The death of crew member Donald “D.J.” Richardson Jr. last week sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community. Richardson, who was a tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing
29 car, lost his battle against the H1N1 virus on Christmas Day. The 37-year-old contracted the illness while celebrating Thanksgiving with his family in his native Massachusetts and did not recover. He left behind three children.
Like many in the NASCAR garage, Richardson was a “weekend warrior” – someone who worked for the team only on the weekends. Because of this, he was not a full-time employee at RCR and did not have medical insurance.
Because the sport has become so competitive over the last few years, pit stops have become more important. Strength and conditioning coaches are hired, former college and professional athletes are recruited and the specialty-level has increased. Gone are the days when the guy turning the wrenches in the shop all week grabbed an air gun and climbed over the wall to change tires. With this specialization within the sport has come more part-time people, or as they are called in the business, “hired guns." This was the case with D.J. Richardson.
"He had a dream of working in NASCAR and packed up 10 years ago to go after it," the Raleigh News & Observer quoted D.J.’s father Donald Richardson Sr. as saying. "He gave up everything he had (in Massachusetts) and headed out to do what he always wanted to do. He was a good person, a competitive person."
In North Carolina, Richardson caught his first break with Andy Petree Racing in 1999. He then went to work for Penske Racing, Hendrick Motorsports
and Braun Racing before joining RCR.
Few could have imagined that an athlete like Richardson would eventually succumb to something like the flu.
Despite not being insured by RCR, the News & Observer reported Richardson’s father as saying the organization was supportive throughout the ordeal.
“I am shocked and saddened by the tragic loss of our friend and teammate,” said Matt Clark, director of human performance and leadership development at RCR. “Anyone who knew D.J. realized that below the tough exterior was a caring father, friend and teammate. He had a huge heart and would do anything to help someone in need. D.J. loved changing tires and was recognized as one of the top pit athletes at the position. I want to extend my condolences to his family and friends.”
Without insurance, the medical bills amassed while he was fighting the illness. Even though many of these “hired guns” are uninsured, the NASCAR community and the teams they work for do care and do lend a hand. Richardson’s friends and family created a Web site – getwelldj.com – to raise awareness and money for Richardson.
The Web site says:
“We are asking you to dig deep and make a donation to help offset the hundreds of thousands of dollars of treatment it has already taken to bring D.J. back from the brink.”
Unfortunately, Richardson lost his battle on Christmas Day. He left behind the career of his dreams, his friends and his family, which is left to mourn the loss of a son and father. Also left behind were massive medical bills that accumulated while doctors fought to cure him.
Taking on the job of a “weekend warrior,” Richardson understood the risks of being uninsured, but there has to be something more that can be done for men like him. Each weekend, men and women up and down pit road put themselves in harm’s way for their teams and for each other – many of them uninsured.
Over the last few years the NASCAR bubble has burst. Teams have downsized, leaving thousands of people out of work with little help and no answers. Unionizing has never been a viable option for the sport. Something needs to be done. What is the answer? I don’t know. But it’s time to start asking the question.
The death of D.J. Richardson should shed light on the plight of NASCAR’s part-time employees. Racing is an expensive business, and like many businesses, NASCAR teams are feeling the pinch of the economy. It seems neither the teams nor the sanctioning body are prepared to take more steps protect part-time employees, which leaves these men and women in a tough predicament. They can take a risk and follow their dreams, or play it safe and live a life of relative comfort.
Richardson’s story is, unfortunately, the story of many Americans today, particularly those who work in NASCAR.