Many drag racers experience that exhilarating rush of an envelope-pushing pass and describe it as “I’ve died and gone to Heaven.” But Bob Mandell Jr. actually has done that.
He had a transcendent, faith-bolstering moment in which he visited with his late wife, Paula, while unconscious and presumed dead for eight and a half minutes following a racing accident. That motivates the Culleoka, Tenn., veteran car builder and NHRA sportsman driver.

“I got a second chance in life to be here and do what I love,” he said. “God left me here because I’ve got more work to do. That’s how I look at it.” 

Perhaps some of that work will involve motorsports safety initiatives, for Mandell was prepared, as prepared as anyone possibly can be, to sort out Saturday’s fatal crash during the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. It claimed the life of longtime friend Randy Alexander – ironically, while racing Mandell’s son, Bob III. He has shared with his son his passion for both racing and safety. And the ill-fated collision with Alexander has renewed, as well, the younger Mandell’s commitment to improved safety.

Together father and son sought clues Sunday to the unavoidable accident. Before the Georgia State Patrol impounded both cars, the elder Mandell insisted on looking at what was left of his son’s Chevy, because “once you move it, you start untangling things and you can’t really see what took place. I just wanted to look at the damage of our car and see if there’s something we need to do better, to make sure it’s safer. I knew there was carnage, and I knew there was something I might I need to learn from this – before they start ripping it off the wall and things start getting distorted.”

Sadly, the Mandells have more questions than answers.

“I’ve replayed the video over and over and over and over and over, studying it. In my business, I try to study accidents to see what we have to do to try [to prevent accidents or at least maximize safety],” Mandell Jr. said. “Randy was an experienced driver. Did something happen to him in the car before the accident? Or did the car just go out of control? We don’t know.”

“We don’t know,” the younger Mandell echoed. “We can’t talk to him.”

But with their research, they plan to honor him. (Mandell Jr. won the event Sunday and vowed to present the trophy to Alexander’s family at the funeral later this week in Alabama.)

“Our living is not drag racing. Our living is building these cars and building safe race cars to walk away from it. I mean, we have a good record on cars. We haven’t had many wrecks of our own cars, or customers cars, but when they have wrecked, everybody has walked away. We have not had no fatalities in any of our cars, knock on wood,” Mandell III – whom friends and family call “Little Man” - said.

“We build professional-quality hot rods. It proves to get ran over by another car and go through it at 200 miles an hour and I climb out of it not with a scratch on me,” he said, describing himself as “a little sore today, a little stiff.” He also gave credit to “the seatbelts and the HANS [Device], all the safety gear that you wear” and said, “Thank God we wear all that. The cars that we build, all the safety in the cars and the way we construct everything, I don’t think there’s anything much we can do besides maybe . . . . make some changes and maybe some padding in the Funny Car cage.”

Without having examined Alexander’s car, Mandell III said the “car could be all completely squished around the Funny Car cage, so it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway, what kind of pad you had if the whole car’s squished. I mean, going through a driver’s side, it’s hard to say.”

He said one of Alexander’s crew members told him the racer’s injuries were confined to head trauma, so his thoughts turned to sturdier helmets and additional roll-cage padding: “We’ve got Funny Car-style cages. They come up with these pads now that can go around your whole helmet and the top of your helmet, so when you go into a barrel roll, even in Dad’s accident back then, we seen the cracks in the helmet. The only thing I think that maybe in the future that needs to be updated is the pads around the Funny Car cages needs to be mandated in the Top Sportsman, Top Dragster ranks. I think that’ll save a lot of head trauma, head accidents.”

Moments after the wreckage was cleared from the racetrack Saturday afternoon, Mandell III pronounced himself “100-percent OK.” And indeed, he was.

 “Fortunately, I sit on a bunch of foam in the car. It’s like sitting in a La-Z-Boy,” he said. “I’m so small, so I sit on four inches of foam on my bottom and I sit on four inches of foam on my back. The impact actually didn’t feel so severe of me hitting it. The seat belts and the HANS strapping on top of your shoulder, yeah, you feel it today. A little sore, a little stiff, because I really put myself in a car really tight for a bad situation. I don’t, like the Ronnie Davis wreck, I don’t want to be loose in something if something bad happens. I want to be strapped in. No different than Dad. When Dad had that wreck, Dad was strapped in really tight, and it proved: Dad was able to be here still today. He wasn’t able to walk away, but he was able to be alive.

“Dad’s always been big on safety. Even when I first started racing at 15 years old, I had all my safety gear on: helmet, gloves, pants, neck collar, seat belts tight. He made sure that we were 100-percent tight in the cars,” Mandell III said. “I’ll never run a car without any safety gear, even when I bracket race the bracket cars I still run the HANS and all my safety gear because you never know what can happen. Doesn’t matter if you’re going 100 miles an hour or 200 miles an hour, something bad can happen.”

Mandell III, earnest about turning this experience into something meaningful, allowed himself a moment of levity: “You know what Mom would be saying . . . like any Mom: ‘You’re freaking crazy strapping in them cars.’ But this is what we do,” he said.

And they were racing Sunday – and mulling ideas for how to do their part to keep racers safe. Monday they were digging for information.

“We’re not leaving here without the car,” Mandell Jr. said. “We’re going to stay here until we get our car.  We’ll stay here [Monday]. I’ll be wearing people out on the phone.”

So Mandell doesn’t need to ask, “What on Earth am I doing?” His mission is clear. - Susan Wade

The hush of the motorhome was a palpable contrast to the indescribably harsh smashing, clanging, grinding sounds that pierced his ears and his soul in a flash of horror Saturday. It lasted for barely 10 seconds, but it will stay with him a lifetime.

Bob Mandell III, already a quiet 29-year-old, spoke in reverential tones, recounting his unavoidable Atlanta Dragway wreck that took the life of longtime family friend Randy Alexander but left him without a scratch. Mandell said he barely had some soreness and stiffness the next day, a day Alexander never would see.

Mandell III technically was the winner of the pairing that ended in ruins beyond the finish line in the first round of Top Sportsman eliminations at the NHRA Southern Nationals. But no one really was a winner. Besides, Mandell had no car to continue with Sunday’s later rounds. His father, Bob Mandell Jr., had been in the water box, poised for his own pass, while the accident unfolded in front of him. He remained in the running for the trophy, and he vowed to seize it and present it to Alexander’s family at the funeral in northern Alabama. And he did win later Sunday in Alexander’s memory.

But that morning the young racer was operating on only a couple of hours of sleep and an overload of “just thinking about what could have happened.” Mandell III said, “I’m very fortunate to sit here and talk to you today.”

He talked with Competition Plus less than 24 hours after the incident at his father’s urging: “You need to do an interview, and you need to honor Randy.”

It was just starting to sink in that Alexander was gone. They knew it intellectually.  (Mandell Jr. said when he zipped to the top-end scene to find his son, he glanced toward Alexander. “I knew when I drove by Randy’s car on the golf cart, I knew. I knew things were bad. I knew just from that moment.”) However, their hearts were only beginning to absorb the reality. This was Randy, who – like family members – called him “Little Man.” He had known Bob III and his younger brother and part-time sportsman racer Jeff back in their grade-school days when they built their own jungle gym from spare parts lying around the family fabrication shop in the Middle Tennessee country, near the burg of Culleoka.

“Randy probably remembers me when I was in diapers still and Dad was carrying us around the racetrack,” Little Man said. Replied Dad, “Yeah, he does.” They still talked about Alexander in the present tense. “Randy’s always been a good guy, always come over,” the young man said.

Mandell Jr. said, “Thursday when they got here parking, Randy was over here. They were cutting up. They were talking. Friday, Bob was over there at his trailer, trying to help him figure out what was wrong with his car, why he couldn’t get qualified. And just before we even strapped in the car and raced, they were sitting there talking in the staging lanes. You know, it’s a very hard, hard thing to swallow up. Just, I mean, it’s just sad.” The referring to the older of his two sons, he said, “To watch the video is just absolutely a miracle that he’s even here to talk.”

It is, and Mandell III said, “It took time to reset it all into reality that it actually happened. I mean, I needed time away from some people to let it, because everybody’s up around you, asking about you. And I needed that space to get away and get my mind thought of figuring out what actually happened. That’s when it all hit. Once I was able to be myself and be alone for a second, then it all hit of what actually happened and how it happened.”

Some things still puzzle Mandell III after his Saturday ordeal. Other things he knows for certain. Why the accident happened is a tapestry of scattered facts and some speculation. 

“The car just got out of shape and he was trying to drive it. Even watching the video in slo-mo, he had the wheel turned, he was trying to drift it and drive it,” Mandell III said of Alexanders’ ’63 Corvette. “He was doing the best he could have done. Anybody out here would have probably done the same thing he was doing. It’s just the wrong place at the wrong time at the racetrack.”

What made Alexander’s car cut left from the right lane and barrel-roll into Mandell’s lane to set up a broadside collision remains unknown.

“We’re not 100 percent sure,” Mandell III said. “We know he was struggling all weekend long. He didn’t make a very fast pass, so he had to dial 7.80 [seconds]. That’s Top Sportsman’s minimum [projected elapsed time]. So he went out there, and the car actually made a half way decent run. It moved around quite a bit on him, but it went the fastest it went all weekend. He went 7.40, crashing [crossing the finish line at more than 160 mph].

“So we’re thinking maybe we seen in the video that he was definitely in the marbles towards the wall. We don’t know if the car drove itself that way or if he was trying to really look for me and see where I’m at and he drove the car that way. And then when he knew that I was nowhere around, he laid on the brakes and got the car out of control,” he said. “We don’t know. We can’t talk to him.

“By my opinion, Randy’s been racing for many years, so I would say he was looking for me and he tried. I think he got on the brakes hard, because he was turning sideways at the 1,000-foot mark. So he knew he had to start closing up the gap,” Mandell IIII said. “I think he got on the brakes a little hard and the car started drifting and he was just going for a ride after you get the car that sideways. In that kind of a car, the only thing you can do is pull the parachute and hopefully straighten the car out. But he didn’t pull the parachute.

“He doesn’t do much parachute-pulling racing. He’s ran a lot of Super Gas and he’s run a lot of local Top Sportsman stuff and never been into the really fast scene that you had to pull a parachute in. He did pull the parachute in the last qualifying pass so, yeah you would think he would pull the parachute,” he said. “Again, when the car’s sideways, all you’re thinking about is driving it. You’re not thinking about pulling the parachute.”

Meanwhile, Mandell said, he was trying desperately to avoid hitting Alexander, who darted suddenly into the path of his Chevy that was scrubbing speed off a 203-mph run.

His account of the impact and the aftermath, calm coming from a racer but chilling for anyone, began with a grim confirmation that “I plowed right through his driver door.”

Mandel said he was busy in his own lane and it took awhile to figure out where Alexander was on the track.

“I didn’t see him. I get my car focused about 400 feet in a run and make sure I’m 110-percent straight where I’m going. Then I started looking for him. I was trying to look around my hood scoop, like, ‘Where’s he at?’ Couldn’t find him. Couldn’t find him. I was starting to think that dang, maybe he broke and I blew by him. I know he’d been strugglin’ all weekend. I knew he was ahead of me – he had that big head start – but when I looked, couldn’t find him [in sight,” Mandell III said]. I started looking backwards. Couldn’t find him. So I started riding the brakes so I didn’t break out. As soon as I ride the brakes, he’s right there in front of me.

“He just like magically appeared right in front of me,” Mandel III said. “All I could do is pull the ‘chutes,  turn everything off, and hope for the best when I plowed through him. I plowed right through his driver door. That’s the bad thing.”

He said a flurry of what-ifs and why-didn’ts flooded his mind: “Why didn’t the car shut off? Why didn’t I break on the starting line and idle down the racetrack?” But, he said, “I just didn’t have that luck towards me. I guess the lucky part is I’m still here to talk about it. It’s just one of those things: Why did it happen to two good people? We both got caught.

“My biggest thing was stopping the car,” he said. “Of course, at the time when you plow through, it happens so fast. Plowing through him, that probably wasn’t the scary part. The sounds that it made going through him was horrifying. I mean the sounds, I can’t describe. They just stuck in my head, the noise.”

Mandell said he hadn’t had the opportunity yet to inspect Alexanders’ Corvette, but he said, “I do know that the motor and transmission was ripped out of his car. It separated.”   

Said Mandell, “You know he’s there. It’s almost like going through a– plowing through a brick wall. I mean, the noise and then once everything peeled off my car, and I looked and I was in the air, I was looking at everything flying through the air. I didn’t think about the debris or anything could hit me at the time. And once he flew over, my car burst into flames and smoke, and I couldn’t see nothing in front of me. All I knew is I was trying to hold the car straight and hope it doesn’t hit the wall.

“I felt the car drifting sideways. The thing wasn’t really slowing down. It was drifting sideways, and I’m still locked on the brakes. And I’m trying to steer it, but of course, I don’t know how bad my damage is. The front wheels were both knocked off of it. I’m trying to steer it, and the car’s starting to turn sideways and going into the wall, and my biggest fear was to start barrel-rolling. I didn’t want to start barrel-rolling and lose something that way. But then the car stopped up against the wall, and I climbed out pretty quick. That was a relief that I walked away. I’m very fortunate to sit here and talk to you today.”

The experience, Mandell III said, is one he’ll carry with him: “It’s not something that you’ll clear out of your mind. It’s probably something that I will live with the rest of my life. I mean, you’ll never erase that moment.”

Neither will his father, whose own still-vivid memories of a life-altering Pro Mod crash left him presumed dead for more than eight minutes. Mandel Jr.’s wife, Paula – “Little Man’s” mother – had passed away from a prolonged bout with cancer. But he said she appeared to him during the time he was unconscious and that she told him to go back to “life on Earth,” life in his now-broken body. He regained consciousness, but the image of Paula appeared inside the chassis of his race car.

For the son, one of the certainties is that his mother was watching over him last Saturday.

“Mom was living with us. That’s all we can say is that Mom was strapped in the car beside us and kept me and Dad protected in these freak accidents,” Mandell III said.

Back at the starting line, Mandell Jr. said, he “watched the whole thing happen, and it was like in like slow motion. And I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do?’ I’m trying to decide if I’m going to crack the throttle and just go crazy all the way down the track and then NHRA [would] go ballistic on me while this is all going on.” He opted to jump from behind the wheel of his car, and he became a bit calmer upon seeing friend Travis Harvey, a North Carolina racer. Then FOX TV correspondent Bruno Massel rushed up to him and reassured him that his son was safe and had exited the car’s remains on his own power.

Once the scene had been cleaned up about an hour later, Mandell Jr. was back in his car, his son right there alongside him, helping send him down the same lane Alexander used.

“We didn’t know Randy’s outcome then. Hoping that everything would be all right with him and he’d be able to regrow and be who he was again. But we had to get our minds straight and focus on Dad running that round. Got to think about his safety next and got to make sure Dad has a clear mind and nothing bad happens to him. We just all stuck beside him. Once we got back to the trailer, it all reoccurred. We didn’t think about the win. We were just glad I was OK and hoped Randy was all right. That was our biggest worry, about Randy. I knew I walked away from it. He didn’t.”

Mandell III said he saw Alexander’s car after his father advanced to Round 2. “It was tarped up. Usually when they tarp a car up, that’s just a bad, bad feeling,” he said. “Usually nothing good comes out of it. Right then you’ve got that sick feeling that something’s really bad.”

Mandell went to visit the Alexander pit and received the word from fellow Top Sportsman racers Jeff Wilkerson and Scott Underwood that their decades-long friend had passed away.

More irony lies in the fact that Mandell Jr. didn’t build Alexander’s car. But, Mandell III said, “We done a bunch of work on it when it was brand-new – many, many years ago. I was a little kid back then that actually worked on it. But we’ve always done a bunch of updates on it. Randy’s always been a really good customer and a really, really good friend. He’ll be truly missed. Randy has always been a really good-hearted, soft-spoken kind of guy that would do anything for anybody.”

Racing will go on, and the Mandells will continue to be part of the scene. They will keep their noses to the grindstone and work overtime at Bob’s Pro Fab to build even stronger, safer race cars. They will be among those who travel to Harvest, Ala., to pay respects to Randy Alexander later this week. Alexander will be laid to rest, his name written on the sad list of racers who left the sport too early. Mrs. Alexander will have a Wally statue because Bob Mandell Jr. won that star-crossed drag race at Commerce, Ga. – “for Randy, in honor of him, because he meant that much to us.” Little Man will drift back into a rhythm of sleep. The Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will follow its nomadic meandering throughout the United States.

But the Mandells and a host of drag-racing fans and workers always will remember Randy Alexander.