NHRA: Herbert’s ‘championship’ season complete

Doug Herbert said all the mandatory things after his two young sons were killed in an automobile accident a few days before the start of the 2008 NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series season.

He christened this the “For My Boys” tour and promised the media at the Winternationals in Pomona he would win the championship.

It was a pipe dream, of course.

But 24 races later, at the Auto Club Finals in Pomona, he made good on that promise.

No, Herbert didn’t take a trophy back to Charlotte, N.C. No, he wasn’t recognized in the NHRA Record Book. No, he won’t receive all the spoils that Tony Schumacher earned in the most remarkably dominant season in drag racing history.

But sometimes, championships are won by finishing the race. By digging deep against long odds. By powering forward when you want to give up. By keeping things together in your head, your family, your business, when it seems your world is falling apart.

Doug Herbert has been through hell, tested by fire, burned at the stake.

And now, 10 months after the worst day of his life, he can take a long deep breath and focus on himself.

Finally.

“Yeah, I’m disappointed. I’m really disappointed,” Herbert said. “The only thing is if my boys were here, they’d know how hard I tried. Did we win the championship? No. Did we fail in that part of it? Yeah, we did. Do I feel bad about it? Yeah, a little bit. But I don’t feel I really let anybody down.

“I think there were a lot of guys even out here who were like, ‘Ohmygosh, Herbert’s mind’s got to be scrambled, he probably shouldn’t even be racing.’ I think I showed them I’ve got my head on straight. ‘C’mon, let’s go up here and we’ll race. Let’s race.‘”

With sponsor Snap-On leaving after 16 seasons, Herbert’s Top Fuel drag racing career may have ended with his second-round loss to winner Larry Dixon at the Auto Club Finals on Sunday. Though history will show he finished eighth in the championship, Herbert has the benefit of knowing his effort was befitting the memory of his children, Jon, 17, and James, 12, who perished when their speeding vehicle hit another car.

Herbert was more driven, more motivated, than ever before. He has high standards to begin with, and the stakes were raised because this was so intensely personal. Yes, he said, he was less patient, too. He wanted everyone on his team to want it as much as him. He was dialed in, he said, and pointed to the class’ best reaction time as proof.

Yet for a guy so focused, he was spread awful thin. As part of the recovery process, and inspired by the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian,” Herbert began working on a land speed record effort that included his father, who didn’t want to come to the drag races. Destination: Bonneville Salt Flats.

More importantly, the legacy of Jon and James is an organization called BRAKES, Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe, which has also consumed a fair amount of time. Herbert has conducted defensive driving schools and tried to get the word out to teens and their parents that no offense is worth the consequence that he paid.

The BRAKES program has affected many hundreds of teens in just 10 months. “I can send care packages, but I can’t do anything to save a soldier in Iraq,” Herbert said the night before his last race. “I do feel like I can save some of the 6,000 teens who die every year in automobile accidents.”

He has received two letters from BRAKES graduates who said the program prevented their having an accident. One, a girl who had a green light and saw another driver was going too fast to stop, hit the brakes hard and skidded through an intersection. She avoided crashing into the red-light runner by inches.

It’s a letter that Herbert could read a million times. His daughter, Jessi, 10, did the math.

“She told me,’It’s like James and Jon died but they saved that girl’s life,'” Herbert recalled. Hearing his daughter’s conclusion was one of the proudest moments in Doug’s life.

For all the progress he has made, he was reminded once more when he cleared out his in-box last week and came across an email from Scott Kalitta sent on Jan. 27, the day after Jon and James died. “It was a really nice letter,” Herbert said. “I really didn’t remember reading it at the time. Now, I’ll never forget it.”

Kalitta, who often played with James, was killed in qualifying at Englishtown, N.J., on June 21.

In what seemed a perfect fusion of divine blessedness, Herbert won the next race at Norwalk, Ohio, his only victory. When he awoke that day, he felt his boys’ presence. “They said, ‘Today’s the day, Dad,'” he recalled as he fought back tears. “We won the race with two holeshots. It was awesome.” Coincidentally, it was the only race that Jessi attended, along with Jon’s girlfriend, Madeline.

But the season has not been without cost. Herbert did not marry his fiancee, Ginger, as planned though they remain together. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he said. “I had to get my head together.”

And every day on his way to work, he must drive past the crash site on the only road out of his neighborhood. Instead of crying, he now plays one of his sons’ favorite songs on the CD, or thinks of times together. He finds humor that his 12-year-old’s favorite group was the Beatles, his favorite song “Hey Jude.”

“There’s a million good memories,” Herbert said, “and only one bad one.”

He fought his way through a eulogy, the toughest task in his 41 years, but also the most rewarding. “If I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted it the rest of my life,” Herbert said, his eyes welling up as they so often do. “There’s probably not a day goes by that I don’t cry about something.”

He also fought his way through the season.

Sometimes, the championships are personal.

And over 10 grueling months, Doug Herbert earned his.

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3 Responses to “NHRA: Herbert’s ‘championship’ season complete”

  1. Kay Southall Says:

    All Doug’s fans really admire him and the fact that he “did” race this year. Most would have just given up after such a horrible tragedy; but not Doug—he made the best out of the disaster of his sons’ accident by starting a driving school for teens. We all wish him the best of luck in the future and pray 2009 will be a good year.

  2. Hoping your Bonneville car will be successful, knowing your dad and Jim B. bring great knowledge to you and the team. Hope to see you at Wendover.

  3. It’s really a great and helpful piece of info. I’m
    satisfied that you simply shared this useful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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