Less than 24 hours after the untimely passing of one of its own, the staff, racers and fans of New Smyrna Speedway in Florida waited out a three-hour rain delay to pay tribute to the fallen 19-year-old former track champion Zack Donatti. The commitment by all involved, made for a night that is sure to be remembered for so many reasons.
How do you move forward when one of your own has passed? How do you combine “business as usual” with paying tribute and respect? Often tracks have days or sometimes weeks to put together the perfect balance of stock car racing and tribute. New Smyrna Speedway had less than 24 hours.
The news spread throughout the early morning hours of Saturday June 14. Zack Donatti, a young man that started his racing career by dominating the Quarter Midgets at the Little New Smyrna Speedway before making a name for himself all the way up through the Pro Late Models on the half-mile, had passed. Donatti suffered severe injuries in a work accident earlier in the week and although the initial prognosis was for a positive result, the outlook grew dismal throughout the day on Friday. Donatti passed in the early morning hours Saturday.
For the management of New Smyrna Speedway, learning of the news meant one thing – they would “Race for Zack” later that night.
On the other side of the catch fence, fellow Quarter Midget, Truck and Late Model competitor of Donatti’s, Zack Jarrell had his own idea for paying tribute to his friend.
Jarrell, who had practiced a primary and backup car throughout the day on Saturday, looked at his solid black painted backup car, with no lettering on the side, and took notice of the orange stripe that ran along the front. Jarrell would paint a 9z, Donatti’s number, on the side of the backup car and was asked to run it in the Parade Lap later that night.
“I felt this was the right thing to do and I was the right person to do it,” said Jarrell. “It’s kind of crazy, with no letters on it, and that orange stripe, it looked just like Zack’s Late Model, and that’s when it hit me.”
Slowly more pieces of the tribute began to fall in to place. Friends and family members planned to gather for the races in honor of Zack. T-shirts in remembrance were even made and collages of photos were put together. It was all coming together, and then mother-nature pumped the brakes in the way of relentless rains.
“I had talked to Kim Brown (Track Manager) and she said the lights would stay on all night if they had to,” said Jarrell. “Robert (Hart, track owner) reiterated to me more than once that we were racing. There was never a question. It was time to dig our heals in and wait it out.”
For Jarrell, the impact of his tribute did not hit home until after the lengthy delay, when he sat in turn four behind the wheel of the renumbered 9z waiting for the Parade Lap.
“The emergency vehicles, they usually show up on the front stretch in a group but it was different. They drove by me one by one slowly and gave me a thumbs up. That’s when I started to realize that we were doing something special. Then I looked down the front stretch and almost all of the fans had left the stands and were lining the fence from turn four to turn one. It was pretty overwhelming.”
Although the official “scripted” tribute would end with the parade lap, nobody could have predicted how it would continue later. With a 9z emblazoned on the rear quarter panels of his primary car, Jarrell started the 25 lap Pro Late Model feature from the pole and was not going to let a tribute victory escape his grasp on this night.
“I had another 9z on the hood and at that moment, I knew I had to win this,” said Jarrell. “Not for me or my team, but for everyone that was here that night. This would start the healing process. I started running qualifying laps. I just kept hitting my marks. The laps seemed to take minutes to pass, not 20 seconds.”
When Jarrell took the checkers, to the delight of every fan and competitor in attendance, the impact of his accomplishment met him in Victory Lane.
“I saw Kim Brown first and she was crying. As I tried to ask her where Tom (Donatti, Zack’s Father) was, he leaned his head inside the car. We cried and we prayed. It took me a while to get out of the car.”
The celebration continued in victory lane as fans and family wanted to crowd the winner’s photo.
“You couldn’t even see the car, there were so many people down there to share in the moment,” said Kim Brown, New Smyrna Track Manager.
“I think I counted 44 people.” Jarrell added.
The final moment in Victory Lane was fittingly a long embrace between Jarrell and Tom Donatti.
“I really feel like this started the healing process,” said Jarrell. “It wasn’t about me driving the racecar, it was about Zack’s family, his friends, everyone here at the track. It’s a long road, but I think this was the first step.”
– By Mark Keeler, Speed51.com Correspondent – Twitter: @MarkKeeler975