Saturday at the Chili Bowl Nationals is always a bittersweet affair. Yes, it is the finale of one of the most prestigious short track races in the land. Nonetheless, it also means that an event so many look forward to all year is drawing to a close. The competition is certainly noteworthy, but of equal importance is the chance to spend time with racing pals from around the country.
Taking the time to enjoy a leisurely lunch, I noticed that one of my friends took a quick look down and blanched. Nearly without a word he slid his phone over to me. I read the message, and tried somehow to comprehend the words on the screen.
It was January 14, 2012. Thinking back to that time, Jodie Crawford says, “I thought the whole world was coming to an end.” Few in her position would have reacted differently. Her son, Donnie Ray Crawford III had been shot and killed. The circumstances were unspeakable, and nothing is gained by repeating them here. It was a personal tragedy. It was a family tragedy. It was also, in the broadest sense of the word, a community tragedy.
In the greater Tulsa area, the Crawfords are racing royalty. It is a status earned lap by lap on the race track, but even more so by the way they conducted themselves long after the checkered flag had dropped.
There were no words available then, nor now, to heal this wound. For those who held him near and dear, there will be a hole in their heart that will never be totally closed. In these cases, all of us try mightily to derive some meaning, however minuscule, from a tragedy of this magnitude. The closer you are to a person who has been lost, especially one so young, the harder the task at hand becomes.
If you take away one thing from this story let it be this: Donnie and Jodie Crawford suffer a little bit each day. There really is no way around it. If they would have crawled into a corner and retreated into their own world no one would have blamed them. The problem with this solution is that it doesn’t square with who they are. It also doesn’t square with who the Crawfords, as a clan, have been.
No. They chose a different path. They have striven against all odds to somehow turn the most difficult thing a parent can face into at least a small positive. They have taken selfless steps to honor their late son and, in so doing, they have burnished the legacy of a truly great family. In the final analysis, the story of the racing Crawfords is a remarkable tale and one that is still unfolding.
In the early 1950’s two Broken Arrow, Oklahoma elementary school kids became fast friends. Harold Hillenburg, known by intimate associates as Junior, would eventually make his mark in the oil business. His pal Ray Crawford found his vocational niche as a firefighter, but it was his avocation that garnered the attention of others.
You see, Crawford was interested in going fast at an early age, and he was dabbling in drag racing by the time he graduated from high school. He would eventually turn his attention to circle track racing and mastered this discipline quickly. He progressed from modifieds to supermodifieds, and a string of championships would follow. By 1976, Harold Hillenburg was ready to join in the fun, and Crawford was soon climbing in the seat of Junior’s beautiful supermodified. The sanitary No. 55 was not only a beautiful piece, with Ray at the controls it was also hard to beat. Crawford would stare down the foreboding Tulsa Fairgrounds 5/8-mile oval, and the big half-mile at Oklahoma City didn’t scare him much either.
All told, Ray Crawford won six championships at Tulsa Speedway, and in 1978 he was the king of the touring National Championship Racing Association (NCRA). Crawford was a star when weekly racing at Tulsa and Oklahoma City was a very big deal. At Tulsa the expansive fairgrounds grandstand was packed to the rafters with many poised to watch the ongoing dual between Crawford and his main rival, Emmett Hahn.
With each passing year, this golden age of Sooner State racing becomes a faded memory; but anyone who was there will testify that the atmosphere was electric. In spite of being a regular winner and having an on-track rival who had his share of supporters too, Ray was always a fan favorite to the end of his career. Nothing underscored this more than his string of Most Popular Driver awards, an accolade that reflected the simple fact that Crawford was an innately nice man.
As a youngster, Donnie Crawford watched all of this unfold, but he didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing matters. “As far as I can ever remember I was going to the race track,” Donnie says. “In fact, my dad was racing in the rookie class the year I was born. I don’t remember going to the old Tulsa Speedway before the fairgrounds was running but I spent most of my childhood there.”
When Donnie recalls this time of his life it is clear that he didn’t think of Ray Crawford as a racing star or someone viewed by others as a hero. To him, Ray was just his dad, and that was plenty good enough. As time went by his perspective changed a bit. “The older I got the more I realized how popular he was,” Donnie says. “People just loved him, and it didn’t really matter what you did. It wasn’t just at the race track, it happened everywhere. He just attracted people. So many people knew him from racing and, because of that, he was placed a bit on a pedestal. I was humbled by him. He was bigger than life to me then, and he always was.”