What the Media Hasn’t Told You: An Open Letter to Randy LaJoie

Randy LaJoie Sr.It was quite a surprise getting into the car Tuesday and turning the radio to my favorite Sirius NASCAR show. A very distraught Randy LaJoie was explaining that NASCAR was about to announce that they had suspended him for testing positive for marijuana. The details are widely available, so I won’t repeat them here and, frankly, that’s not the point of this blog. He smoked a joint while partying with a group of people at the racetrack. It was a one-time thing, not something he does regularly but — as Dave Moody pointed out — not a real bright thing to do given NASCAR’s zero tolerance drug policy. Plus, it’s illegal. Randy is jumping through the NASCAR hoops necessary to get reinstated.

I have to say, though, that the admission wasn’t as much of a surprise as the media and fan reaction. It ranged from sort of funny (“@JosephPaulillo: Knew something was up when LaJoie told Coleman during the race, “clear turn 5E, except for the minatour.”) to just plain stupid, the worst of which was a ‘respected’ NASCAR writer tearing apart LaJoie’s apology. How unfair of Randy to have taken all the fun out of kicking people when they’re down by beating everyone to the punch.

I finally reached my limite with the Sirius Speedway caller who actually said, “Don’t worry, Randy will get his life back together and he’ll be fine.”

Give me an effin’ break. Randy doesn’t have anything to “get back together”.

When you reach the point in your life when you really start thinking about what your purpose is on this Earth (which I have recently), you run into a lot of people whom you hope justify their existence by being loving parents, working at homeless shelters and donating to food banks because it is hard to see how what they do in their day jobs makes the world a better place. But my perspective may be skewed because just about everything I’ve seen about the incident focused on LaJoie as a ‘two-time Busch champion’.

I’m not sure where being a racecar driver comes in in terms of making the world a better place. There are some people who have made a point of doing things beyond the track. Over in the ALMS, driver David Brabham spends a lot of his own time and money trying to make the world a better place. Alcohol companies can’t sponsor cars is France, so the Highcroft Patron car at Le Mans instead featured an effort to eradicate malaria – a disease most of us in the U.S. and Europe don’t worry about since it doesn’t affect us. Jeff Gordon, Richard Childress and others have put their own money into medical facilities. This is in contrast to the ‘let me sign this and put it up on ebay and let other people donate money’ approach.

One of the things about being ‘on the inside’ is that you learn things about people that most fans don’t know. Sometimes it’s not a pleasent experience (you find that a driver you really liked is an inconsiderate sexist snob), but sometimes you learn things that you just feel compelled to pass along.

Randy LaJoie is a good racecar driver, but when St. Peter looks down a list of Randy’s accomplishments as he stands at the pearly gates, there’s going to be a long list of names. Those are the names of people whose lives Randy LaJoie has saved.

Randy doesn’t have formal engineering training, but he’s got all the skills of a scientist or engineer. When he was driving (which he refers to as “being my own crash-test dummy”), he realized that it was really important that the driver stopped when the car stopped. Randy’s company, The Joie of Seating, makes seats for race cars.

The Joie of Seating makes seats for NASCAR drivers. Remember Michael McDowell’s crash at Texas? One of Randy’s seats was part of the safety equipment that helped McDowell walk away with nothing more than a few bruises (ribs and ego).

But — and more importantly — Randy makes seats for the everyday racer. The Saturday night men and women who can’t afford carbon fiber, but need a safe, well-fitted seat. They also make seat for kids. The problem with kids is that they outgrow things. Quickly. An entry-level seat for a racecar can cost a couple of hundred to more than a thousand bucks. If you’re not one of those parents into mortgaging the house for your kid’s career, you’re faced with a dilema. Do you buy the seat big so that it will last for two years and try putting some extra padding on so your daughter can’t slide around if she’s hit in her quarter midget?

If you buy a seat from Randy, he’ll trade out seats as your kid grows because he knows a seat is safe only if it fits right. He could make more money by selling more seats, but that’s not really why he’s in business. Randy started a not-for-profit 501(3)c foundation to promote racing safety at short tracks so that all the safety innovations developed for NASCAR’s top series can start being used at the local tracks.

I got to interview Randy for The Science of Speed video series. We spent a whole morning in his shop asking the guys working at the shop if they could please hold off hammering for a just a few more moments and playing with the shop dog.

My favorite part of the interview with Randy was one we used to end of the video segment on safety. He says something like (and I’m paraphrasing – you should really look at the very end of the video if you want to appreciate his passion for safety):

When I was racing, I wanted to reach Victory Lane. Now, when one of my customers calls me on Monday and tells me that they caught on fire, rolled the car, wrecked their… butt*… off, and they’re fine, well, that’s my Victory Lane.

Before anyone throws stones, maybe we should all think a little about what we contribute to the world. We’ve all done stupid things (and I’ve probably done more than my fair share). The difference is that most of us were lucky enough to not be caught. We were allowed to make our mistakes in private.

I’m not arguing that doing good things gives you the right to do bad things, but in the great karmic balance of things, this is not the incident for which Randy La Joie will be remembered. And as proud as I’m sure he is of his racing championships, that’s also not what he is going to be remembered for.

Along with the late Steve Peterson , Dean Sicking and his crew at the University of Nebraska, Gary Nelson, and Tom Gideon (formerly of GM Racing, now with the NASDAR R and D Center), Randy La Joie is one of the people who evangelizes for safety simply because it is the right thing to do, not because they are concerned that losing a popular driver might affect the popularity of a sport and its ability to make money. These are folks who don’t care if you are Jimmie Johnson or a no-name nine-year old in a go kart.

Randy, no one can question your passion and dedication to racing safety. You are one of the people who makes the world a better place – screw ups or no. You became one of my heroes the morning I spent with you in your shop, and you still are.

Footnote: * My favorite part of the morning was when he gave us this great soundbite and we (the crew) were trying to figure out who should ask him if he could do it again exactly the same… without the cuss word!

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