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Auto Racing Family mourns for young racer who was last to die at Daytona

Monday, February 18, 2002

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The woman who raised him spent much of the afternoon at his graveside outside Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Several of his high school classmates were struggling to cope with another misery in their young lives, so they came to Aunt Kyle's house for support. She took them to the Riverview Memorial Park, to the burial plot where the headstone will bear the inscription of a go-kart, rather than sit in front of a television watching the race from the same Daytona International Speedway where the boy she raised was killed seven weeks ago yesterday.

Michael Davis, Jr.

"It's not a place I want to go back to emotionally," Kyle Kopecky said.

The father who launched the boy's go-kart career sat in front of a TV yesterday at his suburban Cleveland home, in Novelty, Ohio. He watched the race from Daytona. He struggled.

"It was very difficult for me," Michael Davis Sr. said. "But I'm not going to run from this."

Dale Earnhardt was front and center of the Daytona 500 yesterday, in spirit, in words and pictures over the NBC broadcast, and in the statue memorializing him in front of the Florida track. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was a race favorite in car No. 8. His team included the same driver, Michael Waltrip, whom the father was protecting on the final, winning lap a year ago, when the trademark car No. 3 spun into the wall and Dale Earnhardt was killed.

That was the first of a track-record four fatalities at Daytona last year.

The last was Michael Davis Jr., 17.

In a year when NASCAR officials probed and studied their sport, instituted safety changes, talked about trying to prevent further tragedies, the friends and families of two motorcycle racers killed at the same track -- Dirk Piz and Stuart Stratton -- along with those around Davis Sr. and Kopecky were left to wonder about the safeguards for Daytona competitors at other levels of racing.

"I've had to question that," said Kopecky, who raised the boy from when he was 4. "These other karts that were traveling at 125 mph. ... It doesn't do me any good to wonder about that now, though."

"You sign your life away when you go there, liability-wise. That's boiler-plate stuff wherever you go: Charlotte, New Hampshire ... ," Davis said. "That's the business. Daytona -- I'm ashamed, it's a business machine. But there's an unspoken risk we all take. It's all in our blood, too. If there's any comfort I can get in this, he died among friends. And I was there to see him off."

It was the penultimate day of 2001, Sunday, Dec. 30. In the final race of what they call Kartweek at Daytona, in the Yamaha Sportsman Lite category, Michael Davis Jr. was killed about 50 feet from the same Turn 4 spot as Earnhardt. He was killed in a seemingly unavoidable accident involving a friend, much like Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin -- in fact, Davis Sr. said, he and his son had dinner the night before with the eventual colliding driver. He was bumped from behind, thrown from his World Kart Association vehicle just one turn from the finish to the Dunlop Tire National Road Race Series race, and died instantly.

Davis Sr. and a friend of Davis Jr.'s from University School had their back to that final, fateful turn, instead facing the finish line with stopwatches in hand. They never witnessed the crash. They only heard it and saw the aftermath.

"The same turn, the same fashion," Michael Davis Sr. said. "I don't lay any blame. It's just a sad, sad thing. We've been racing since Michael was 7. He's been in hundred and hundreds of races, done thousands of laps. This just happened to be a horrible, horrific accident."

The son was a champion go-kart racer, having won the PP Can Lite class for the 2001 Enduro series shortly before Daytona -- a track where he had raced three times previously. This passion for racing was shared by Davis Jr. and Davis Sr., who races in the same class of vehicle in his No. 8 car as his son's No. 7. Racing was a large part of their weekends together, ever since the son first got behind the wheel.

To Kopecky, who calls the boy she raised "her kidlet," there was so much more to Davis Jr. than racing. He worked for a nonprofit agency in Chagrin Falls. He spent summers as a camp counselor. He was well liked at the prep academy University School, especially for the brand of humor that once lead him to moon a couple of seniors on a bet. Kopecky remembered joking with him after that incident to never do anything he wouldn't want to hear in his eulogy.

People were turned away from the funeral home Jan. 4, she said. "At the church, there were a thousand and more." Many of the mourners came from the racing family, people she knew from accompanying him on race trips to Charlotte and around Ohio. The high school senior would have turned 18 Feb. 7.

"Seven weeks ago today, and I'm still in shock," Kopecky said last night. "There are moments that bring me to my knees."

"I'm going to follow in his footsteps now," said Davis Sr., whose racing trailer and an arm tattoo memorialize his son's No. 7.

He pledges to attend the 2002 Kartweek in Daytona. "I need to keep Michael's memory alive. I'm getting chills just thinking about this, but I just got ESPN Magazine in the mail over the weekend, the one with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the cover. Remember what it said? 'Finishing his father's race.'

"That's what I'm going to do next December -- I will finish his race for him."

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