Even in one of the best moments of his racing career and even on his birthday, Japel Heard was thinking of others.
After winning his first ADRL event, it was a magical moment that could have easily been about the Pro Extreme standout.
But that wasn’t Heard and he wasn’t about to change then, even with the spotlight on him. So after he went 4.16 to win the Spring Drags III this past April at Bristol Dragway, Heard flashed his trademark grin and then his personality that made him so loved among racers and fans.
Instead of celebrating the win, he first thanked and dedicated the win to his chassis builder, Dan Parker, who was recovering from severe injuries after a nasty crash just weeks earlier.
As most might attest, that was just Japel.
“This whole weekend has been for Dan Parker and his family,” Heard said at the time. “We love Dan and wish he could be here with us right now, but hopefully this win will help to make him feel just a little bit better and maybe help with his recovery.
“It’s just a blessing to get this.”
Heard’s giving nature and fun-loving personality resonated on that day and will continue to do so after his sudden and tragic death on Thursday.
The 42-year-old Heard, a native of Snellville, Ga. was pronounced dead on Thursday by a medical examiner at Rockdale Medical Center in Conyers, Ga.
It was a crushing blow to the riders who had grown close to him over the years and those who recalled a smile that always seemed to be present.
“You never saw him without a smile on his face, even when something was going bad for him at the track,” ADRL PXM rider Rob Hunnicutt said. “We got into Pro Mod bikes about the same time and we struck up a friendship. We were probably friends for about 9-10 years and whenever you saw him, he always had a smile on his face.”
Said ADRL PXM points leader Eric McKinney: “It didn’t matter if he was having a great day or a bad day, he was always smiling.”
Added PXM rider Casey Stemper: “Japel was just a super, super nice guy. When you went to the track, you always looked forward to seeing him.”
It also made him popular in his line of work.
Heard owned The Fashion Industry, an exclusive and upscale high-fashion men’s apparel boutique in Atlanta.
The store attracted a host of celebrities and athletes in the Atlanta area, including NBA All-Star Joe Johnson and Atlanta Hawks standout Josh Smith.
At the track Heard was among the first to compliment a rider, even when things were difficult. Crewmember, teammate and close friend J.P. Mattox witnessed Heard’s rash of difficulties earlier this month at Dragstock IX in Charlotte, when engine damage ruined what had seemed like a promising weekend.
But Mattox saw a friend who never swayed from his upbeat personality.
“He had a unique smile and he was always his own person. He was never a follower,” said Mattox, who is married to Herd’s cousin.
“He was cool with everybody and always laughing, outgoing and enjoying life. This is just a terrible thing.”
ADRL PXM rider T.T. Jones knew Heard for what he estimated was 15 years. Besides joining him as “probably the two biggest Dallas Cowboys fans in the world,” Jones remembers Heard as a stand-up guy.
“He was just a good guy,” Jones said. “In all the time I knew him, I don’t think I ever heard him say one cuss word. He was an honorable guy and he loved drag racing as much as anybody.”
Along with that fun-loving personality was a competitiveness that made him one of the top riders in the class.
With a strong work ethic to match, Heard kept plugging away in the ADRL’s PXM ranks, competing ever since the introduction of the class into the ADRL.
Heard didn’t race in the ADRL in 2011, choosing to work and test his bike in preparation for 2012.
That paid off, as he was in the midst of his finest season this year. Heard was seventh in points and won his first event at the aforementioned Spring Drags III.
He qualified No. 1 with a 4.10 and then edged out Stemper in a great side-by-side race in Thunder Valley.
“He never gave up. He had struggled for a while in the ADRL, but he never gave up and to see him doing so well, I was so happy for him,” Hunnicutt said.
Like many others, though, Hunnicutt will also remember him for far more than his racing success.
“If you’ve met him, you’re never going to forget him. He was such a personable guy,” Hunnicutt said. “When I heard (about his death), my heart just fell out of my chest.”
Like Hunnicutt, McKinney had raced with and against Heard long before the ADRL days, competing against him in the AMA.
Heard’s standout personality was something McKinney will never forget.
“I’ve known him for a long time and he’s always been a great guy,” McKinney said. “He was always happy and having a good time. It’s a terrible thing and I’m just at a loss for words.
“We’re going to miss him.”
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