By BILL STEVENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001
John Tatro's story jumped from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times into Bill Wright's sizable heart.
And when he got to the part about Dale Earnhardt Sr., Wright knew he had to act.
"It affected me deeply," said the 53-year-old owner of WrightWay Consulting Inc., a St. Petersburg business that provides medical services and products to the disabled. "When John's mother talked about him being inconsolable when Dale was killed, I could relate."
Even today, four months after the legendary stock car driver was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Wright still can't talk about him without crying.
"I can't explain it," Wright said, tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the motorized scooter he needs to get around.
Tatro's story gave us all plenty of reasons to shed a few tears -- of joy. Maybe you recall it: When he was 17, the Zephyrhills boy fell from a pickup truck and a wheel rolled over his head. He spent eight weeks in a coma, and was left unable to speak or walk. But with the help of his mother, JoJo, and a computer keypad that gave him a "voice," he returned to school at the Moore-Mickens Education Center in Dade City. In May, after seven years of struggling to pass various examinations, he finally earned his General Educational Development certificate to the cheers of the faculty and a counselor who promised she would help him achieve his dream if he persevered.
The dream: attend a NASCAR race at the Daytona Speedway.
Bill Wright is a self-proclaimed "gearhead," a NASCAR junkie who surrounds himself with memorabilia of his favorite drivers, most notably Dale Earnhardt Sr. Wright wears a gold "3" as an earring to honor his hero, and when we visited one day last week he brought along a ceramic model of the Chevy that Earnhardt drove last year at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona. It is one of only 500, Wright said, and already is fetching offers as high as $1,500. "It's just insane," he said. "But you probably couldn't pay me enough for it."
Wright has 25 other race car models in his "sports room" at home, which includes 20 autographed baseball bats and 50 balls. "I have a dual love affair with stock car racing and baseball," he said. "I'm a Chicago Cubs lunatic."
Tatro is no less enthusiastic about NASCAR and often wears a denim shirt with Earnhardt's signature above the breast pocket. But he and JoJo, who works for a dry cleaner, haven't the means to visit the track, to witness the excitement that Wright describes: "Football, baseball and other sports are mostly visual. But in racing, you hear, smell and feel it. It is unbelievable to be close to 43 cars with 750 horsepower when they start the engines."
Cynthia Ryalls-Clephane, a counselor at the adult education center, had promised to help John get to the speedway after graduation, but Wright made it easy. He arranged for John and JoJo to join him and others in the exclusive Earnhardt Tower for the Pepsi 400 this Saturday. The tickets, $200 each, are also good for preliminary races and other events for two days leading up to the big race.
As Wright was making his generous overture, teachers who had been so touched by John's dedication and thoughtful essay expressing his desire to help others "less fortunate," took up a collection and netted $500. That will enable mother and son to stay at the Economy Inn on Atlantic Avenue.
"John's scooter is real quiet, and he snuck into my office and bumped me from behind," Ryalls-Clephane recalled. "He asked, 'Do you think I'm going to get to meet Junior (Earnhardt Sr.'s son who is now Tatro's favorite driver)?' And then he took a little more time on his keyboard and said, 'Everybody has made my dream come true.' "
JoJo said her son was packed for the trip two weeks early, "and we have two No. 3 flags for the van. We are so grateful and we'll take lots of pictures to show them."
Wright can remember his first trip to the track -- and it was a doozy. He won a lottery for tickets to the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis in 1994. "There were about 4-million entries and I won. Pretty good first race, I'd say."
Since then he has traveled the country to see stock car races, and he raves about the way NASCAR accommodates people with disabilities. Wright was stricken with polio as an 11-year-old in Illinois and has been using a wheelchair since.
"NASCAR is without question the most fan-friendly regarding the disabled," said Wright, whose business serves about 2,000 clients in five counties, including many who need special modifications in their home. "From attitude, facilities, seating, parking, concessions . . . it's just top-notch. The ushers always make sure you have an unobstructed view."
Wright and his wife, Cheri, sat in the Earnhardt Tower in February at the Daytona 500. When Earnhardt struck the wall in the final lap, Wright got an ominous feeling.
"When they covered the car, I knew it was serious," he said. "On the elevator, a woman from GM was frantic."
Wright heard the official report of his hero's death on the radio during the long ride back to St. Petersburg. "My cell phone rang constantly from friends around the country," he said.
The next week, Wright drove to Rockingham, N.C., for the next leg of the NASCAR circuit so he could be with other fans in mourning. "You never saw so many somber race fans," he said. "It was unbelievably quiet."
The Pepsi 400 will mean the first trip back to Daytona since that race, "and it's going to be tough for a lot of folks. There will be many tears."
- Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast editor of the St. Petersburg Times.