Jerry Eckman has a big day today. He expects to experience the kind of day which can only be paralleled by those he experienced as a child on Christmas morning.
Today, Eckman says he gets his dignity back.
“I’ve waited for this day for 15 years,” admitted Eckman, who will drive a car owned by current employer Steve Kent in testing at Gateway International Raceway outside of St. Louis.
“I never in a million years ever envisioned a chance like this to redeem myself. I guess there are times in life when you get a second chance.”
Eckman, a past NHRA Pro Stock national event winner, will attempt to re-license as a Pro Stock driver, a privilege he lost 15 years ago. His license was revoked following unsafe practices during the 1997 NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio.
The car Eckman was driving had a nitrous bottle hidden in the car’s oil tank and when he fired the car for a warm-up it exploded. NHRA officials impounded the car and immediately fined and suspended team owner Bill Orndorff and Eckman.
Eckman stated, on the record, he never drove the car in competition with nitrous oxide and the warm-up was the only time he’d been in the car with the illegal power-adder on the car.
Eckman also has never denied he was wrong in making the decision to get in the car after being notified of the the illegal configuration. He served his suspension and made payments on the fine totaling $13,000. He was made the example of Pro Stock drag racing’s equivalent to baseball’s steroid era.
In July of this year the NHRA, in a surprise move, notified Eckman during a meeting at the SuperNationals in Englishtown, NJ, they had decided to consider the balance paid in full and returned him to good standing. It was deemed his efforts in paying the fine, his model citizenry in the community and time served outside of the cockpit was sufficient.
Ironically, as Eckman points out, he was able to celebrate two of his greatest racing memories at Raceway Park. In 1986, he won his first national event at the facility.
“I was taken aback by the whole deal,” admitted Eckman. “The first thing I did was broke down and started crying. I think the NHRA is a class act. I know they have rules which must be abided by. I broke their rules and deserved to be punished, there’s no arguing that. I am grateful the NHRA recognized I had paid the price for my mistake. I guess I am the example you can make lots of good decisions but lose everything by making the wrong choice.
“I could never have been angry at the NHRA because they were doing what they should have. I have tried to do my best to prove that I was a good person who made a bad choice.”
Kent and Rodger Brogdon says they plan to use Eckman, who is their current car chief, as a test driver and haven’t ruled out participation in a national event.
"Jerry has been a good friend of ours," said Brogdon, speaking on behalf of he and Kent. "We know how much this has meant to him. I've never seen someone so excited about an opportunity. He's been running around like a kid on Christmas eve ... a kid in a candy store. I think this day has made him 15 years younger. He's got such a grin on his face and was up at 5:30 in the morning getting everyone ready to go. You see this, and you can't help but feel energized by being around him."
When Eckman fires the car for the first time, he’ll do his best to put the last 15 years of shame and heartbreak behind him.
“I have had a lot of ups and downs. I never imagined this day would come and I had gotten to a point where I accepted I would never drive again. I was blessed to work with some great teams and this filled the void.
“I really can’t say what I will feel. Since Englishtown, I’ve sat in the car envisioning a run down the strip. I went through the motions with the car, practicing the shifts and everything. I am prepared physically. It might be a little tough at first to see through the tears. Thank you to those who never gave up on me.”
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