Terror on turn 3
By ANDREW MCGINN
For a moment, it looked like everything was finally going right.
The gremlins that harassed Jon Strabley all through his rookie season of dirt-track racing — if they weren’t monkeying with his car’s brakes, they were chewing apart the fuel line or pushing him up against the wall — had seemingly decided to move on to the next unlucky sap.
On this sun-baked Saturday night, the Grand Junction native looked like the kind of racer whose name and number he would have proudly worn on a T-shirt to school.
It wasn’t so long ago that Strabley, 20, was doing his back-to-school shopping around this time of year at the Boone Speedway during the IMCA Super Nationals, the youngest in a family of racing super-fans who could lay their combined T-shirts end-to-end and cover every inch of asphalt and brick at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And now Strabley, the first of his family to go from fan to driver, was royally tearing up the Boone Speedway, billed as Iowa’s fastest quarter-mile dirt track.
With just two laps to go in his heat race on July 13, Strabley was nipping at the race leader as they barreled toward turn number three at more than 80 mph.
Seeking a burst of momentum for when he came out of the turn, Strabley pushed his open-wheeled Northern SportMod up toward the track’s bank.
But on this night, the gremlins had just been biding their time.
“I touched the brake and there was nothing there,” Strabley recalled. “My foot went all the way to the floor.”
With terrifying speed, the car launched over the side of the track.
The next thing Strabley knew, first-responders surrounding his flattened car were instructing him not to move.
Suddenly absent was the sound of 370-horsepower motors. The entire race had come to a standstill with the wave of a red flag.
“A lot of people thought I was dead,” Strabley confessed.
He wasn’t dead — but no one could say that he wouldn’t die, either.
In fact, he was still wearing his helmet when they wheeled him into the emergency room at the Boone County Hospital, the first stop on a journey that has tested his family and their decades-old love of auto racing.
The helmet itself cracked during one of the car’s multiple rolls, the driver’s side roll cage snapping away on impact with the ground. It’s possible that his head, albeit helmeted, slammed to earth during the roll, taking the car’s full weight of 2,500 pounds if only for a millisecond.
A month after the crash, Strabley is unbelievably on the mend. He sums up the night’s carnage like only a 20-year-old unaware of his own mortality could.
“Hero to zero,” he joked, describing his rapid fall from second place.
Coincidentally, it was also the first night all season that Strabley had worn a special head and neck restraint instead of a foam collar. He did so, begrudgingly, at his dad’s insistence.
An affable, 6-foot-2-inch graduate of Greene County High School who became a favorite of the student section his senior year during his only season playing basketball — few knew that he always wore a racing T-shirt under the jersey — Strabley could very well have been the Class of 2017’s first fatality.
Instead, he suffered four fractures to his spine, including a broken C7 in his neck, but retained his life and the ability to walk.
“I’m getting better every day,” he said last week, his neck still in a brace and the twisted skeleton of his race car still sitting in his family’s driveway in Grand Junction.
He’s even talking now about his next car.
“Rookie season, check,” he said. “Sophomore season, coming soon.”
His dad, longtime Jefferson Bee & Herald employee Rob Strabley, can barely stomach the thought. His eyes moisten at the mere recollection of July 13.
“He thinks he’s invincible,” Rob Strabley said, shaking his head. “The dad in me doesn’t want him to, but how can you tell someone you can’t live your dream?”
Let alone a man of 20?
“I just don’t want the next one to kill him,” Rob Strabley said.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, Rob Strabley arguably knows better than anyone about the dangers of racing.
“These things can bite you every so often,” he said of race cars. “It’s not a PlayStation game.”
His son’s relative inexperience behind the wheel probably played little role in the crash, as the 2013 death in New Jersey of 37-year-old driver Jason Leffler attests. Leffler’s racing career had taken him all the way to the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in the No. 11 FedEx car, but he nevertheless was killed in June 2013 on a high-banked dirt track when his winged sprint car hit a wall head-on during a heat race.
Despite wearing a head and neck restraint system, the cause of death was blunt force neck injury.
From auto racing’s inception, there have just been those nights when the maker’s unseen checkered flag waves for someone on the oval below.
For Jon Strabley, the urge to race — to tempt fate one Saturday night at a time — is almost genetic.
“I was born into the sport,” he said. “Instead of growing up watching ‘SpongeBob,’ we went and got the VHS tapes of Knoxville Nationals,” he explained.
The family’s side business, RRP Race Graphics, has wrapped scores of cars throughout the state in eye-popping numbers and sponsor logos.
But when Jon Strabley first suggested getting a car of his own, his dad countered by saying he should put his money toward leaving home and buying a house.
Undeterred, he bought a SportMod formerly driven by a cousin, Brian Miller, but found himself having to scrunch his 6-foot frame into the driver’s seat.
When Strabley finally debuted at Boone in May, it was in a different car he acquired over the winter with an extra foot of room.
From the get-go, brake problems plagued Strabley and his crew.
Sure, there were rookie mistakes here and there, including wall slaps and spin outs, but his biggest woes were by far mechanical, and unexplainable at that.
One night down in Stuart, the brakes just gradually gave out. Another night over in Boone, the fuel pump burst into flames.
Of the nine races Strabley entered this season, he only finished one.
That ninth race culminated with a week’s stay at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines.
Just before the race, Strabley posted a picture of his car to Facebook with a message saying how much he missed his grandpas, both of whom have died.
“Fifteen minutes later,” he said, “I was getting rushed to the hospital.”
From his vantage point in the stands that night in Boone, dad Rob Strabley saw his son’s car leaving the track, but didn’t see the landing. With wrecks so routine, Rob Strabley admittedly thought first and foremost of the time and money that would be needed to make repairs.
Jon Strabley had already sunk enough of his paychecks from Scranton Manufacturing into the car. Now he would have to sink even more, his dad surmised.
As expected, the yellow caution flag came out.
Only when Rob Strabley heard the frantic tone in the announcer’s voice — “Red! Red! Red!” came the announcement calling for a race-stopping red flag to be thrown — did a tire-sized knot form in his throat.
Jon Strabley’s car came to rest on its wheels.
Mid-air, he even had the forethought to flip the car’s kill switch in hopes of preventing a fire from the battery.
“You have those years,” Jon Strabley now says of what could have been a life-ending crash.
His only real regret is that he’ll miss Super Nationals the first week of September.
For better or for worse, Jon Strabley is hooked.
“It’s the best adrenaline rush ever,” he said.
How to help
Jon Strabley’s rookie racing season ended July 13 with a harrowing crash at the Boone Speedway.
As he notes, the first medical bill was already waiting in the mail for him when he returned home to Grand Junction from Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines.
A GoFundMe fundraiser — Jon Strabley Recovery Fund — is underway to assist in his recovery.
Donations can also be made in Jon Strabley’s name at the Peoples Bank in Grand Junction.