Feature Article, Motorsports Industry — June 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Fred Brownfield memories (issue 96)



By Craig Murphy

When I think of that late night call on June 16, 2006, I remember the temporary sense of relief.

The rest of that weekend was anything but a relief.

It all started a bit before 1 a.m. Iowa time when the phone rang. Awakened from a slumber, by the time I got out to the phone it had already gone to the machine.

It was a call from my friend Steve Heeb, who had been best man at my wedding less than six months earlier back in the Northwest. When I wake up I am sometimes in a daze and this was one of those nights.

In my daze, I thought Steve’s message was something had happened to his pregnant wife. But my wife heard correctly and said it wasn’t about Michelle.

“Phew,” I thought to myself.

And then the sense of relief came crashing to an end.

Something had happened to Fred, as in Fred Brownfield. The promoter and mutual friend who gave me the first interview six months earlier when he hastily launched the National Sprint Tour. The man who played a key role in Steve starting a weekly racing magazine I edited stories for. The man who earlier that week, while at a race in Iowa, had mapped out races I would cover for him that summer. Just hours earlier, he was the man who e-mailed me to remind me to send him an invoice so he could pay me.

My wife and I had figured we’d be busy that weekend dealing with things for Fred. We didn’t know the half of it.

Steve had seen the accident in which Fred was hit on the track at Grays Harbor Raceway. There hadn’t been official word yet, but Steve had a real bad feeling. Others, like multi-time track champion Jay Cole, turned and walked out because they knew what the result would be.

Soon after I got an e-mail from Adam Thaler, assistant sports editor at The Olympian, asking if I knew anything.

A couple of calls later I got the confirmation I didn’t want to hear: Fred was indeed gone. I did a quick story for Adam and tried to get some sleep, knowing Saturday would be a brutal day.

And it was. I called mutual friends about Fred. I put together multiple stories and columns for Steve, Adam and Mike Kerchner at National Speed Sport News before Saturday was over.

There’s a stereotype that journalists live for such stories. That’s bullcrap. We’re people, just like you. That weekend was and likely will forever be my toughest weekend as a journalist. I put aside personal feelings until the work was done. It was a hard thing to do.

In church on Sunday, I lost it. The emotions I’d been putting aside all weekend hit me like a tidal wave.

I didn’t go to Fred’s memorial. I did spend the rest of the year covering the NST around the country. A couple of years later, I did a story about Fred’s widow Debbie and longtime friend-turned-enemy Steve Beitler that ended up being one of the best stories I ever wrote.

But from time to time there are questions regarding Fred. What would have happened if Fred hadn’t been killed? Would the NST still be around? Would I have been involved? How would the sport as a whole be looking? What would the Brownfield family be like right now?

We’ll never know. That’s OK, because it has to be. But I still wonder.

Fred, I still miss you.

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