Monday, September 26, 2011

Julian's Last Ride

You think you know a guy. Then you go to his funeral. It happened again today.

I worked with Julian Gonsalves for two seasons at Champion Raceway in Medford, Oregon. We’d first met a few years prior, when I was a two-bit racer and Julian was the new Safety Coordinator at the track. We instantly connected and I felt a special bond with the guy. Julian ‘got it’ – that unique understanding and passion for drag racing that could be spotted a quarter mile away. So when I became a track employee myself, I found myself leaning on Julian when tensions sometimes got high enough to make me consider walking away. Julian had a gift for putting things into perspective (understatement), constantly reminding me what a privilege it is to do what we do (usually with a quick radiant smile). After my second season at the track, I had to make some tough calls regarding priorities and said goodbye to my announcing job, but continued racing there. That’s when I began to realize my relationship with Julian wasn’t so unique after all.

As a track employee, I kept my nose to the grindstone and missed a lot of the human interaction around me. Afterward, I was focused on my racing too, but was exposed to more reality in the pits. The great view up in the tower had isolated me. I quickly realized that my relationship with Julian was a tiny drop in the bucket, compared to the ocean of intense experiences he shared with the other racers and employees. But I still thought I knew him.

Julian died last week. He was 59. My understanding is he had an aneurism. Sudden. Little or no suffering. Gone. I’d heard there would be a service at the track today, so I went and got an education.

Julian Gonsalves began his career at Baylands Raceway in Fremont, California, at 19 years old. Between then and now, he’s worked at most every drag strip on the west coast, at events large and small. He married twice and his son Jason began riding with him in the safety truck at age three. At this morning’s service, his widow Gail read remembrances from some of the biggest names in drag racing (I was stunned). Julian’s whole life revolved around drag racing and music (just like mine). He insisted on having fun with every task (just like me). I had no idea. Everyone who ever met Julian felt he was their best friend. Whether he pulled us from burning race cars, or just flashed that reassuring smile, all of us were right.

You think you know a guy. Then you go to his funeral. There’s better ways to learn about your friends.

The day kicked off with a mass fire-up.

In the startling silence after the cacklefest, track manager Jim Taylor and Julian’s son Jason ride Julian’s safety truck down track.

Julian’s firesuit finally gets a break.

A pleasant surprise. These guys had the chops to set an appropriate vibe.

We spent well over an hour, just telling Julian stories. I didn’t know he also went by Julio, Jitsu and Scarecrow.

Gail reads us a condolence letter from Al Hoffman’s widow.

Jason speaks of betraying orders not to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

Steve Ruggiero warms up his Top Fuel Harley…

…and takes Julian Gonsalves for his last ride.