Denial of risks commonplace

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

ATLANTA -- Neil Bonnett was a racer who thought too much emphasis was placed on the dangerous side of the sport.

''I've had more friends die in construction accidents than on the racetrack,'' he often said. ''There's nobody who can make you get into that race car, but there are very few people who can keep you out of it.''

None of his construction friends, however, hit a concrete wall at nearly 200 mph like he did in 1994. He died instantly.

Davey Allison watched emergency workers perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on his father at the Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in 1988. His father survived the crash and was forced out of the sport with permanent injuries to his brain. Four years later, he watched helplessly from the sidelines as rescue workers cut his younger brother, Clifford, from a mangled race car at the Michigan Speedway. His brother died.

Two weeks later, Davey Allison was back in the driver's seat of his race car.

''It's what we do that puts us in these situations,'' he said.

The racing community is so spellbound by speed and competition, it often ignores the reality that can lurk around the next corner.

''When things are supposed to happen, they happen,'' said driver Kyle Petty, whose 19-year-old son Adam was killed last May at the New Hampshire International Speedway. ''Just because something bad happens doesn't mean you quit. As much as Adam loved racing, he wouldn't stop, so we won't. This is what I do. This is what we've done as a family.''

Perceptions of denial have followed racers since the first race. Around the NASCAR Winston Cup Series garage area, many of those perceptions are real drivers don't like to talk about death, and they rarely attend funerals.

By ignoring the obvious dangers of the sport, they make themselves feel more immune. Why else would they do it?

''I guess the Good Lord put (Adam's) number in the book, and it just happened to come up,'' said legendary driver Richard Petty, Adam's grandfather. ''We can't blame racing. We can't blame the track. We can't blame the circumstances. It was meant to be, and it happened.''

Sometimes, denial spreads throughout a family.

''I love racing as much as he does,'' Cathy Carelli said 16 months after her husband, Rick, was nearly killed in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race. ''I've been around it since I was a little kid. My dad and grandpa dragged me to the races, so that's all I've every known.''

Rick Carelli slammed into the wall at the Memphis Motorsports Park 16 months ago. He suffered a skull fracture that had him teetering between life and death.

''The first day that we were in the hospital, every doctor walked out and said, 'I need to prepare you because people don't live through this,' '' she said. ''I knew it was serious, but I didn't want to think the worst.''

Rick Carelli survived the crash. A year later, doctors said he was all right to drive again.

''It's all I've done for 20-some years,'' he said. ''You get around it; it's hard to leave. I wasn't going to stay on my porch and stop living.''

Carelli not only returned to the truck series, but he also he won a race earlier this month at the Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

The Allisons have endured more pain than any other family in racing. After losing two sons and a best friend (Bonnett), Bobby Allison, once the proud patriarch of the famed ''Alabama Gang'' now makes appearances as a spokesman for the state of Alabama.

Very little of his life now is geared toward racing.

When Adam Petty was killed, Bobby and his wife, Judy, came to the funeral. Richard Petty knew if anybody understood the pain, it was his longtime racing nemesis. The Allisons divorced after their sons were killed, but the Petty funeral brought them together for a common cause.

''It's ironic that a tragedy presented the opportunity for us to speak, and then to put our feelings aside to help someone else,'' Bobby Allison said. ''We needed the four years to heal.''

Meanwhile, the racing and denial never stops.

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