Jim Maroney knows how excited he was when the NHRA races came to the Phoenix area and he and his father Jack Maroney (who raced a ’70 Vega) went to what’s now Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park – it was called Firebird Raceway then – to watch all the exotic drag racing cars and get close to the action in the pits.
So the Top Fuel driver from nearby Gilbert was delighted to host a group of students from Gila Valley high schools and Eastern Arizona College this past Friday in his pit during the Arizona Nationals at Chandler. He was proud to show off his American Flowtech / WSM Auctioneers Dragster. After all, it was his first home-track event as an independent team owner – and it took him back to the days when he wanted to get up close to a team and watch all the details.
After Funny Car owner-driver Bob Tasca III ignited sparks of career hopes in them during the Y.E.S. (Youth and Education Services) Program Friday morning, sharing with them the opportunities not only in drag racing but also as future mechanics for America’s Big Three automakers, this smaller group of students from south of Phoenix migrated to Maroney’s pit.
There they got to have an intimate-setting look at how Maroney’s volunteer crew prepares the dragster to rocket 1,000 feet in less than four seconds at more than 300 mph, gulping nitromethane by the gallons. What mind-boggling information for Mason Gann, 16, of Fort Thomas, Kade Nelson, 16, of Thatcher, and Emmett Darnell, 17, of Duncan. Nobody in their small Gila Valley towns drove that fast. These three high-schoolers, particularly Gann, were crazy-into the emerging diesel truck culture in their community. They tinkered with their trucks and cars, liked to work on them and show them off in the occasional cruise around the area.
Maroney posed for pictures with them, signed autographs for them, and made sure to say hello to each of them. After all, he and wife Laura are parents to daughters Hailey and Brandy and sons Colton and Preston. So they know the family-value component of drag racing and know how much being welcomed meant to them.
And then Saturday morning, Jim Maroney received a devastating phone call from his cousin, who lives in the Gila Valley. He learned Mason Gann, Kade Nelson, and Emmett Darnell were gone, killed late Friday on their way home from the races at Chandler when the van carrying them and six others rolled over on U.S. Highway 70. Maroney was shaken.
“The accident involving the students is heartbreaking. I have family down in the Gila Valley where these kids are all from,” he said. “All of the kids had just been here as a school for the races on Friday, and I spent some time with them signing autographs and saying hello to all the boys.
“For something like this to happen hit close to home for me. I actually got a phone call from my cousin, who is in the Gila Valley, early in the morning [Saturday] telling me about this tragic accident. It just hit close to family,” Maroney said.
Suddenly facing Top Fuel dominator Steve Torrence in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations wasn’t the biggest topic on his mind. Working to repair the broken clutch arm that thwarted his only qualifying chance seemed like a minor inconvenience. Rain – who cared? News of the accident shook up Maroney.
Maroney, who cut an outstanding light (.026 of a second) against Torrence but lost in Round 1, said, “We stepped the car up throughout the weekend and were able to share it with friends and family, and that is what this is all about. This is about the joy of the journey for us. We are not ultimately here to win a championship right now, but it’s about the experience and what we get to do.”
The joy of the weekend was tainted by the loss of three young lives, three young high-school students who had shown such excitement – Jim Maroney-kind of excitement – at being part of the thrill of drag racing. But Maroney is remembering the families of Gann, Nelson, and Darnell, as well as the survivors of the wreck.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who were involved in the accident. Especially the families of those whose lives were taken. These kids seem to have a true love of the sport,” he said, “and we are all saddened by what happened.”