Jerry Landon died racing. Not in the Indianapolis 500 or at LeMans. He was racing in a mini-champ race at the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Speedway Sunday night when the car in front of him spun out of control, clipped his car and sent it flying head-on into a retaining wall.
His father, Wayne Landon, and his mother, Ruth, were in the stands and saw the crash that caused the death of their oldest son--their third child to die as a result of a car crash. Jerry, 33, of Freeport, Mich., was pronounced dead at 1:45 a.m.
Thirty-three years ago it was Wayne who was racing, at the old Hastings Speedway, when a wheel flew off his car and into the stands, killing the Landons' young daughter, Rita. Ten years ago, their second son, Terry, was killed in a crash on the highway.
And now racing has claimed another member of the Landon family. But Wayne Landon is not holding that against racing. Indeed, he says he will probably race again himself.
"Jerry died with his boots on," Wayne said. "Racing was his life and racing was his love. He had just won the first heat of the season and was zeroed in to win the feature. He was doing what he loved. It was just one of those things that happen.
"We lost a son on the highway. But we didn't park the automobile and stop driving on the highway did we?"
Mick Schuler, the promoter and announcer at the Kalamazoo Speedway and a longtime friend of the Landons, explained: "They love racing. Wayne has raced for 37 years and is a member of the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame. Jerry was around racing, literally, from Day 1. Jerry had raced for 16 or 17 years. He loved it.
"Mel Kenyon (a veteran race driver) was here recently and related to us a story. He said that he went to his 25-year class reunion and they did a poll asking how many people were doing something they really loved. Only five out of more than 200 people said they really loved what they were doing.
"Well, Jerry Landon died doing what he loved best. He got a lot out of life. He thoroughly enjoyed it.
"Wayne told me last night at the hospital that Jerry was always helping his competitors, even when they might come back and beat him in the feature. And he continued to help people even after the crash. They kept him on life-support systems all through the night so the team of doctors could come from Ann Arbor for donor organs.
"That family has been through so much, but they were there all night so that they could help others. That's the way they are. They are a good, Christian family, and that's going to help get them through this."
Jerry's two sons, Christopher and Nicholas, were in the stands with their grandparents when their father crashed. Nicholas is 8. Christopher had his seventh birthday Monday.
Wayne said that the 10 hours he spent at the hospital were the longest of his life.
"Our family is pulling together now as best we can," Wayne said. "We had five children, and now we're down to two. Two daughters left.
"It's a long, tough haul. We've been through it twice before, and we know it takes a long, long time. Things will jump out and slap you upside the head to remind you of them when you're not expecting it."
Jerry Landon won the North American Mini-Champ Racing Assn. points title last season.
Mini-champ cars are miniature Indy-type cars powered by snowmobile engines and are capable of running up to 125 m.p.h.