Picture this: you are at a racetrack. The cars swarm by on the track below you in a pack, bumping, banging, and fighting for position. The wind is the first thing that hits you, the cool air breaking goosebumps across your skin. The smell hits you next – fuel and burnt rubber blending together and filling your nostrils. Then you take a good, long look at the action on the track before you, the cars roaring by so fast, their colors meshing together like a late summer sunset. And at that moment, just for a second, all your worries and fears slip away. At that moment, it’s just you and the race.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It is estimated that nearly 800,000 individuals worldwide die from suicide per year. Beyond that, it was estimated that in 2020, in just the United States alone, 12.2 million Americans contemplated the idea of committing suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million individuals attempted suicide. With figures so alarmingly large, it’s not bold to assume that a large number of people in one way or another involved in the racing community have at one point in time been a part of those figures. In honor of Suicide Prevention Month, I went out and spoke to a variety of people involved with the racing community, including drivers at both the national and local levels, track employees, broadcasters, iRacers, YouTubers, and fans to learn their stories of how they overcame their darkest times. In my search, though, I found one shared element that helped each and every single one of them: racing. As one fan described to me, “Anything that puts good into the universe should be cherished and racing does that for many.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Jason Rockafellow Jr., Nick Fraulino, and Justin Cox all seem very different. However, when taking a deeper look into their lives, they have more in common than meets the eye. Nick described it best for all three of them, “Racing has been all I could really remember ever since I took my first breath.” Jason, Nick, and Justin were all born in the early 2000s to hard-working families with deep ties to racing. Jason’s great grandfather was a racer and track champion at Wall Stadium Speedway, Nick and his siblings grew up racing quarter midgets at Silver City Quarter Midget Club, and Justin spent the Saturday nights of his youth at Anderson Speedway watching his family members compete. As they grew, racing became a true deep love for them, “It consumed me, and I consumed it,” Jason described. However, with age, came some of the hardships of life – and the similarities between these three men became much more intense.
“In October 2018, I felt so low I attempted to hang myself,” Jason said.
“In August of 2018… I attempted to commit suicide by jumping five stories off a parking garage…” Nick said.
“In late 2017… I sat on the ground of my garage…with a knife in my hand, tears streaming down my face, ready to just end the loneliness, basically,” Justin said.
Jason, Nick, and Justin all contemplated the idea of suicide.
For Jason, he stopped himself before anything else could happen, “I stopped myself in the midst, and realized the bigger picture.” For Justin, he couldn’t go through with it, “I eventually calmed myself down by zoning in on the music and pulled myself together and went back to my room and fell asleep.” And for Nick, luck was on his side, as he survived his fateful attempt, “I thankfully survived, which in most cases is nearly unheard of, and to this day, I thank the man above for giving me a second chance at life.” To heal from something as traumatizing as a suicide attempt is no easy ordeal, yet Jason, Nick, and Justin all managed to find the strength to do so, finding solace in the world of racing. But why racing, you may ask? Well, that was a question I soon discovered had many answers.
In the years since their darkest times, Jason Rockafellow Jr. has become a broadcaster for LSRTV, Justin Cox makes up ⅓ of the Indy Boys Racing Podcast, and Nick Fraulino is a senior champ kart racer. “It just made things go away a lot of the time,” Jason described, which both Justin and Nick relayed similarly to me. I found they weren’t alone in this feeling, however, as almost every single person I spoke to for this piece described racing as one thing: an escape – for a variety of different reasons.
For 19-year-old racer and track reporter, Olivia Whissell, racing was an escape from bullying at school, “It’s given me a sense of community. People going through the same things as me, and just giving me an outlet to express myself.” For 28-year-old fan, Tory-Lynn Henry, racing was the driving source to creating a stronger bond for her and her husband, “It helped my husband and I bond in the early stages of our relationship, and has continued keeping us connected.”
And for NASCAR Report’s R.J. Starcevic, it helps create a career opportunity for him he may otherwise never have had, “I’m not sure where I’d be if I didn’t have racing.” Even people at the top level of the sport, still attest to racing as their best medicine. NASCAR Truck & Xfinity Series driver Brad Perez relayed to me, “Racing not only in itself has given me a kind of purpose in life, but it has put me around many great people, that make me feel so welcomed and happy to be alive.”
Another Xfinity Series driver expressed, “It’s helped me to grow through a lot. It’s forced me to really act on things if I want them. It’s helped me to become a better man.” And Ryan Vargas described to me that, “From a driver’s perspective; it has its up and downs, it’s stressful being in the sport but you’re also in a position many dream of.”
Racing helps people in more ways than one – but at it’s core, it gives people a place where they don’t feel alone.
“When I’m at home, my family and I will sit down and watch races together,” Jordan “JT” Taylor described.
“If it wasn’t for racing, I wouldn’t have met you, who I’ve been dating for over three years, and I wouldn’t have met some of my closest friends,” Jason Rockafellow Jr. expressed.
Or as Mark DiMauro Jr. put it simply, “The track is just my happy place.”
So picture this: you are at a race track. As the cars swarm by in a pack on the track below you, your friend beside you hollers with excitement. Your family sits on your other side cheering, as their drivers battle for position. The strangers over your shoulder are on their feet, thrusting their fists into the air in joyous laughter as the laps wind down. And as the checkered flag waves, at that moment, for just a second, you don’t feel so alone. At that moment, you are home. A home created out of the universal love of racing.
If you or a loved one is contemplating the idea of suicide, please contact 988 or 1-800-273-TALK for help.
Jason Rockafellow Jr, Nicholas Fraulino, Justin Cox, Ryan Vargas, Brad Perez, Mark DiMauro Jr., Tristan Grinder, Olivia Whissell, Ben Amado, Tory-Lynn Henry, Geoff “Kitt” Immel, Arlene Lopez, Kenny Brady, R.J. Starcevic, Brayton Laster, Jordan “J.T.” Taylor, Kira Degler, Daniel Asher, Thomas Martucci, Isaac, Caleb Evans, J. David “J.D.” Rich, Nate Rosenhaus, Alex Bell, Sarah Davis, Krista Fraulino, Hawk Luxxington, Jackson, Norman Jones, Brandon Chrasta, Joey Kraus, all anonymous interviewees, Indy Boys Racing Podcast, & the entire Pit Box Press team.
Featured image credits to Patrick Valley