Sunday, October 26, 2014

I wrote my first NASCAR article for the website Insider Racing News (IRN) 10 years ago this week in the aftermath of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash tragedy, which had taken place a few days earlier during the Martinsville Cup race.  Here is a reprint of that article.  It was the beginning of my eight-year stint writing a weekly column at IRN, which I estimate totaled about 400 articles.

What Can We Do To Help?

Becca Gladden - October 29, 2004

We have all experienced the death of someone close to us. Sometimes it is sudden and sometimes it is gradual. It is never easy.

But losing 10 loved ones in an instant is almost unfathomable.

As news of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash spread Sunday, members of the NASCAR community reacted with palpable symptoms, described as having the wind knocked out of them or being punched in the gut. It felt, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it, "like a hammer to the chest."

We shared many common emotional responses as well: heartache, sorrow, anguish, shock, grief. We struggled to make sense of something so utterly senseless.

More than anything, we searched, almost as one, for a way to help those most intimately affected. We intuitively wanted to ease their suffering, even taking some of the burden on ourselves if we could.

But most of us are not part of the inner circle of family and friends of the victims. We can not be there to personally express our love and support.

So what can we, as members of the vast extended family that is NASCAR, do to help?

I humbly offer the following five suggestions for anyone seeking to channel their pain into something positive:

1.  Appreciate life. You may have heard the saying, "Today is a gift; that’s why it’s called the present." Unwrap each new day with a thankful heart. Count your blessings. Treasure time spent with family and friends. I recently learned an important lesson in this regard while standing in line at the pharmacy. As the man in front of me handed in his prescription, the clerk noticed that his birthday was in just a few days.

"I hate birthdays," the clerk grumbled. "They just remind me that I’m getting older."

"Well, I’m battling cancer," the gentleman replied with a smile. "I've been fighting for my life every day this year, and I wasn't sure I would ever see another birthday. To me, this birthday is a huge victory. And every birthday from now on will be a reason to celebrate."

It is easy to get caught up in the sometimes petty struggles of every day life. In reality, we can not live as if each day is our last. But we can learn to cherish life, even through the most trying times. As you remember the 10 people lost on Sunday and ponder the difficult road ahead for their significant others, honor them all through heartfelt gratitude for the life you have.

2.  Send your thoughts and prayers. If you haven’t already done so, offer positive thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by the tragedy. The collective energy of the NASCAR family will uplift and sustain them through the difficult weeks and months to come. If you doubt that this is true, consider the following from a 2001 BBC News report:

"Patients admitted to the hospital with heart problems suffer fewer complications if someone prays for them, according to scientists in the US. The study, carried out at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, found that patients who received alternative therapy following angioplasty were 25% to 30% less likely to suffer complications. And those who received 'intercessory prayer' had the greatest success rate.

"Patients were chosen randomly to receive coronary stenting with standard care or coronary stenting plus one of four alternative therapies - guided imagery, stress relaxation, healing touch or intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided by seven prayer groups of varying denominations around the world. Neither the researchers nor the patients were aware of who was being prayed for, but the results showed that, of all the therapies, prayer appeared to have the greatest therapeutic benefits."

Whether you believe in prayer per se, or simply in directing positive energy to the grieving, your strength and love will most certainly have an impact.

3.  Make a donation. One of the best ways to honor those who have passed is to help others in their name. In the days ahead, watch for information from each of the families regarding their charities of choice. Offer a donation in the name of one or all of the victims, or contribute to your favorite charity if you prefer. By doing so, you not only honor their memories, but, in some small way, you help turn a terrible tragedy into something a little less horrific. You don’t need to donate a lot in monetary terms; even a dollar can make a difference for someone in need. Or you could donate your time to a worthy cause. In the words of Mother Teresa, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

4.  Stay true to racing. When tragedy strikes, it is human nature to question the value and importance of things like sporting events. But to those on board the Hendrick flight, racing was not just a hobby or a pastime. It was their passion and their way of life. While no one can presume to know what those 10 people would say if we could talk to them today, conventional wisdom holds that they would not want their deaths to effectuate the end of the very thing that they loved most in life.

After the deaths of over 3,000 innocent people on September 11, 2001, the country collectively wondered whether we would ever feel right enjoying things like sports again, which seemed so trivial in the bigger scheme of things. In retrospect, those first few sporting events after 9/11 helped the nation start down the long road to healing. Paul Crane, in a 2002 article for the Cavalier Daily, wrote:

"Football and baseball games across the country brought thousands of people together from sea to shining sea, honoring the victims of that dreadful day. It was sporting events that witnessed thousands of fans belting out 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and saluting the American flag. It was the baseball World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees that helped bring electricity and excitement back to the 'city that never sleeps,' while at the same time honoring the victims. 

"Even for many who didn't care about baseball, last year's magical World Series captured the American imagination when the nation needed it most ... Sports have always had the unique ability to bring together all types of people, pulled from the melting pot that is the American experience - no matter their background, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status. The theory of: 'As long as you're rooting for who I'm cheering for, we're on the same team.'"

Our sport has faced death a number of times before and, sadly, is doing so again. I am confident that the NASCAR nation will unite just as the entire nation did after September 11th. When it comes to supporting those affected by this tragedy, we must all be "on the same team".

5.  Vow to never forget. The most frightening thought when you lose loved ones is that, over time, they will be forgotten. Make a personal commitment to remember the 10 special people who died on Sunday, and hold yourself to that commitment. If you are personally acquainted with any of their friends or family members, reassure them that their loved ones will never be forgotten. If scholarships or similar ongoing memorials are established, contribute to them - not just now, but in the years ahead. And when the results of the crash investigation are released, pay attention to them, learn from them and, if possible, utilize the findings to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

Let us all work to see that the 10 lives lost will not have been lost in vain.