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Doug Herbert Races On With A Still-Aching Heart

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
Doug Herbert is an emotional favorite this weekend in the Carolina Nationals at ZMax Dragway. (Photo by John Richards/CompetitionPlus.com)

Doug Herbert is an emotional favorite this weekend in the Carolina Nationals at ZMax Dragway. (Photo by John Richards/CompetitionPlus.com)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com.

Concord, N.C. – Virtually every day for the past 20 months, Doug Herbert has pulled out of the driveway of his home in Cornelius, N.C., headed up the street and passed the site where the first part of his life came to an end.

And every day for the past 20 months, Herbert has vowed to do whatever he can to make sure that events like the one which happened at that site near his home never occur again. Never.

In fact, one of the big reasons Herbert continues to pursue his career as a Top Fuel owner/driver in the NHRA is the quest to insure it never occurs again.

It was at that site near his home that Herbert’s two sons, Jon and James, were killed in a car wreck in late January of 2008. Jon was 17. James was 12.

It was the morning of January 26, 2008 when Jon and James were in the family’s Mazda. Jon was at the wheel. He went to pass another car when he lost control of the Mazda. It collided with a Hummer coming the other way and just like that, the Herbert family was torn apart.

Herbert was in Arizona testing his Top Fuel car so he got the news by phone.

“It was like you get kicked and you’re down,” Herbert said Saturday as he sat at near his car in the pits at ZMax Dragway, site of this weekend’s Carolinas Nationals. “You know even now, it’s a year and a half after the accident and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Jon and James several times a day.”

The horrible irony that a person who drives 300 mph for a living lost his two sons in a car wreck is not lost on Herbert. It haunts him a bit, in fact.

“I may have contributed to it,” Herbert said. “I’d yell at him for driving fast or whatever and he’d say, “You drive your race car over 300 mph.” I’d say, Jon, we do that at the race track in a car made for going 300 mph and I’ve got all my safety equipment to keep me safe and there is nobody else who’s going to get hurt. It’s different. I think, some times, teen-agers have a hard time differentiating between these different circumstances.”

The fact that the fatal wreck happened so close his home was initially difficult for Herbert. He would pass the crash site and go into an understandable funk.

After awhile, however, it occurred to him that he needed to turn the funk into something more positive.

“I started figuring out ways to do stuff,” Herbert said as his crew scrambled to get his car ready for qualifying. “Now every time I drive by there, I’ll think about something good. I’ll think about a song that they liked or something good. Now when I go by there, I’ll smile because there were a million good things and only one bad thing” to think about.

And he began to think about things he could do to combat a problem that he knew existed during the first part of his life, but one which he did not know the depths of – teen driving deaths.

“I had no idea how big it was,” Herbert said. “I had no idea that there was 6,000 kids each year (dying) in accidents. I had no idea that there were 400,000 kids going to emergency rooms every year. I was 16 once too and did crazy stuff.”

When he did realize the depth of the problem, he decided to get involved in helping with a solution. He founded BRAKES, which stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe. It’s a non-profit organization which raises awareness of teens and their parents about the problem and also hosts schools which teaches teens how to handle cars in emergency situations.

Herbert was asked if he thinks founding BRAKES may have saved lives and could be a silver lining to the very black cloud which has hovered over his life the last 20 months. He seemed reluctant to cross that line.

After a long pause, Herbert said, “I look at it like…like…like I got to make something good happen out of something that was so bad. I do get these letters from parents and people who come and tell us how going through our program has a helped them avoid an accident…”

Thoughts of his sons are on Herbert’s mind more than usual this weekend. The ZMax strip is just 25 miles from the Herbert home. He says he is treating the race here as his Super Bowl.

“This is it,” Herbert said. “This is it. We’ve got all the stops pulled out.”

Herbert says that when he stages his cars these day, he hears his sons talking to him and that that increases his focus. He says his reaction times have improved because of that and thinks it’s a wonderful way to remember his boys.

With his memories of his boys especially vivid at the Concord track, Herbert has started off the weekend well. He was fastest in the first round of qualifying on Friday afternoon and was third after the second round Friday night.

He had high hopes Saturday morning that his time would hold up through two rounds of qualifying. He had higher hopes that he could lay down a time in one of those sessions which would return him to the top.

Most of all, he had high hopes that neither he nor anybody else would ever go through what he went through last on Jan. 26, 2008.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
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