MONTE DUTTON – THE TIME I MISSED THE PULITZER
Race fans do not like to see death. They like to see death defied. People who go to the circus like to see someone shot out of a cannon. Claiming a fan doesn’t like to see wrecks is like saying football fans don’t like hits, or baseball fans home runs, or basketball fans three-pointers.
Twice, in particular, at Bristol Motor Speedway, death was defied.
The most popular such incident today occurred in a Busch (now Xfinity) Series race in 1990. Michael Waltrip’s car disintegrated when it crashed into a gate then located at the exit of turn two. It seemed impossible that he was alive, but all of a sudden, he climbed out of the car. That was before my full-time job was writing about NASCAR. I was watching on TV.
Mike Harmon walked away from a similar crash in 2002. After bouncing off the same gate, now thankfully gone, his car absorbed heavy impact from another car during a practice session, and the front half was mostly sheared off. It was a Thursday, and very little was going on at the track. Most of the teams were in town because they then held a Truck race on Wednesday night, a downtown fan festival on Thursday night, Busch on Friday night and Cup on Saturday night.
I was playing golf.
I had befriended Harmon’s public-relations representative. Shortly after the round ended, my cell rang. (Yes, even then, I owned a cell phone. The office found it useful to call me right after I got off a plane to tell me of rumors that almost always ended up being untrue, such as, “we heard Bobby Labonte’s plane crashed.”)
This time, it was Harmon’s PR rep.
“I’ve got Mike right here,” she said. “Would you like to talk to him?”
She didn’t tell me there had been a crash that he miraculously survived. I thought to myself, Why in the name of God would I want to talk to Mike Harmon … right now?
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but I’ll try to swing by in the morning, and we can talk then.”
Bless her heart, I thought. She’s just trying to drum up some publicity for her client.
Esquire later included the crash in a magazine story about people who had survived gruesome accidents.
I could have talked with him a few moments after he climbed out of the car. I didn’t know there had been a crash. I thought the phone call was bizarre. It was, but not in the way I figured.