I just saw the news from Marysville Raceway Park. Merle Allen Shepherd Jr. has died from injuries sustained in a crash in Big Rig race at the track. My condolences go out to his family.
I'm not going to get into the question that I've already seen asked, which is why did the track book such a race. It's obvious they did it for entertainment. I've seen tracks that have held school bus races, Figure 8's and other types of races that buck the norm and are there for entertainment value. They were trying to add more entertainment value to the show at a time when more and more people are choosing other forms of entertainment for their dollar. It's doubtful anybody saw this tragedy coming when it was booked, though now through the benefit of hindsight...
What's worse is the sensationalistic way things have been covered by the media, but in this sport, you have to expect that. The media loves to jump on things like this anyway. Plus, the booking of this race to begin with leaves itself open to that.
I don't claim to be a religious person. I don't go to church and don't have a desire to do so. I do believe in the creator and the creative force that makes it all possible, but the religious theories and dogmas are another thing. I'm not gonna preach, and what you believe is your belief. We all have our own relationship with the creator, and nobody should try to force their beliefs on us.
But, I understood every time a racer strapped into a race car at a track I was at, whatever the division, that could be their last race. I never saw anybody die at a track, though I knew a Figure 8 racer who died later after I had stopped attending races. You just sort of take it for granted when a crash happens that they will just be okay and walk away. I wonder how many people are desensitized at this point to where when they see a particularly hard crash at a track, they just expect everybody to be okay.
This is why when I first started hearing the evocation, the prayer before the races, at Altamont back in the 1990's I was all for it. They do it before the NASCAR races. To me, it's not about a particular religion, but rather just asking for the creator, or protective spirit or energy, to keep the racers safe, and it sets a mood for the night. It lets the racers and fans know that even with all of the safety and everything, bad things can happen, so be respectful out there and pay attention. Tom used to have the evocation at Chowchilla and I even performed it once at Tulare when I announced there.
Bad things can happen, but we love this sport. Drivers know and understand the risks, and they still want to race. In the event of a death, it's highly unlikely that any racer would want that track closed on their account. To hear the comments out there that this track should be closed just misses the point entirely. This attempt to run Big Rigs may not have been as well thought out as it should have been, but the safety record of the general program has been good otherwise during the current management's time at the track.
Now, I understand Paul Hawes has discussed the situation with track owner Richard Sinnott and decided to cancel the rest of the season. Certainly, there could be legal things that I am not privy to, and if that's the case, so be it. I understand Paul and Merle have been friends for years, so he is undoubtedly grieving and dealing with the guilt that a person in his position will feel when something like this happens. If that is the main basis of this decision, I hope that Paul will take the time and realize Merle wouldn't want the track to close this way. He got into that rig and raced because he wanted to, and he accepted the risks.
When moments like this arise, it is best to put it all into perspective, in my opinion. It's the people at these events that matter, not the results of the races or any of that, but the people themselves. I would think that all of the racers and fans should be given a chance to grieve and begin to heal, and one way to start that process is to have a service at the track for our fallen racer. No races that night, a service for all to pay their respects.
Then, if it's not a legal issue, the show should go on a week later. Don't let this be the end of a race track that has meant so much to so many racers and fans, including Merle himself.
I would hope that the fraternity of promoters out there would offer a little moral support to Paul during this time, particularly the ones I know he works with or talks with. This should include encouragement for reopening the track and finishing the season if this is legally possible. I have seen one track trying to use this as an opportunity to get the cars. Business is business, I suppose, and drivers need to race someplace if their track does indeed close, but still...
That this could be the moment that Paul decides he needs to leave the sport or at least promoting, I can definitely understand. This tragedy happened under his watch, but to put ALL the blame on him isn't entirely fair either. This will be something that is likely to stay with him over time. At the race track, the buck stops with the promoter. But it is also important to recognize all of the positives he has brought to the track too. Whatever the final decision, I wish Paul the best.
And again, my condolences go out to Merle's family and my thoughts and prayers go out to them and all of those involved and effected by this tragedy.