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No forgetting

After his son's death, Joe Renna finds comfort by embracing the driver who replaced him.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - This would have been Tony Renna's homecoming. This would have been the weekend his family assembled from DeBary and Milwaukee and New York and Los Angeles to watch the third race of his second full season in the Indy Racing League.

There were friends and memories across the bridge in Tampa, where they had lived for six years, where his older sister, Nicole, was born. They would have talked about how it all began on those long van rides together to quarter midget tracks from Connecticut to California.

But only Joe Renna will pace the edge of the red-and-white Chip Ganassi Racing pit box today when practice begins for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. When the No.10 Toyota flashes past, Tony Renna's 65-year-old father will crane to watch it curl out of sight and glint at a monitor to check its speed. With each glance there will be a reminder of what was, would could have been. But it's getting better with every lap.

"It was kind of tough knowing that there goes that No.10 car and that's where he should be, " Joe Renna said.

Nineteen months after Tony Renna was killed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his first day on the track with his new team, his father still attends a handful of races to support the man who replaced his son, Darren Manning, to honor his memory and simply to be around a sport that has meant so much to his family for more than 20 years.

"Motor racing has been part of our family life since he was 6 years old," Renna said. "It's been part of my life and it's just not something I can give up."

* * *

The shame of Tony Renna's story goes beyond the death of a vibrant, well-liked 26-year-old. The cruelty lies in the fact that he appeared on the verge of a dream he and his family had lived together since before he won his first quarter midget race at age 6.

Tony was born in Apple Valley, Calif., in 1976, the year after the family moved from Tampa where Joe, a journeyman jockey in the late 1950s and early '60s, ran a meat company.

Renna won the Skip Barber Formula Ford Florida Series title as a high school senior at Father Lopez High in Daytona Beach, and competed in Formula 3 in England until the campaign became too expensive for his family.

By 2000, he had moved onto a spot with PacWest Racing in the Indy Lights developmental series, and finished fifth in points as a teammate of Scott Dixon, the 2003 IRL champion and a future teammate at Ganassi.

Renna signed with the IRL's Kelley Racing in 2002 and served as driving coach for actor Jason Priestley in the Infiniti Pro Series. He replaced Al Unser Jr. for two races when Unser checked into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. Renna finished 10th in his IndyCar debut at Nashville and was installed in a third Kelley entry when Unser returned, managing four top-10 finishes in six starts.

Financially troubled Kelley Racing could only field a car for Renna in the Indianapolis 500, but he used the opportunity to create the break of his career. Renna qualified eighth and finished seventh, beating teammates Unser and Scott Sharp and more important, impressing Ganassi.

Renna's future apparently rolled out before him when he signed on Oct. 1, 2003, with the defending series champion team owner, but he was killed on Oct. 22 when his car went airborne at 227 mph and hit the catch fence.

"He finally gets with a team that has all the resources, all the engineering, everything, and he doesn't get the chance," Renna said, pausing. ". . .That's motor racing."

An IRL review of the accident did not definitively explain the cause.

* * *

Renna admits the first year after his son's fatal crash was the worst. Racing conjured more pain than catharsis, but slowly, he said, the pain has subsided.

"It gets better, it really does," Joe Renna said.

Joe Renna grew up a race fan, reveled when both of his daughters, Nicole, now 32, and Katie, 25, and then Tony started racing quarter midgets. It was a happy time, of family and of racing, of long weekends in the family van with a trailer and a cart tagging along behind. "Dad was the wrench," he said. "Mom was the PR and the scorer, the girls washed the car and boosted the brother."

Tony won 278 trophies in those years. Joe had warehoused them for his son, asked him what should be done with all these memories. After his death, he decided to donate them to a local quarter midget association, told them to peel off the labels and make them memories for some other little kid. But he kept one for himself.

"I have his first trophy, the first one he ever won," Renna said, his voice trembling slightly. "He was 6 years old. It was quarter midgets, August 1983. I'll never give that one up. No sir."

* * *

Even as the Rennas grieved, their thoughts turned to a stranger, Darren Manning, a 29-year-old former CART driver hired by Ganassi to fill Tony's seat. When Joe Renna learned that Manning would test at Homestead-Miami Speedway three months later, he drove 300 miles from DeBary to offer his support.

"I went out to Miami for the test to welcome Darren taking his spot," Renna said. "It was tough but I didn't think about myself, I was thinking more about Darren. Darren was a kid who had to be focused on what he needed to be doing and he didn't need to be thinking about Tony."

The moment was already awkward for Manning. Replacing someone who has lost his life on the track brings with it a tangle of emotions. Manning had wanted the Ganassi ride before Renna earned it, and replacing him this way brought a certain guilt.

"It is a very difficult situation," Manning said. "It's something very few people, very few times have ever had to deal with, really. David Coulthard raced great after Alex Zanardi's tragic accident. It was mixed emotions because I was excited I got to drive, but I had never been in a situation before where I was replacing someone who was involved in a fatal accident. Obviously, I was upset but the team welcomed me with open arms."

The transition was made easier when the Rennas, most notably Joe, did the same. The message was simple: "It's okay."

"They were very supportive after his accident," Manning said. "Tony's father and I had a nice chat and he wished me all the best and he told me if there was anything I needed from him ... he treated me like one of his own, really."

* * *

While many in such a situation would never want to see a racetrack again, Renna went back to cope with his loss.

"Joe has always loved racing," Tony's mother, Mary Renna, said. "Even before we were married, he was a race fan. He has pictures of Mario Andretti from long before I ever knew him. That part of him probably is really, really helpful. It probably is part of his therapy that he is able to go back and he is able to be around that whole scenario."

Tampa resident Ralph Liguori, 78, a Renna friend who helped teach Tony to race as a child, said those who don't race or love racers just can't understand.

"I know it sounds ridiculous to the lay person, but ... that's life," said Liguori, who raced stock and open-wheel cars. "It's so hard to explain.

"If your father or mother went to the bathroom to go relieve themselves and they drop dead in there, would you never go to the bathroom again?"

But coping has kept Mary Renna away from the track. Little reminders find her anyway.

"For me as a mom it was doubled-edge sword because the person who took Tony's place in a way honored Tony's memory. We know that Darren is a fine young man, an excellent racer," she said. "The other part of it, of course, is every time I go into a Target (Ganassi's sponsor) or I see a Target store and I see Scott and Darren's picture there ... I think, "Wow, that was supposed to be Tony.' Or I turn on the TV and the races are going, and it's tough for me because I think Tony's sitting in one of the cars."

The Rennas have been divorced for eight years, with Mary Renna living in Milwaukee, but they remain friends, likely even closer since Tony's death, she said.

The IRL community rallied around the family after the accident, Joe Renna said. League CEO Tony George dispatched a jet to gather the family and Renna's fiancee, Debbie Savini, around the country and bring them to Indianapolis. Ganassi leaves a seat in his suite and offers to pick up air fare, but Renna refuses. The IRL issues Renna and Nicole credentials.

"Motor racing is just a family," he said. "I can't tell you how much these people have done for me."

It keeps getting better. One lap at a time.