While you may think serves the bugger right whenever some marathoner has a heart attack and dies at mile 18, or some mountaineer’s hypoxia tricks him into stripping naked and leaping from an ice cliff, the death of a NASCAR racer is serious business to the sport’s fiercely loyal fans.
Consider our experience in a down-market corner of Florida, just after the death of Alan Kulwicki in April 1993. He wasn’t behind the wheel when it happened. Put away your schadenfreude.
No, Kulwicki was aboard the Hooters corporate jet — you can’t make this stuff up — which crashed because the pilot failed to de-ice the wings. (We assume it was corporate policy, the cold stiffening the stewardesses’ perkies.)
Bizarrely, our man Davey Allison died similarly just three months later, crashing a helicopter he was piloting. My NASCAR-loving brother-in-law believes Davey had developed late-onset narcolepsy — a dangerous condition when you earn a living at 150 mph — from years of trailing tailpipes that gradually asphyxiated him with subtle carbon monoxide poisoning. Which suggests as a corollary that Davey fell asleep at the ‘copter controls.
Back to Kulwicki: we were on a budget vacation, 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, when that Hooters flight sagged. It may not have made the papers in Canada, but was ubiquitous in the local news.
The following evening, I visited the town’s only bar. (My new bride was with child, so I was now drinking for two.) It was karaoke night and the gin-soaked locals were congregating to express themselves in song. I’d been anticipating a freak show and was not disappointed; however, like the death of a racing legend, karaoke in rural Florida was serious business in an irony-free zone.
A 7-foot simpleton draped in Alan Kulwicki-branded gear — T-shirt, shorts and flag, which he wore like Batman — came and took the chair next to me. He’d come to mourn. I noted this über-fan’s attire — he looked like he was sponsored by Team Kulwicki — and passed on my condolences.
“You talk funny,” he complimented my Canadian twang.
Turns out, he’d been drinking since the news of Kulwicki’s passing the day before, and by this time didn’t “got no more money.” Foolishly, I bought him a beer, eliciting “frenz fer life, Canadian guy!”
You’d think being buddies with a hammered Sasquatch would be ironic fun, but it’s like being sprayed by a skunk: That initial whiff is oddly exhilarating but it rapidly overcomes you and won’t wash out. There was no place else to go in this Podunk hole and, while not mourning a champion’s passing, I was in no condition to drive anywhere myself, not to mention risk orphaning my unborn child. So, I had a buddy for the night. It was like being trapped in a David Lynch film.
To truly honour all the great memories, buddy wanted to sing — you guessed it — “Candle in the Wind.” He staggered up to the DJ’s table, scanned the list of contents and wrote down the number of his song choice plus his name.
The song didn’t come up for what was probably longest half hour of my life. Every one that did come on, however, he sang along with, cleverly replacing the original words with “Alan Kulwicki, Alan Kulwicki,” meter be damned! Picture it: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Margaritaville” tunelessly chanted to a dead racer’s name by a massive swaying presence that could easily turn malevolent any second.
At last it was buddy’s turn to shine.
I wished him luck and he belched in sincere sympathy, battering my back, before staggering up to the stage. He gripped the microphone like a leather steering wheel and tenderly announced “I juss wanna say tha’ thissizz de’cated to Alan Kulwicki. I love you!”
The music started. It was the wrong music. It shouldn’t surprise you that he’d written the number of the song incorrectly. Being listed alphabetically, what came on wasn’t “Candle in the Wind” but “Can’t Buy Me Love.” If it were you or me, we’d politely stop and ask the DJ to switch songs.
But it wasn’t us and the show must go on!
My Sasquatch bravely soldiered through “Can’t Buy Me Love,” imbuing it with all the tenderness and passion that comes with two full days of drunken mourning. All this mocking description aside, his singing honestly was not good. If Randy were to call the performance pitchy, it would be as grand an understatement as William Hung admitting to “no professional training.”
Yes, it was truly painful but the death of a hero always is.
Image courtesy of Mike Mertz.