Photos courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

Drag racer turned tragedy into program that is ‘saving lives’

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Four-time International Hot Rod Association Top Fuel champion and multi-time NHRA race winner Doug Herbert turned unspeakable tragedy into inspirational triumph.

Herbert was competing in the annual NHRA preseason test in suburban Phoenix in late January 2008 when his ex-wife, Sonnie, called. In tears, she told Herbert that their two sons, Jon and James, en route to McDonald’s for breakfast, had been involved in a traffic accident near their Cornelius, N.C. home.

The crash was so horrific that police would not allow Sonnie Herbert near the crash scene. She told Doug she’d call back once she got more information. Less than an hour later, as Doug Herbert was already traveling to the airport to fly back to Charlotte, his ex-wife called back with the devastating news: 17-year-old Jon and 12-year-old James had both been killed.

The aftermath of the tragic crash that claimed Doug Herbert’s two sons, Jon and James. Photo courtesy Doug Herbert.

The police crash investigation said Jon, who was driving, was going 80 mph in a 45 mph zone when he lost control and slammed into an SUV. The boys were pronounced dead at the scene.

“I was devastated,” Herbert told NBC Sports. “Not only were they my sons, they were my best friends.”

Almost immediately after the funeral, Doug Herbert decided to forego much of the rest of his racing career, as well as divest himself of much of his performance auto parts business, and instead devote the rest of his life to honor his sons’ memory by forming B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe), a non-profit organization dedicated to improve teen-aged drivers’ ability behind the wheel.

“I just tried to figure out how to deal with (his sons’ deaths) and one of the first things I learned is that car crashes are the No. 1 cause of fatalities for teenagers,” Herbert said. “Actually, in 2008, more teens died in car crashes than the next four things put together.

“It just really opened my eyes. If I had known that, I would have been doing more. I needed to do something about this. I made my mind up almost immediately that I was going to make sure Jon and James had a legacy that we were at least going to have some classes and teach their friends how to be safer and defensive drivers and learning about the dangers of being in a car crash and how to avoid car crashes.

“B.R.A.K.E.S. is good therapy for me, knowing that we’re making such a difference. It’s a pretty good feeling to have.”

WHAT IS B.R.A.K.E.S.?

B.R.A.K.E.S. is a four-hour program – one hour in a classroom and three hours behind the wheel of vehicles provided by Kia Motors – and intense indoctrination to safety measures over and above what the students might learn in school. Herbert refers to it as Advanced Driver Training.

Herbert – who wears a shirt with the photos of his sons emblazoned upon the back while teaching – also mandates that at least one parent accompany their teen to every class.

Doug Herbert wears photos of his sons on the back of his B.R.A.K.E.S. uniform shirts. Photo: Doug Herbert.

“As parents, we’re probably the most important part of our kids’ early driving careers,” Herbert said. “They’re driving our cars, we’re probably paying their insurance and we’re responsible for that.

“When you see your kid go down the street and see the taillights fade into the distance, you’re thinking, ‘I hope I did everything I could to make sure that my kid understands how serious this is.’”

Not surprisingly, parents get as much out of the class as their kids do – not to mention some even getting a break on car insurance once their kids complete the program.

“We get letters or emails at the office every day from teenagers or their parents that they learned something that saved their lives,” Herbert said. “We’ve saved lives and that’s so satisfying and makes me so proud to know I’ve been able to push this along and be connected to so many other great people who also want to make a difference.”

HOW B.R.A.K.E.S. CAME ABOUT

Each B.R.A.K.E.S. class begins with a shock to the attendees’ system: a video that tells the story of Herbert’s sons, including graphic photo footage of the accident scene, how it impacted Herbert and his former wife’s lives, as well as the life of their daughter, Jessie, now 20 years old.

To this day, Herbert still breaks into tears almost every time he watches the video. It’s readily clear that even now, 11 years later, his pain and grief are as fresh today as January 26, 2008, when his sons were taken from him.

Bobby Allison and wife Judy were among the first to comfort Doug Herbert and his ex-wife on the deaths of their two sons. Photo: Getty Images.

Upon learning the devastating news, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and wife Judy who were among the first individuals to comfort Herbert and his ex-wife. The Allison’s also lost two sons: Clifford in a race car crash at Michigan International Speedway, and Davey, 11 months later, in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

“There’s not too many people that can understand losing two sons, but Bobby and Judy did,” Herbert said. “Bobby gave me such incredible advice that I think about every day. He told me, ‘Doug, I know how down you are. And if I could just change that in one second and take away all that pain and all that sadness, what do you think?’

“I said, ‘Of course, I’d do it.’ But, Bobby then said, “but the catch is you get no Jon, no James, they just never existed, you never got them.’ I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t do that because I have so many memories of such great times.’ He said, ‘That’s right. That’s what you need to focus on, how lucky you were to have 17 and 12 years of being their dad and all the good times you had because you can never take that away. You had one bad thing and millions of good things.’

“Sometimes it’s hard. Even Bobby will get choked up some times at what could have been or what should have been. But I was lucky and privileged to be the dad to two really great kids and I’m trying to make sure they are still making a big effect on others even now, 11 years after they’re gone.”

An NBC News video from several years ago illustrates the impact B.R.A.K.E.S. is making:

HOW B.R.A.K.E.S. HAS GROWN SINCE JON AND JAMES’ DEATHS

As he wrapped up his final full-time season of drag racing, Herbert also oversaw the training of 50 teenagers in B.R.A.K.E.S.’ first year in 2008.

“I was pretty excited about that and happy,” Herbert said. “I didn’t know where it was going to go from there. I had more parents call me when would I do more classes, so we did some more, and it just snowballed.”

Today, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students (plus 37,000 parents) in 45 states and five countries.

“I had a professor from UNC-Charlotte who put together a study and analyzed 5,000 of our students and compared them to standard Department of Transportation statistics and found that 64 percent (of students who completed the B.R.A.K.E.S. program) were less likely to be involved in a car crash,” the 51-year-old Herbert said. “If it was one percent, I’d be happy, but at 64 percent we’re saving lives and Jon’s and James’ lives are making a difference.”

In just the Charlotte area alone, over 4,000 students are on a waiting list to take B.R.A.K.E.S. training, which indeed can often be the difference between life and death, Herbert noted wistfully.

“Last year, on the Monday before a weekend class, we sent out an email on where to go and so forth,” Herbert recalled, his voice filling with emotion. “This mom emailed back and said they were looking so forward to coming and had been on wait list for three months and her daughter died a week before she was scheduled to take the class.

“She dropped a tire off the road, over-corrected and went across the road and rolled. That’s one of the exercises we do in a car. Talking to that family, that was just really, really difficult.”

WHERE DOES B.R.A.K.E.S. GO FROM HERE?

Herbert’s efforts have been so embraced and so impactful in teaching young drivers and their parents that nearly two weeks ago, legendary 14-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Terry Vance donated $1 million to Herbert’s organization to further its mission and expand its reach even more.

B.R.A.K.E.S. is a family operation at heart. Not only is Herbert one of the lead instructors, daughter Jessie is a certified instructor as well, and Doug’s second wife, Mimi (daughter of Chip Ganassi Racing minority owner Felix Sabates), is also an integral part of the overall operation.

Longtime lead instructor Matt Riley also has a personal investment in B.R.A.K.E.S.: his mother was struck and killed in a crosswalk by a teenager who was driving and texting at the same time.

In addition, there are more than 300 trainers around the country that help B.R.A.K.E.S. put on as many as four classes across the country on any given weekend.

“Many other instructors have lost relatives due to what a teenaged driver did,” Mimi Herbert said. “When you come to B.R.A.K.E.S., it’s very apparent that everybody there is trying to help.”

As a promotional brochure states: “B.R.A.K.E.S. provides the foundational skills a new driver needs to make good decisions behind the wheel and reduce the risk of a crash. Courses include distracted driving awareness, panic braking, drop-wheel/off-road recovery, crash avoidance and car control/skid recovery – all of the biggest causes of crashes for new drivers. Other educational elements often include ‘Big Rig’ safety, first responder vehicle extrication demonstration, and what to do in the event of a traffic stop.”

B.R.A.K.E.S. teen pro-active driving instructor Norm Hamden is one of many individuals who are integral parts of the training program. (Photo: B.R.A.K.E.S.)

Even with the impact B.R.A.K.E.S. has had upon young drivers, car crashes remain the No. 1 cause of death among teens. That’s why Herbert will never stop in his quest.

My sons were my life,” he said. “I trained them to follow me into business. I had a race team and airplanes and a big house at the lake, a fast boat and all this stuff, and then I realized none of that mattered.

“I’m proud to have been Jon and James’ dad and I want to continue to make sure that their lives are able to make a difference and we can keep some parents from getting that same phone call that I received. I don’t want any other parent to get that call.”

For more information and/or to register for a B.R.A.K.E.S. class, visit www.putonthebrakes.org.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.