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Families deal with loss in different ways

Some who have loved ones killed racing shun the sport. Most return, given time.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001

Some who have loved ones killed racing shun the sport. Most return, given time.

Wanda Lund did not understand why, but she needed to turn the radio off.

"I had this feeling something was going to happen to someone I cared an awful lot about," she said, "and I didn't want to hear it on the radio."

What Lund feared hearing on a race broadcast while she and a friend drove to a movie on Aug. 17, 1975, came instead over the phone when her mother-in-law called later that evening.

"She just came out and said, "Tiny's dead,' " she said. "I just remember going to my knees screaming."

More than 25 years after NASCAR driver Tiny Lund died in the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, his widow, who remarried in 1979 and now goes by Wanda Lund-Early, was sitting in a cramped building at Daytona International Speedway when Dale Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

She had no idea the last-lap crash was fatal.

Then the phone rang.

"The last thing I can remember is being back home," Lund-Early said. "I guess the phone call brought back flashes of Tiny's death and I relived my own horrible nightmare all over again through Dale's tragedy. It brought stuff crashing back on me like a ton of bricks."

When a loved one is killed on the race track, the impact is lasting and the hurt deep.

That is what Teresa Earnhardt and her husband's four children -- Kerry, Kelly, Dale Jr. and Taylor -- now face.

"There's only been one way I could cope with it," said David Bonnett, son of Neil Bonnett, who was killed in 1994 at Daytona. "I still to this day, every day, think about my daddy. You're always going to remember."

Chris Lund cannot rely on memories. Now a 30-year-old financial adviser for UPS in Atlanta, he was only 5 when his father died.

"I don't remember my dad from my own perspective at all," Lund said. "I began to know my dad as I grew up through other people's perspective, almost like a third-person view."

He learned about what a practical joker his father was and how quick he was to lend a helping hand as he did for Marvin Panch in 1963 at Daytona.

Lund pulled Panch out of a burning car after a practice crash and his actions earned the Carnegie Award for Heroism. He also won the Daytona 500 as Panch's replacement.

Those were the stories Chris told sixth-grade classmates at Central Elementary School in Waynesville, N.C. But nobody believed him and he got a mouth full of soap.

"I went down to school the next day with Tiny's Daytona 500 trophy and the Carnegie Award and said, "My son didn't tell you a lie. If anything, he doesn't know the half of what his daddy accomplished,' " Lund-Early said. "I don't think they wash children's mouths out with soap anymore."

NASCAR has provided emotional and monetary support when asked.

Lund-Early had moved the family from Moncks Corner, S.C. to her hometown of Waynesville and got a job at Dayco Corporation three years after her husband's death, but was laid off.

"Before my unemployment got started, I was out of money," Lund-Early said. "I called Bill (Sr.) and I told him I needed to borrow $1,000 until my income tax check got back. I got a $500 check from Daytona International Speedway and I got a $500 check from NASCAR."

For 17 years, she could not go to Talladega. (She now goes to a handful of races a year.) Her son had done it on a whim a couple of years earlier.

"I was by myself one time and I saw a sign that said "Talladega Superspeedway,' " he said. "I thought, "Wait a minute. This is where my dad died. I think I'd like to see this track.' "

"The next thing I know, the track president (Grant Lynch) is out there with me, throwing me in the back of a pickup truck and driving me around."

David Bonnett continued racing after his father died. He hopes to secure a ride for next week's Busch Grand National race at Talladega.

"I've told many people before, if somebody told me I was going to die in a racecar, I would still get in it," he said.

His mother, Susan, still finds it difficult to watch a race flag-to-flag. David said she is thinking of selling her late husband's racing trophies.

"She doesn't want to look at them anymore," he said.

Memories burden some. Others seem comforted by them.

"A race fan came up to me (in 1993) and he had some memorabilia of Tiny and he asked me to sign it," Lund-Early said. "He said, "I think it's the most wonderful thing that Tiny could live his life doing exactly what he wanted to do.'

"I thought about it and I started just laughing like crazy. I said, "You know what, that big son of a b---- did, didn't he? He lived life exactly like he wanted to. ... I just hope that Teresa can see and realize how really fortunate Dale really was to live life and do it his way."

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