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Career up in smoke

Geoffrey Bodine is lucky to be alive, and he knows it, but it doesn't stop him from wanting to race again.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- The morning fog was slow to lift.

With practice delayed 45 minutes and plenty of work to be done on his son's race truck, Geoffrey Bodine pulled a silver wrench from a tool box and ducked under the hood Monday at Daytona International Speedway.

He is an 18-time winner in the Winston Cup series. And at 51 years old, he is young enough to be driving.

But Bodine is not.

"It hurts me not being over there," he said, glancing at the Winston Cup garage before Craftsman Truck Series practicebegan. "Believe me, it's been the hardest thing I have had to do in my life."

One year ago Sunday, Bodine's life and career changed forever in a series of rolls, flips and a flash of flame during the inaugural truck race at the 2.5-mile track.

"It was probably the worst accident you'll ever see in NASCAR, hopefully," said younger brother Todd Bodine.

The crash began when two trucks bumped on the frontstretch. By the time everything settled, 13 cars were involved and nine fans injured.

Bodine's truck had gone airborne into the catch fence after flipping six times and disintegrating along the way in a ball of flame. The roll cage, which housed Bodine, was the only thing left intact.

"It happened so fast and I was knocked unconscious, so I don't remember any of that," said Bodine, who sustained a concussion, broken right wrist, sprained right toe, an injured vertebrae, cuts, bruises and burns in the wreck.

"It certainly changed my life and my career in racing, there's no doubt about that."

Though he returned in May, Bodine's ability to drive a race car is hampered by lingering effects from the crash. He now helps his son Barry try to advance through NASCAR's ranks.

He is an outsider for the first time in 21 years.

"I get pretty depressed about it," Bodine said.

His brothers, Todd and Brett, remain active in Winston Cup as drivers.

They were standing atop the family's motor home when Geoffrey crashed in the truck race last year. They didn't realize Geoffrey was involved until they watched the rest of the field circle around and saw he wasn't there.

"As I said before he saw the tape, "All I've got to say is you've got some unfinished business on this earth because you should've checked out of here today,' " said Brett, who owns and drives the No. 11 Ford. "Who knows if we'll ever find what that unfinished business is. Certainly the magnitude of that crash should have been worse than it was, worse than what the results were."

Whether his brother would try to return was never a question.

It was a matter of healing: mind, body and soul.

Four weeks after the crash, after he lay in serious but stable condition at Halifax Medical Center, Bodine began working out.

"The first workout was just getting there and riding a stationary bike," he said. "I got back into shape pretty quick. We were all amazed at how I bounced back from that accident, but I was in great shape before the accident and that really helped."

Bodine made his return to racing in May at Richmond International Raceway but enjoyed only marginal success. He was fired from Joe Bessey Motorsports in September but landed part-time rides for 16 races the rest of the 2000 season.

Two months later, a six-car pileup during the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway set him back again.

"I probably tried to drive when I shouldn't have last year," he said. "Then I had that accident at Homestead and got hit really hard."

The headaches he experienced after the Daytona crash returned. Doctors stressed another hit could do irreversible damage.

"Right now I'm not sure if I'm really capable of being out there driving or not," Bodine said. "I don't want to end up a burden on anybody. I have a couple of granddaughters. I want to be able to watch them grow up and know who they are.

"So I'm going to listen to my doctors and maybe this stuff will go away and I can get back driving. We'll just have to wait and see."

Bodine's crash at Daytona affected more than his immediate family.

Nine fans were injured when his truck took out 150-feet of fencing, spewing parts and pieces of the truck everywhere.

Karen Hecke, 38 was one of the injured fans.

As the Terra Cia resident walked along a sidewalk between the catch fence and stands, something caught the corner of her eye.

"I saw it coming up there, but it's just not something you register until afterward," Hecke said. "The fence caved in and I just felt something hit me really hard, like somebody smacked me.

"The next thing I know it was hot. I didn't see fire. I just felt heat and then I was dirty from head to toe. I looked like I had just run down the street and rolled in the dirt."

Hecke was thrown several feet and needed four stitches to close a gash on her right shoulder where a piece of fencing fell on her. But she will return this weekend to watch the Craftsman Truck and Busch Grand National races on Friday and Saturday.

She and her husband will sit near the seats they never made it to last year.

"I don't want it to happen again, but it's not something that's going to keep me from going to the races," said Hecke, who said she was never contacted by track officials. "Yeah, it was really scary, but I know I'm not going to walk down the front-way and feel a fence fall on my head again."

Bodine cannot be as confident.

Racing is his life, always has been. To not be driving hurts more than any crash.

But through frustration, his family and his faith in God have taken greater importance and provided support.

"I have tremendous faith," Bodine said. "That's gotten me through a lot in my life and it got me through that accident last year and it's helping me deal with what I'm going through now. I don't lack any faith. That's one thing I don't lack in.

"A lot of people go through adversity in their lives every day, a whole lot worse than what I've gone through. What you try to do is turn that around and make it a positive situation. One positive thing that's come out of this adversity was that it brought our family closer together. That is what's really nice."

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