Loved ones feel impact of racing wrecks

It’s the worst sound anyone can hear at a racetrack.

Not tires skidding across asphalt. Not sheet metal scraping against sheet metal. Not the force of a 3,400-pound machine plowing into a concrete wall.

The worst sound a driver’s loved ones can experience at a racetrack is silence. The car finally stops and the dust settles. The team radio falls silent.

That silence is the sound of not knowing.

Lynne Allmendinger knows that sound.

The wife of NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger vividly recalls the terrible, troubling silence that followed her husband’s wreck at Talladega last fall — feelings of helplessness revived for her last Sunday when Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon was killed in a fiery 15-car crash in Las Vegas … feelings of dread that resonated for families throughout the racing world as Wheldon’s fate remained a mystery.

AJ Allmendinger survived his Talladega wreck, but once Lynne Allmendinger heard the tragic news on Wheldon, she said, the effect was profound.

“Coming from the Champ Car World Series, which is now merged (with IndyCar), we have many friends still over there,” she said. “I started to cry. But it wasn’t just for Dan. It was for his wife and his two small children and their whole family. It struck me more than it had ever before, that that could have been my husband. And that resonated with me all night long.’’

Allmendinger’s memory flashed back to AJ’s wild ride last Oct. 31 at Talladega Superspeedway, site of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup race this weekend.

AJ’s No. 43 Ford, heading toward the white flag, made contact with a pack of cars. He slid on his lid, then sideways, nosefirst into the inside wall — and flipped back onto the apron.

Lynne Allmendinger describes the incident as the “worst wreck” she’s experienced with AJ since they started dating in 2006 and he was driving open-wheel cars. That’s when she learned to start listening for AJ’s voice.

“You watch it happen, you prepare yourself, you go to the medical center and 90 percent of the time you just end up with a pissed-off race car driver because his race is over,” she said.

“Normally, I’m very calm during wrecks. In fact, I get far more ‘emotional’ about ill-timed yellow flags or poor pit stops or mistakes that hurt us in the race, but during a wreck, I just stop, watch and listen.”

All because of her husband’s wreck at Talladega almost a year ago.

“The flip and cartwheel at Talladega sent me to a new emotional place,” said the former Lynne Kushnirenko. “He didn’t speak immediately afterward. He was labored to talk when he finally did, and I saw he got out of the car and sat down. He never sits down.

“My phone immediately starts to blow up, and at that point you need to prioritize and communicate with the family first. That was a longer-than-usual medical center visit, but I’m forced to wait outside until they released him. He was OK, of course, but he certainly had the wind knocked out of him.”

Emotions can overcome even a trained medical practitioner like Allmendinger, a chiropractor known throughout the NASCAR garage as Dr. Lynne, who said her first duty upon arriving at a track usually is to scout the infield care center.

So when AJ was involved in a wreck during the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, only months after they were married, she watched replays on the track’s big screen to analyze the impact and ascertain “what body parts will hurt, and what side, so I will know what to expect” once she saw him at the medical center.

Wheldon’s wreck was different … more terrifying.

“I had never really felt like that before,” Lynne Allmendinger recalled. “I had never really admitted to myself that that could happen to us. I kept thinking of how Dan’s wife (Susie) and family were feeling.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know that NASCAR racing is different than IndyCar racing, and I’m so glad that AJ is racing now rather than even as little as 10 years ago with all the recent safety improvements, but accidents happen in this sport, and they always will.”

Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said Wheldon’s wreck “impacted me dramatically.”

Johnson said he watched the IndyCar broadcast with his “mouth wide open.”

Though Johnson has always dreamed of driving in the Indy 500, that desire evaporated when his daughter, Genevieve, was born.

Johnson said he and his wife, Chandra, “kind of had a deal that, once we had kids, then I needed to look the other way on that. There’s the racer in me that wants to, but I know how dangerous those cars are, and (Wheldon’s wreck) was proof of how dangerous those cars are on ovals.”

When Johnson and the former Chandra Janway started dating, he attempted to ease his future wife’s fears by taking her to the race shop.

Johnson thought it would help her to see firsthand the commitment to safety surrounding the construction of NASCAR Sprint Cup cars, as well as the care a driver takes in selecting his equipment before he ever gets behind the wheel.

“She found a lot of comfort in that,” Johnson said. “But she’s got fears in there, without a doubt. And (Wheldon’s wreck) put that in a lot of people’s minds. Yes, it’s not the same type of cars, the same environment, but the risk is there. We’ve lost drivers in our sport. We’ve learned a lot of great lessons, and it’s raised our threshold for our impacts, but that fear is there.

"Knowing Dan, his wife and his two kids, then I’m sitting there with my daughter running around in the backyard, I was tore up.”

Johnson was in a violent wreck of his own the previous night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in which the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was destroyed.

Some worried it might have cost Johnson an opportunity to win his sixth NASCAR championship. Others had larger concerns.

“You watched him get out and jump into the ambulance and then you sighed with relief,” said Patricia Driscoll, the girlfriend of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.

“I watched him make his comments on TV after leaving the infield care center, and he looked upset that his day was over but looked like he was OK. I was glad for (Chandra Johnson) because we all get sick when we see someone wreck.”

Like Lynne Allmendinger, Driscoll has learned to listen for that telling silence.

“I watched Kurt’s crash at Watkins Glen (in August) and a few seconds of silence on the radio feels like a lifetime,” Driscoll said. “Nothing was better than hearing him swear on the radio because our day was done.

“(But) at least I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t hurt.”

Wheldon’s wreck was a wake-up call even for Driscoll, who has seen her share of tragedy through the years in her roles with two companies that support the US military.

“In my business, people die,” Driscoll said. “But when you have people shooting at you for a living, then it’s at least one risk we accept going in.

“I never expected that from racing.”

Driscoll serves as CEO of Frontline Defense Systems, which provides technological support to the military, and as executive director of the Armed Forces Foundation, a nonprofit that offers solace to military members and their families.

“In one year I lost 13 friends and colleagues, and have lost four to eight every year after that,” she said. “War is brutal, but we all accept that.”

But Driscoll was hit hard experiencing death in what essentially is an entertainment industry.

“Seeing a young championship driver who was the same age (33) as Kurt die this weekend was upsetting, to say the least,” she said.

“He has two little babies who will now never know their father. As a mother, that is heartbreaking. I can’t imagine the pain and uncertainty his family is going through right now.

“This weekend was an excellent reminder to me that Kurt has a dangerous job and that you can’t take any moment you have together for granted. After (Wheldon’s crash), I know that every wife and girlfriend of a driver will hold their breath a little longer when we see a wreck and will pray a lot harder before the race begins to keep these guys safe."

Matt Kenseth recently experienced what Lynne Allmendinger, Patricia Driscoll and others with ties to race car drivers frequently endure.

Kenseth’s wife, Katie, was injured Oct. 26 when she wrecked in practice for a charity race on the Legends track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He sat helplessly when the Bandolero car slammed into the wall.

“That was a little bit different — she got busted up there a little bit” he said.

“That was not a situation I should have let her get in to start with, especially with having the two little kids at home and all the work she has to do every day. I’m glad she ended up being basically OK. She’s getting better every day and recovering from it and starting to feel a bit better.”

Kenseth, a second-generation racer, is much more comfortable watching as his 19-year-old son, Ross, progresses through the racing ranks.

“I worry about it a little bit but not a lot,” Matt Kenseth said, “because I’ve watched him race a lot and we’ve got him good safety equipment. He knows what he’s doing out there, so I don’t quite worry about that as much.

“To put Katie in that spot, she’s never really (raced) before, really knew how to do a lot of that stuff — and some of that you just take for granted and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be that big a deal. It’ll be pretty easy for her.’ But when you do that every day, you take it for granted and don’t think it’ll be that big a deal.

“I learned a lesson there for sure.”

The 2003 NASCAR champion acknowledges his wife “is a lot tougher” than he is in terms of being a spectator and understands why she “worries to a certain extent.”

“She knows that’s who I am and that’s a big part of me,” he said.

“So we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. I think everyone has different beliefs and outlooks on things, and both her and I have the same thoughts when it comes to a lot of that stuff — when it’s your day, it’s your day … it doesn’t matter if you’re in a race car, you’re crossing the street, or whatever.

“Everybody thinks different about that stuff. … It’s not something I spend any time really thinking about.”

For most drivers’ loved ones, it’s not so easy to dismiss the possibilities.

“It’s no secret that our driver husbands absolutely love their jobs, and they just want to go fast and we all love to watch it,” Lynne Allmendinger said. “They are fully aware of the risks, but in some ways their level of arrogance or elevated egos also gives them this false sense of immortality.

“But they have to have that in order to do what they do. You can’t get into a race car and drive 200 mph and be scared — it just doesn’t work that way.

“As their wives, family, we don’t wake up every Friday, Saturday or Sunday and prepare ourselves for the worst. … We get ready to go racing, and we hope that everyone goes home safely so we can reconvene the following week and do it all over again.”

And hope they don’t hear that dreaded silence.