Drag racing writer’s scary battle with COVID-19: ‘You’re wishing you’d die’

Photo: Bobby Bennett

“You’re wishing you’d die. I prayed to the Lord to take me. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

That’s what the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) did to Bobby Bennett.

But Bennett is now thankful that was one prayer God didn’t answer.

Bennett is the publisher/editor of CompetitionPlus.com, which for more than 20 years, has been the largest independent drag racing website/online magazine in the U.S.

For the past three weeks, Bennett has gone through hell, having tested positive for coronavirus.

While he’s slowly regaining his strength, he’s still feeling the effects of the virus. He lost 20 pounds in two weeks, remains quarantined from his family and doesn’t know when he’ll attend a live drag racing event again – if and when the NHRA and other circuits resume competition.

Bobby Bennett before he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Photo: Bobby Bennett.

Bennett doesn’t want to be a poster boy for how coronavirus ravages a person, but he also wants to let the world know just how real and truly dangerous it is. He spoke to NBCSports.com about the difficult journey he’s endured.

MORE: Read Bobby Bennett’s column “Go Ahead and Think You’re Invincible”

“Each day I get a little bit better, a little bit stronger,” Bennett said. “It’s hard not to try to get back to a life of normal. Each day, you just have to realize your limitations and this COVID-19 affects every part of your body, even to your mindset, to your dreams at night.

“I would have dreams so intense, just meaningless nothing, just numbers running through your head where I’d wake up every morning with a migraine headache, something I never did before. It attacks every bit of your body from physical to mental to internal to everything. After about seven or eight days, you’re wishing you’d die.”

Bennett started CompetitionPlus.com back in 1999. He’s not only a gifted writer, he’s almost always up and positive, someone who enjoys virtually every waking minute of life.

But one phone call with Bennett quickly made it clear he’s still far from being 100 percent. There’s little of the normal inflection and typical excitement and optimistic outlook in his voice. Rather, he speaks slowly and monotonously.

He still has trouble breathing at times and occasionally cries – but not as much as he did when he first became so deathly sick.

“I’m still cheerful, but it’s a different kind of cheerful,” Bennett admitted. “The things you wouldn’t do a year ago, you find yourself doing now.

“Like this past Sunday, I put out a chair, sat in the yard and did absolutely nothing but watch birds. I just sat there. That was Day 14 or 15 of this thing.”

After about an hour, Bennet got up from his chair, bid the birds adieu, showered and hopped into his car, just by himself. He needed to get out, to break free from the prison the coronavirus had placed him in.

“I made up my mind,” he said. “I have the whole one end of the house to myself, while my wife and the girls stay on the other end of the house. I said, ‘This room will not own me today’ and I walked out of the house.

Bobby Bennett in healthier times with drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney. Photo: Bobby Bennett.

“Nothing makes you feel better than being able to get behind the wheel of a car. I got behind the wheel of my Camaro, 6-speed stick, covered up with my mask and gloves, wearing my Reher Morrison (NHRA team) Pro Stock shirt. I told my wife I was going out, went to the door and said, ‘Hon, I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll be back.’

“I just drove for about 8 miles. The first part of the drive I was crying for the fact that I asked God to take my life because I couldn’t take it anymore, and the other half of the ride I was crying and praising God and thanked him for not answering my prayer.”

But for all the tears he’s shed over the last few weeks, part of Bennett’s self-treatment is also relying upon his noted sense of humor to try and make himself feel better.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say that I didn’t try to (spin) the wheels a couple times,” he chuckled about his spin in his Camaro.

The drive was so therapeutic that when Bennett returned to his Spartanburg, South Carolina, home, he pulled into his garage and hopped into his other car, his restored 2001 Ford Mustang GT convertible.

The resulting episode was ironic.

“I put the top down, turned the ignition, and it was dead,” he said. “I said to the car, ‘I can relate to what you’re feeling.’ I put the charger on it and said ‘Lord, when it’s time for me to go drive this thing, you’ll make this thing start.’

“I went out there and it started and I drove, listening to a (Christian music singer) Russ Taff song, ‘I Still Believe.’ I must have driven 15 or 20 miles. I didn’t want to come back home and go back to that room.

“Just to be able to get out after going through all this, people just said, ‘Oh, big deal, you’ve got the flu.’ This isn’t the flu. It’s a monster.’”

Bennett is the only individual within the NHRA community known to have contacted the coronavirus, NHRA officials told NBCSports.com on Tuesday. His wife of 18 years, Christy, and one daughter and one granddaughter who also live with them have avoided becoming infected.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I gave this to my wife or kids,” he said.

The 52-year-old Bennett believes he was first exposed to the virus on a redeye flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte on March 8. He was returning from the annual Good Vibrations March Meet drag racing event in Bakersfield, California.

“You look at the four days it sets up in your body before it rears its ugly head, it coincides with that flight back from LAX to Charlotte,” Bennett said. “You think, ‘I’m here in this airplane with nowhere to go, people coughing all around you, you’ve got no mask and what are you going to do?’ All you do is just say, ‘Go ahead and get me, monster.’

“I thought I was invincible. I’d flown back and forth to the West Coast about seven times already this year, so it was no big deal to be on the flight. I sat in first class, threw my seat back and went to sleep, but you don’t know what you’re inhaling while you sleep.”

Five days later – on Friday the 13th — and starting to display coronavirus symptoms, Bennett went to a local urgent care center, where he was told he had a sinus infection and was sent home.

Four days later on March 17, Bennett drove himself to his local hospital because he was running a fever and feeling lousier by the hour.

“As I was there, my fever kept ramping up and going up and up,” he said. “So they gave me a couple Tylenol and sent me home with basically the attitude of ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

“They also had me sign up for ‘My Health updates.’ I might as well have been signing up for Rocket Science 101, trying to navigate that site.’ I even tried to get a hold of my doctor and sent them a letter saying something like, ‘I’m dying here.’ The response back I got was, ‘You sent this letter to the wrong place. This is customer service.’ Dude, I can’t even make that stuff up.”

Bobby Bennett with The King, Richard Petty. Photo: Bobby Bennett.

On March 21, Bennett’s fever kept swinging like a pendulum between 103 and 104 degrees. He called a friend who contacted the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak in the Palmetto State.

“I told him I can’t take this anymore. I don’t think I’m going to make it through the night,” Bennett said. “(His friend) said he’d make a call and they said, ‘Get him to the hospital immediately, don’t waste any time.’

“My wife Christy put me in the car and said ‘Please don’t die on me.’ We drove 35 miles to another hospital. They gave me a COVID swab, and they started working on my temperature. It broke in about an hour and a half, and I was totally drenched.

“The nurses come in, and they’re like in hazmat outfits.”

When Bennett left his house that day, he thought he’d back home in maybe a few hours later. He would not return until nearly four days later.

The doctor who oversaw Bennett’s treatment at the second hospital said he was sure Bennett had COVID-19, but conclusive test results had not come back yet. The doctor discharged Bennett on March 24 because more infected people were being brought in, and some were in more dire shape than he was.

However, the first hospital called Bennett’s wife while she was on the way to pick him up and did confirm a positive coronavirus result.

When Bennett returned home that evening, the second hospital called and confirmed the same results. And so began a 14-day quarantine that he is now halfway through.

One thing that has helped Bennett get through this entire ordeal is his noted sense of humor. Even when things looked dark, a good laugh was almost as effective as the medications he’s taking.

“A nurse told me if I tested positive for COVID-19, I’d be the first in this hospital system,” Bennett said, adding with a quick quip, “So I said, ‘Is there any prize like the first New Year’s Baby or do I even get a six-pack of water or something like that?’ They told me unfortunately, no.”

He then added another humorous line: “Some people win the lottery. I won COVID-19.”

Bennett worries that he and others recovering from coronavirus still might be susceptible to a relapse.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think they just throw darts at a board to try and come up with answers.

“It’s like the movie ‘Jaws.’ You know that shark is out there. Do you really want to go back into the water and go swimming?

“I know the NHRA and our community needs to have races, but we also need to stay healthy. Until we have a cure or some way that this can be contained, I don’t know when the next time I will be at a live drag race. I’m not going to put my family through the hell.”

Life is slowly starting to return to normal for Bennett. He’s finally able to eat again, is regaining some of his energy, including walking more than a mile a day – still with mask and gloves – and has put on a couple of the pounds he lost.

But Bennett wonders if he’ll ever get back to his old self.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same person I was before,” Bennett said. “There are things about me that have changed because of this that I see life through different eyes.

“The things I took for granted, I don’t take for granted anymore. Every missed deadline just doesn’t have the same pull anymore.

“Somebody had to go through it to save our friends and I thank God for the opportunity to tell people just how dangerous this is – and I thank Him for not answering my prayers to take me home.”

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Colton Herta, Bobby Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of Rolex 24 at Daytona overall win

Herta Rahal Rolex 24
IMSA, BMW Motorsport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though they have opposed each other in the NTT IndyCar Series the past four seasons, the Rolex 24 at Daytona union of Bobby Rahal and Colton Herta seems natural.

Bryan Herta scored his first CART victory with Team Rahal during a 1996-99 run before Colton was even born, and the ties built then

“It’s very cool,” Colton Herta, 22, told NBC Sports. “Obviously Bobby is a legend in the sport that I normally compete in in IndyCar, a three-time champion and won the Indianapolis 500 (in 1986). It’s really cool, and I’ve known Bobby forever. My dad drove for him in the ‘90s in CART and so that transpired into me getting to know him growing up, so it’s really cool and an honor to say you drive for Team RLL.

“We’re not talking about our Indy cars and setups and stuff. We’re talking about how we can make our sports cars faster that we’re driving that weekend. So it’s a completely separate thing, and honestly, I see it as a completely different sport in that aspect. There is no hard feelings over anything in IndyCar and we can just go racing.”

Rahal’s team is known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, but it’s branded as BMW M Team RLL for its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – signifying its status as the operating arm for BMW, which essentially foots the bill and calls the shots on car development and driver selection.

But Rahal, whose Hall of Fame career was launched by his sports car successes, plays a vital role as team principal. So it’s a special throwback to have having Herta in both of the team’s new BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes.

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“We, of course, compete against Colton almost every weekend in IndyCar racing, and I really wish he was with us in that series,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But he’s certainly proved himself to be one of the fastest guys out there and of course, his father was my teammate for several years. We go back a long way. So it’s really fun for me to have Colton with us. For both personal and professional reasons.”

This won’t be the first time Herta has driven a sports car for BMW Team RLL. He made six starts in the BMW M8 GTE from 2019-20 and was part of the winning GTLM team at the 2019 Rolex 24 in his debut.

With seven victories and nine pole positions through four IndyCar seasons, the California native has proven adept at getting up to speed quickly in whatever he is driving. Last year, a Formula One test for McLaren Racing nearly led to an F1 ride in 2023.

“And it’s not just speed,” Rahal said of Herta. “I think he brings a lot of good judgment. When he won the 24 Hours (in 2019), it was a horrible rain, and as an 18-year-old, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And really helped put us in a position to win that race. So he’s smart. He’s obviously very capable. And so he’s a plus for us to have.

“Having said that I would say all our drivers bring attributes that are unique. I won’t say our drivers are better than anybody else’s. Only the race will tell that, but I feel very confident the drivers we do have are equal to anything that’s out there.”

Herta will be teamed with Philip Eng, Augusto Farfus, Marco Wittmann, Connor De Phillippi, Nick Yelloly and Sheldon van der Linde in this year’s Rolex 24.

It’s an unusually long list of co-drivers because Herta is in a unique situation – listed as the fourth driver for both BMW’s No. 24 and No. 25 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category.

The step up from GT racing to the new premier hybrid class will be major for BMW, which will race a prototype for the first time in two decades.

But there also is special meaning for Rahal, who put himself on the map with an overall victory in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona (co-driving with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman).

“This was the biggest race I won at that point, and at a time in my career when it probably could have gone away more easily than continued,” said Rahal, who recently turned 70. “It was a nexus point at my career. We had a very trouble-free race. Great strategy. As a 28-year-old whose career was kind of iffy, winning this race was a huge turning point for me (and) very, very special and meaningful.

“I can’t think of anything better than if we start our GTP relationship with BMW on a winning note. For me, (GTP) is where we’ve wanted to be. We’ve always been a company that has raced for overall victories, particularly in IndyCar. We’ve had a long relationship with BMW mainly in the GT category, which has been a tremendous honor for us. We won a lot of races (in GT). Won Daytona a couple of times. Won Sebring a couple of times. So those are great victories and things we’re proud of, but for us now, we’re running for overall victories. We worked hard to get to this point and are thrilled to be partnering with BMW to be able to do that.”

Though the GT success provides a great foundation, the leap to prototype is a massive undertaking. BMW also was the last of the four manufacturers to commit to GTP, getting the green light in June 2021, five months after Porsche Penske Motorsport had been announced (Cadillac and Acura are holdovers from DPi, the previous premier prototype division).

Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M, has described the transition as “a GT is more of a bulldog, the LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches.”

Though it had the latest start among the four automakers, BMW has tested with furious intensity over the last several months, recently hitting Sebring and Circuit of the Americas.

Before getting 25 laps across both cars on the Daytona International Speedway road course in last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, Herta had a handful of days testing at Daytona and Bowling Green, Ohio.

The new hybrid system will put a complicated menu of buttons and options on the steering wheel that Herta still was digesting. The car is a high-downforce, high-speed car that bears some similarities to an Indy Car, and Herta does have prototype experience as the LMP2 winner at last year’s Rolex 24 (on a team with Pato O’Ward).

“I’d say the deceleration feels a little different,” Herta said. “The way the brakes changes throughout the brake zone is different. And that’s all done because of the regeneration, and it might regen more at the beginning or more at the later end of the braking zone. But it changes the balance and the way the brake bias is set. There is a little bit of an adjustment period, and you do need to be on your toes with making adjustments inside the car as you drive it. So it’s a little bit more of a handful initially when you get in, but once you get a few laps under your belt and understand how all the systems work, it is a friendly car to drive.

“It’s close to being representative with IndyCar lap times. I don’t think it’s quite as fast, but definitely a huge chunk faster than the GT cars. And a little bit more of a different driving style with obviously a lot more downforce and power.”

Known for being smooth, Herta and the rest of the GTP field will be extra careful about being gentler on the equipment while managing a track clogged by 61 cars with reliability at a premium. Parts supplies are scarce for the GTP cars, and there also are major concerns about the durability of the hybrid engines in their 24-hour debut.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really big endurance race and not a sprint race how this race usually is,” Herta said. “Even the DPis were so reliable, and you could smash the curbs for 24 hours and hammer the throttle, and you wouldn’t have that much of a worry of breaking or blowing an engine or a gearbox.

“It seems with this new formula, everyone is still getting to grips, so maybe reliability will be more of a key and a little more of what we’d see in the ‘80s and early ‘90s of it being more of an endurance race. But it’s still too hard to say. For sure BMW has had great success not only in IMSA but all around in sports car racing as a whole. It shows they have a program that’s capable of winning endurance races and at a very high level.”

Though Herta is uncertain how much time he will have in each car, BMW M Team RLL already has settled his biggest concern of ensuring his seat insert fits well in each car. The main challenge then becomes adapting with each car featuring distinct seat positioning and setups based on the other three drivers.

It also will be a shot at history. Herta is trying to become the third driver to win the overall and score multiple podium finishes with the same team in the top category (a feat also accomplished in the 1968 and ’70 races).

“It’ll be a good opportunity for me to have two chances at winning,” Herta said. “Not a lot of people get that. It’s going to be a really cool dynamic of being able to drive both cars. For sure, it’s a little different, but it’s part of the job. You need to be able to adapt very quickly. I really feel like that’s something that can be taught. You hop around in all these different cars long enough, you learn some tricks to get up to speed a little bit quicker. Hopefully that plays into my advantage, but it is a very exciting opportunity that I think will be very interesting to see how it goes.

To be used in each car, Herta will need to make a minimum drive time of two hours. Rahal views Herta as “an insurance policy to a large degree” if a driver falls ill or gets injured.

“There’s no question he’s up to the challenge,” Rahal said. “Colton’s a race car driver, and race car drivers want to be in the car. So I’m sure naturally a guy like Colton or any other would want to be in a regular basis on the starting rotation, but the way this race is and the difficulty, and of course these cars are going to exact more energy from the drivers than the cars in the past, I think he’s going to get more than his share.”

He also will be running wheel to wheel against familiar teams – Indy 500 winners Team Penske (Porsche), Chip Ganassi Racing (Cadillac) and Meyer Shank Racing (Acura) all have GTP entries.

Herta laughs about even competing against his IndyCar car owner, Michael Andretti, who just became a partner in Wayne Taylor Racing’s championship-contending GTP team.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “Not only do you have these great manufacturers but these amazing IndyCar teams. So it’s pretty cool to see the crossover. I know these teams are very well respected in North America and the manufacturers they bring are respected all across the world. It’s a really cool championship and really cool era of sports car racing that’s dawned here.”