NHRA ‘C19 Club': COVID-19 brought them together and back to racing
Be it a fraternity, social organization or club, some people are just natural joiners. They enjoy being members.
But there’s one club within the NHRA drag racing community that no one intentionally wants to be part of, yet its membership numbers keep growing.
Such is the “C19 Club,” a group of veteran drivers, team members, reporters and PR reps who have battled the COVID-19 virus over the last several months. The number is up to seven members thus far.
And now as the NHRA gets back to racing this weekend in suburban Indianapolis after a 4 ½-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, several of those club members are returning to a dragstrip for the first time since going through what they all term the toughest battle they’ve ever experienced.
“I started the club because I realized I wouldn’t be the only one to ever get COVID-19 in the drag racing community,” Bennett said.
But Bennett and others who have fought the virus aren’t just coming back to Indy this weekend to share war stories. Rather, several club members are trying to turn a negative into a positive by either already having donated or plan to donate blood plasma to give antibodies that hopefully will help those currently battling the virus.
Club members already have donated 24 bags of plasma. Bennett alone has donated 16 of those bags, with several infected individuals already having gotten better as a result. Bennett isn’t stopping there, though: he plans to donate four more bags in the next couple of weeks.
Fellow club member Todd Smith, crew chief for Kalitta Motorsports’ Funny Car driver J.R. Todd, as well as Smith’s wife, Julie, also have donated several bags of plasma, with plans to donate more, too.
Several others, including Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan, are waiting for the green light from their doctors to donate as well.
And others are still going through their own battles with the virus, including Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III, who tested positive last week, and longtime reporter/PR rep Lee Montgomery, who is expected to get the all clear this weekend.
“The way I see it, me and Todd Smith and those of us that have been through COVID are among the safest ones to be around in the pits,” Bennett said. “We’ve got the antibodies that we’ve been giving to help save lives.”
Here are some club “members” stories and their thoughts as NHRA resumes this weekend, and in front of paying fans, at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana:
BOBBY BENNETT: Bennett was among the earliest individuals in the country to come down with COVID-19. He believes he picked up the germs on an early February cross-country redeye flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina after attending a race near Bakersfield, Calif.
“That’s the scariest part of it all, getting back on an airplane,” said Bennett, who flew from Charlotte to Indianapolis on Friday. “Don’t let me fool you about this tough, machismo rah rah thing, I still get scared.
“But that’s where my faith comes in. In a span of a couple of weeks, I’ve had my website hacked, my wife’s water pump has gone out on her car, which is an expensive fix, and my hard drive failed on my main computer and just a few other things. So just one thing right after another, but I’m like, you know what, I’ve had COVID, none of these things compare to that.
“COVID taught me that I’m not invincible. But it also showed me how strong I was inside. The whole reason that we created this C19 Club was because when I was laying there, I was absolutely hopeless, I had nobody to compare notes with, nobody to talk to.
“There was a moment where I was so hopeless that suicide entered my mind as a good way out of this deal. If God didn’t do it quick enough, I would take care of the rest. But I thought about how many people it would hurt. At about the same time I was thinking that, my wife stuck her head in the door and said, ‘Don’t you die on me.’ So I’m like, ‘All right, God, I got your message. We’ll fight another day.’
“That’s why I’m going to this race. At one time I said I’m not going to another race until they have a cure for this. But when I started donating and giving plasma to victims and helping others, then I realized just how important it is for me to return to a life of normalcy.”
Bennett has gotten much semblance of his life back but, like the other club members, is still feeling the virus’ impact. He has to carry two types of inhalers and migraine medicine with him at all times in the event he has a breathing issue or brain-splitting headache, which are two of the post-virus aftereffects.
“You just learn to pace yourself,” Bennett said. “I mean, yeah, I may be showing COVID that it ain’t going to kill me, but it is still throwing a pretty good punch that lasts well after the disease has been declared negative in your body.”
CORY MCCLENATHAN: The veteran Top Fuel driver is coming out of retirement at this weekend’s event and next weekend’s race – both at the same suburban Indianapolis track – to complete what he terms “unfinished business.”
But McClenathan also has unfinished business with COVID-19. While he never received a positive test result, McClenathan’s doctor is convinced his patient had the disease. In fact, he may have been one of the first people in the U.S. to have it.
McClenathan underwent an antibody test this past Monday and came back negative. He plans on joining Bennett and others in donating plasma in the next few weeks.
McClenathan first started feeling ill in late November and was sick through almost the entire month of December.
“That’s when they just were starting to figure out, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem here’ (with the onset of COVID-19),” McClenathan told NBC Sports. “I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’ve got a bad upper respiratory issue going on.’ Well, come to find out that was one of the huge things that everybody was seeing along with the headaches, how they come and go every couple hours.
“You’d have a temperature and then two hours later, you wouldn’t. I had every single thing. I was at home by myself, thinking, ‘Man, I’m 57 years old, it’s a flu.’ I was at the point where I was crawling up and down my stairs because I’d get the spins and that blackout feeling.
“When they finally started saying, ‘Hey, this thing called COVID,’ they sent me right out to do a blood test. It came back negative but my doctor said, ‘You can’t go off of that. Those tests are only 55% accurate.’
“My doctor said, ‘You had it. There’s no doubt. The only thing I’d like to do is get you tested’ so I could give plasma, give blood, to try to help other people.
“I basically stayed away from my whole family for well over a month. My mom is going to be 80 soon. So I just I stayed away from her until I got to the point where I could drive and feel good. I’m still having trouble breathing, still struggling with workouts and stuff like that. I just am having such a hard time getting back to where I feel like I’m stronger.
“I’ve never been that sick in my life. It just takes you to your knees. It takes away the taste of food. I ate because I knew I needed it but literally nothing tastes like it’s supposed to be. So I think my biggest fear is when you have this and if you’re older like me, it really kind of does some damage to the inside your body that doesn’t let it come back.
“So I’m wondering, am I 100% right now? No, I don’t think so. Can I get there? Yes, I’ve made big strides in the last couple of weeks working out with a mask on, doing some pretty hard cardio walking and running to see what exactly is going on. I keep a blood oxygen sensor with me just to make sure I’m still within range.
“My doctor said, ‘You had every single factor that had come out. I’m going on the premise that you had it because I saw you back then. And I see you now and you’re making a good comeback, but it’s slow.’ It’s almost like it infects the inside of your body to the point of how do I recover fully?”
McClenathan recovered from his symptoms but still suffers some lingering effects such as shortness of breath and stamina.
“There’s parts of the day where I gotta stop and go, man, I gotta take a breather,” McClenathan said.
One thing that will help significantly while McClenathan drives his 330-mph Top Fuel dragster this weekend and next is his car has a canopy covering, rather than an open cockpit. That canopy allows cool air to be blown into the cockpit as well as McClenathan’s helmet to not only keep him cool, but also to keep a steady stream of air blowing to help his breathing.
“I’m 57 not 25 or 36, but at the same time this is an evil thing,” McClenathan said of COVID-19. “I know the naysayers say the facemask doesn’t help or other things don’t help, but I’ll do anything not to get this again or not to infect somebody else.”
Todd Smith, crew chief for Funny Car driver JR Todd: Smith and wife Julie live in one of the hotbeds of the coronavirus, South Florida.
Todd Smith tested positive on April 21 and self-quarantined at home.
“I had 8 of 10 symptoms,” Smith told NBC Sports. “While waiting for the test results at home for 4-5 days, every day I had a high fever, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, all this bad stuff. Then I got up to go to the bathroom one morning and blacked out because my blood pressure was so low from being so sick. I fell face first into the kitchen floor, the tile floor, and shattered my nose and my eye socket.”
Smith was hospitalized for four days and should have stayed there. But doctors sent him home, only to have him return a few days after being discharged – and in much, much worse shape.
“I went back to the hospital and was in for 19 days, including in intensive care for several days” Smith said. “I was on the brink of having to be put on ventilator. I was on 100 percent oxygen.
“They treated me with hydroxychloroquine shortly after I was admitted to the hospital, but I still ran a fever between 102 and 104 for several days, took round-the-clock Tylenol and was delirious. While I’m over the virus now, it was really rough. It took me close to another month after I was discharged the second time to gradually get back to being healthy.”
But Smith still has residual effects.
“I lost over 35 pounds and I’m still dealing with the broken nose and having a problem with breathing,” he said. “We’re still not sure if I have permanent damage to my lungs.”
While her husband was in isolation at the hospital, Julie Smith also came down with the virus. Fortunately, her case wasn’t as bad and she didn’t require hospitalization.
Todd Smith resumed working on Todd’s car over a month ago, but did much of the work remotely or via only occasional trips back to Kalitta Motorsports’ headquarters near Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I’m just flying back and forth,” he said. “I come back (to Florida), chill out for about 3-4 days, get some rest, recoup and then go back and do it again,” Smith said. “The doctors just told me to be cautious.”
One of the biggest risks the 57-year-old Smith and all others that have tested positive for the virus and have returned to the race track this weekend is being around nitromethane fumes.
“Nitro,” as it’s called, is a highly combustible fuel that powers Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters. The fumes are extremely strong and acrid and present breathing complexities in general, but even more so for those who have breathing issues already or who, like Smith, McClenathan and others, have had their lungs compromised by the virus.
“That was one of the things I was thinking about in the hospital,” Smith said. “Like, okay, this stuff never really bothered me, but it might now because different things are kind of affecting me at this point that never did before like allergy stuff. So, I’m gonna find out how much it will affect me this weekend.
“I’ve got some precautions of keeping my mask on and when we warm the cars up in the pits, we always wear a mask. We’ve been doing that for years to try to protect ourselves from the fumes. Once you get on the starting line, it is what it is, so I’m gonna wear my mask and cross my fingers and go out there like John Wayne and try to make it happen.”
Smith anticipates donating plasma in the next week or so, perhaps after next weekend’s return to Indianapolis. He feels a need to do so.
“This is big and bad and serious and it affected all of us pretty bad,” Smith said. “I received plasma when I was in my second trip to the hospital.
“I personally felt like it made a difference with me, so I knew even then I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta pay it forward because people are donating this stuff and they have lived through it and have the right antibodies and all that kind of stuff. It was like, yeah, I’ve gotta do this.”
LEE MONTGOMERY: The 53-year-old veteran motorsports writer and PR person will not be in Indianapolis this weekend, as he’s just finished recovering from his own bout with coronavirus.
Like Smith and McClenathan, the North Carolina resident is looking forward to when he can donate plasma but also is trying to be part of contact tracing studies to help determine how the virus is spread.
“We were joking and laughing about (the C19 Club) and there’s a little bit of a competition going on between us about who’s gonna donate the most (plasma),” Montgomery said with a chuckle. “I think Bobby’s got a bit of a head start so that’s a little unfair. Using drag racing terms, he’s got the hole shot on us.
“So we’re gonna have to work real hard to catch up to him. As soon as I’m clear, I’m gonna start looking around and see what I can do to help.”
Montgomery first experienced symptoms on June 18, went to his doctor on June 23 and received results that he was positive for COVID-19 on June 26.
“I didn’t really think I had COVID the first time I went to a doctor,” Montgomery said. “I’m one of the fortunate ones. I guess that I had a mild case, and it’s gone away, so I’m glad about that.
“But I honestly am a little worried about long-term effects. What does this do to my stomach acid and digestive system? I don’t know. Nobody knows yet.
“Look, it’s a serious global health crisis and if you don’t take it seriously, if you don’t think it’s no big deal, I don’t know where your head is, I honestly don’t. My mother’s in her 80s and I was around her within a week before I tested and so I was really, really worried about her. What if she had contacted the symptoms? That would have been horrible. So wear your mask. It’s really not that complicated.”
Bennett is pitching those in his group to further show their support to help others by coming up with perhaps a jacket or shirt ring or some other item to not only tout their “membership” in the club, but also to help raise funds for research.
Montgomery, though, has another idea, he said with a chuckle: “I think an appropriate example would be maybe a roll of toilet paper. Put an NHRA logo on it.”
There are two other members of the C19 Club that we’ll feature in both a tragic and heartwarming story in the coming days that is one of the most touching displays of people helping people infected with the virus that involves veteran NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson and his chief technician, Ervin “Jock” Allen.
“We didn’t have much choice but to let COVID kick our butts,” Bennett said. “But it’s not gonna kick our butts the rest of our lives.
“And standing up is our own way of fighting back, like ‘you don’t own me. You might have affected the way that I live my life in certain areas, but you will not own me.’”