carolina a day later, at the side of Dale Jr., who he's developed a relationship with over the last two seasons.
"Our presence at the track allows us to build relationships with the community, so when situations like this happen, they're comfortable with us," said Billy Mauldin, chief executive officer for Motor Racing Outreach. "They're willing to seek our help. That is probably the essential function we serve for the racing community."
When disaster strikes, like the death of stock-car icon Earnhardt, MRO chaplains react like the trained trauma specialists they are. And with four deaths since last May, it's become a too common routine.
They were back at it again in the wake of Daytona, counseling drivers who had returned home to the Charlotte area. A Bible study was scheduled for several living in Florida. Other chaplains paid visits to the race shop of Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt drove, and Earnhardt's own shop in Mooresville, N.C.
"These folks are family," Mauldin said. "Any time anyone is lost like this, it affects them all. It hurts deeply. Dale was much more well known than some of the others, but they all hurt. The only difference here is the public recognition Dale enjoyed and the fact that he was a leader in the community because of his success."
As for Earnhardt, Mauldin described him as "a man of strong faith, but he was very private about it."
Before the Daytona 500, as is the practice at every race, MRO chaplains walked the starting grid and prayed individually with many a driver and his wife. Helton, the senior chaplain, prayed with Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa.
Beaver describes the drivers as tender warriors, tough on the outside. But he's never had a conversation about death with a driver.
"They have tremendous faith," Beaver said. "They wrestle, they get mad -- they're not perfect people. I don't think it's because they grew up in the Bible Belt so much as it is the nature of the sport, but there is an awareness that today might be last day."
Yet most drivers insist they can't think about dying or dwell too long on the dangers of their sport. That touch of reality might make them too fearful to do their job. Even after tragedy, they hop back in their car for the next race.
"I don't think anybody denies the danger that exists," Mauldin explained. "I heard Ward Burton talk about watching the first Twin 125 [qualifying race] down there last week. He said, 'Golly, we must be crazy.' Then it came time to get in his car, and it felt as natural as could be. That is who he is.
"Do they recognize the danger? Sure they do. But it is who they are. It is their passion and what they grew up doing their whole life."