The deaths of his sons spur drag racer's drive for safety

Doug Herbert races to a victory in Top Fuel at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in June.  (Auto Imagery, Inc.)
Doug Herbert races to a victory in Top Fuel at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in June. (Auto Imagery, Inc.)

MORRISON, Colo. — Doug Herbert slides into his Top Fuel dragster and straps himself in for a 298-mph trip down the strip.

"Come on, Dad, we can beat this guy!" shouts a voice inside his head.

Herbert is comforted by the voice, looks forward to hearing it.

He gazes at a laminated picture taped to the inside of his car, a snapshot of him clutching his sons, Jon and James, in his arms.

"You've got this, Dad. You can win!" the voice implores.

The 40-year-old Herbert never feels closer to Jon and James than the moments before a race when he's alone in his dragster, helmet on, the world completely shut out.

He can hear James urging him on. He can see the exuberance on Jon's face, beaming with pride that his dad's a drag racer.

It's been more than six months since a car accident killed Jon, 17, and James, 12. Not a day goes by that Herbert doesn't break down over their deaths.

At the track, he races in their memory, dedicating his National Hot Rod Association season to them. He's calling it the "For My Boys" Tour and has a decal on his dragster made up in their honor, their faces underneath a caption that reads, "Forever in our hearts."

"I've got a little more desire and a little more reason to want to win," he said. "I want to make them proud of me."


Herbert was in Phoenix on Jan. 26 for preseason testing when he received an early morning call that altered his world forever.

His boys had been in an accident and they'd been killed, his ex-wife, Sonnie, told him.

"My heart sank," he said. "I didn't know what to do. Everything that I did revolved around my boys."

Over the past few months, he's pieced together the details of what happened that morning back in Cornelius, N.C., a city located 20 miles north of Charlotte. Knowing has helped with the healing.

Jon and James were hungry and jumped into the car to grab breakfast at McDonald's. Jon, behind the wheel, was going more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, swerving his Mazda in and out of traffic on a four-lane road just a half-mile from Herbert's house. Jon lost control and the car skidded across the road, smashing into the front end of an oncoming Hummer.

The Mazda's engine was thrown a couple hundred feet. The seats were smashed.

"The whole car, you could fit in a trash can," Herbert said, glancing down at his hands as he sat inside his trailer after a qualifying run at the Mile-High Nationals on Saturday. "A couple of his friends have said that something must have broke on the car. After I looked, I know what happened. ... I'll be the first to admit — I've done that (drive fast) myself. I've had four or five times where I've been like, 'Whew, that was a close one.' They didn't get that chance."


The tire marks from the accident have yet to fade from the road.

Herbert constantly drives past them on his way to his business, Doug Herbert Performance Parts. There's simply no other road to take.

He used to well up when he did so. Now, he thinks of a soothing memory.

Like the time a then-8-year-old Jon met Funny Car driver John Force and asked why Force didn't compete in the Top Fuel category instead.

"Because your daddy is the toughest son of a b---- I've ever seen," Force told him. "I'd never want to have to race him."

Jon bragged about that for weeks.

"He told everyone, 'John Force is scared of my dad,' " Herbert said. "I told Force that was awesome."

Or when James was invited to ride in a two-person Indy car with Mario Andretti at one of the legendary driver's racing schools.

James was supposed to take an early-morning spin with Andretti, but he preferred to ride with his father.

Herbert tried to convince him what an honor it was to go around the track with Andretti.

"I was like, 'Dude, you know how when we race go-karts and I'm hollering, "Wooohooo, Mario!" Well, that's Mario,' " Herbert explained. "He goes, 'That's THE Mario? OK, I'll ride with him.' "

Even though James took a signed picture from the ride home with him, he never shared the adventure with his friends. They found out about it later at his birthday party.

"All his buddies were looking at this picture and going, 'Wow, you went 180 mph with Mario?' " Herbert said. "Later, I was like, 'You never told your friends?' He said, 'I didn't want to tell them because it would hurt their feelings since they didn't get to do that with Mario.' For a 12-year-old not to want to hurt his buddies' feelings because he got to do that? I started to cry."

The tears have never been far away. Memories often wash over him. The other day, he was driving along and heard "Hey Jude" on the radio. It reminded him of James' love of The Beatles.

"I could see him dancing," Herbert said. "I laughed and then went, 'Damn, I can't see that anymore.' "

He brushed back the tears with the back of his hand.

"We're going to do what we can to keep James' and Jon's memories alive and keep this tragedy from happening again," said Herbert, who had his 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, on hand for his Top Fuel win last month in Norwalk, Ohio. "It's a tragedy — I can't do anything about that. But I can do something about the nearly 6,000 teenagers that get killed every year (in driving accidents)."


Talking to teens helps. Telling them about the dangers of driving too fast makes him feel like he's doing something.

Herbert has given speeches about driving safety to thousands of kids since the accident — at high schools, the racetrack, wherever.

He's received numerous letters from parents thanking him.

"It's a bit of therapy for me," he said.

But he wanted something more to remember his kids by. He wanted a program that would be their legacy.

Herbert asked Jon's classmates at a Christian school in Huntersville, N.C., to think of a name for a program.

They suggested BRAKES — Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe.

Herbert thought that was perfect, and the nonprofit organization was started.

The organization has teenagers sign driving pledges and awards prizes for clean records on the road. There are also defensive driving classes in Charlotte, with intentions of taking it nationwide.

"I would feel like I failed if I didn't figure out a way to make something good out of this," Herbert said. "This (program) is a legacy for my boys and I want that to live on."


Friends of Jon and James still place flowers, crosses and other mementos — like a skateboard for James — at the side of the road where the accident occurred.

But they're always whisked away by a property manager.

So, Herbert decided to do something about it. He had a granite marker made with their names on it and went out to the site with 80 pounds of concrete. He dug a hole, mixed the concrete and set the tribute to his sons in it.

"It's not going anywhere," Herbert said with a grin.

Fans approach him all the time at the racetrack, expressing their condolences and slipping Herbert photos they took of him and his sons at past events.

The gestures are appreciated.

"People come up to me and say, 'Gosh, I'm sorry to bring this up, sorry to hear about your boys,' " Herbert said. "It doesn't bother me when people bring it up — I have a lot of love for my boys. I don't want to forget about them."

Inside his car, Herbert feels even closer to them. He'll strap in, look at the photo and wait for James' motivational speech to play in his head: "Come on, Dad, we can win!"

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