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Priestley, injured in race car crash, was no Sunday driver

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

In an episode of ''Beverly Hills 90210,'' the gang is challenged to a street race and is all set to participate, when Jason Priestley's character arrives on the scene, explains the dangers and puts a stop to it.

TV's Brandon Walsh almost always thought through situations and carefully considered the risks.

Priestley himself loves racing and speed so much that he put acting on hold to try to make a career as a race car driver.

On Sunday, he crashed into a wall at about 180 mph during practice for an Infiniti Pro Series race. He suffered a broken back, a moderate concussion, a broken nose, fractures in both feet, and cuts and bruises on his face and neck.

The crash raised questions about whether Priestley and other celebrities who chase the rush that comes from high speeds and side-by-side racing should be at the wheel of a race car.

''When you have a love for something, everybody knows it overrides what might be the safest thing,'' NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace said. ''This was a kid who has a great acting career, but like Paul Newman, wanted to go drive a race car.

''Maybe he shouldn't have, but he wasn't intimidated or scared, and he stood up to all the people who said, 'You should stick to being an actor.'''

The 32-year-old Priestley certainly is not the first actor to race cars (though he probably was the first to call a race on TV, having worked for ABC Sports as an analyst).

Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy dabbled in racing, and Newman was one of the first big stars to pursue it seriously. Newman won a race this year at 77, and two years ago he was on the winning team at the 24-Hour Race at Daytona -- among the most prestigious sports car events in the world.

James Brolin, Gene Hackman and Craig T. Nelson also pursued racing semiseriously, actress Cameron Diaz has attended racing schools, and dozens of celebrities compete each year in the Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race in California, which races Toyota Celicas on a city street course.

But Priestley wasn't in it to raise money or make the society pages. He wanted to be a race car driver and was committed to proving it.

''His Hollywood credentials were not his passport into the sport's inner circle,'' said Jack Arute, a pit reporter for ABC who has followed Priestley's career since he ran rally races as a youngster with his father. ''Instead, it was his passion for racing and his insatiable appetite for every sliver of knowledge it took to excel that endeared him to racers.''

Priestley started seriously pursuing racing in 1991 in the California Rally Series and won his first race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 1998.

He was a broadcast analyst for the Indy Racing League last year. This season, he joined the Kelley Racing team in the Infiniti Pro Series -- a developmental league for the IRL.

Opponents began viewing him as a knowledgeable and talented driver and noticed how hard he'd been working to prove himself.

''He's gotten to know everybody and changed everybody's opinion of him. He's shown he's a good racer. He's been running up front,'' driver Ed Carpenter said.

Jim Freudenberg, general manager of Kelley Racing, had noticed the changing attitudes toward Priestley.

''Drivers knew he was capable of running wheel-to-wheel with them and was in this quite seriously,'' Freudenberg said. ''He had worked his way into the best shape of his life, he was testing cars and devoting a full effort to this. It wasn't a part-time thing.''

Stanton Barrett, a Hollywood stuntman who occasionally races in NASCAR's Busch series, said he and Priestley would talk racing when Barrett was on the ''90210'' set filling in as either Priestley or Luke Perry's double.

''He knew I was into it and he had started go-karting back then,'' Barrett remembered. ''Later on, we both ran in the 24 Hours of Daytona in the same year. At the level he was at, and the time he was putting into it, he was taking it pretty seriously.

''It takes too much work and too much dedication not to take it seriously.''

The day before the accident, Priestley qualified his Dallara-Infiniti second for Sunday's 100-mile race. The Dallara-Infiniti is similar to an IRL car, but smaller and less powerful.

He never made the start, crashing into a wall during the final practice session.

It wasn't his first brush with danger. He crashed a powerboat in an April race in Miami, and in a 1995 rally race, he crashed his car in a ditch -- but finished the race.

It's one thing to give Diaz or former Olympic swimmer Dara Torres a tennis racket and let them volley with John McEnroe for charity. It's a totally different story when organizers give them keys to a race car and give them free reign to navigate an 11-turn street course in the Toyota Celebrity race at nearly 100 mph.

All the celebrities meet with driving school instructors before the Toyota event.

''This is serious stuff,'' said instructor Danny McKeever of Fast Lane Racing School. ''We're putting these people out on a race track and we want them to handle it as professionally and as safely as possible.''

Motor sports has been touched by tragedy in recent years, with several fatal crashes -- including that of NASCAR's biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, at last year's Daytona 500. That accident forced the toughest and most stoic drivers to take a hard look at their sport and accept the dangers.

''There's a reason I don't race cars -- because you can die,'' NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said recently. ''These guys who do this, they know that and they still do it. That's their choice and they deal with the consequences.''

Priestley apparently falls into that group.

''Yes, Jason Priestley is an actor,'' Arute said. ''But he is no part-time racer. Jason always insisted that, 'Acting is what pays the bills.' But he also was adamant that his competition in the IRL's Infiniti Pro Series was his 100 percent focus.''



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