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Drag racers reflect on nearby theatre shooting on eve of event

MORRISON, Colo. -- Drag racers have some experience in dealing with unexpected deaths now and again from accidents, but the unexplained shooting rampage not far from the racetrack on the eve of the National Hot Rod Association's Mopar Mile-High Nationals left them shaking their heads.

They tried to make some sense of the senseless act, of young gunman James Holmes opening fire early July 20 in a crowded Aurora, Colo., movie theatre during a midnight showing of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 and injuring at least 59.

While none could, they expressed compassion for the victims, disdain for the perpetrator, some soul-searching of their own, and in at least a couple of instances a sad commentary about today's society laced with a no-nonsense approach to ensuring a turnaround.

John Bandimere, owner of Bandimere Speedway which is hosting this annual stop on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour, told a packed audience Friday that the theatre-goers -- particularly "the people who were mutilated, I say" -- "are on every one of our hearts. My wife cried all the way out here, because she's a mother. Take just a moment and honor them tonight. He singled out 24-year-old victim Jessica Ghawi (Redfield), an aspiring sports journalist, as "an absolute superstar in the making."

Racers For Christ Pastor Larry Smiley said in prayer that the crime, which "wounded physically and emotionally . . . reminds us of how fragile life is" and asked God to help us remember that "You are Mighty. You are faithful in every need."

Racers Jack Beckman and Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and Clay Millican and Steve Torrence (Top Fuel) joined sport legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in sharing their reactions to the shooting and opinions about what we can do in the wake of yet another violent act that skews our sense of safety.

"I don't know why anybody would do anything like that," Millican said. "I live in the country and I can't even go hunting, because I can't shoot an animal. So anybody that has the nerve to shoot another person for no reason, I don't get that. I don't understand that.

"It's such a sad thing. It's awful-awful," he said. "There's a lot of people out here who need to find inner peace. So many people were just out, living their normal lives. They're at a movie, no big deal. It's absolutely crazy. I feel bad for all the people here."

No. 1 Funny Car qualifier Jack Beckman went to a late movie Friday but not at the one where the shooting occurred. However, he did spend a lot of time at Aurora. It's where he trained when he was in the Air Force years ago.

"It was a rough day in Colorado. I know there's a lot of heavy hearts out there. But we still have a job to do," Beckman said Friday when he went to the top of the qualifying chart.

He struggled with knowing how to process his own positive performance on the track Friday, knowing across the city, others were coping with the worst day of their lives.

Beckman said, "Fifty-nine people are at the hospital and 12 families are burying people. It's tough when you put yourself in those families' shoes. It's unfathomable what they are going to have to deal with on this. And there's nothing you can say to make this better for them.

"You know that everybody that died died unnecessarily. You don't know what was going on in that guy's [Holmes'] head, but it certainly didn't give him the right to take anybody's life or injure anybody else," he said. "I'll tell you what I wish. I wish I had a time machine and you go back to the night before and sit him down and do an 'It's A Wonderful Life' kind of talk with him and show him what could happen and show him he has a choice."

Even before Beckman went out and swiped the top position from Cruz Predregon, Beckman tried to make some sense of the early-Friday events.

"It's one of those situations where you thank God it didn't affect your family but your heart absolutely bleeds for those ones who were [affected]. But for a coin toss or fate or whatever, your kids went to the theatre next door or the earlier showing or the theatre down the street, that could have been them," he said.

"My heart goes out to the family of the shooter, too, [for] the burden they're going to carry the rest of their lives," Beckman said. "I think it's one of those moments where you stop, you take a deep breath, and you're reflective and incredibly respectful to those who lost something and appreciate everything that you've still got.

"I'm not sure what you do in a situation like this to heal, because it was an unnecessary thing. They didn't die of illness. It wasn't a plane crash we think we could prevent somewhere else."

Already the NHRA and Bandimere Speedway had joined NoCo Rebuilding Network to help those affected by the recent wildfires in Colorado. Fans could donate cash to provide -- in track owner John Bandimere's words -- "monetary relief, as well as emotional and spiritual encouragement."

But Beckman said money can ease the pain of one disaster, while nothing can ease the pain from the other. Compared to helping those who lost homes and property to the recent wildfires here, Beckman said he felt helpless in the case of the families the shooting affected.

"You can rebuild. You can't rebuild a life," he said. "I don't know what to say."

Johnson said after qualifying No. 1 in the Pro Stock class that the shooting "makes this not very important, doesn't it? Something like this brings everybody down to their knees and makes you think about what's important."

Torrence is a straight-talking Texan who called the murders "a huge tragedy" and "a travesty" and agreed with Garlits about how our nation might prevent such heinous crimes.

"If that had happened in Kilgore, Texas, it would have sounded like a war. There are so many people who have the concealed handgun permits. You're a little more reluctant to go in and do something like that if you're concerned that half the crowd is going to have their own firearms there. Had anyone in that situation been armed, they could have eliminated that situation and stopped it," he said.

"That's the last place you expect something like that to happen. It's a really, really sad deal. My heart goes out to every one of the families, the victims, the people who were involved. I thought how scary that would be to be in a movie theatre, just in a relaxed state, enjoying yourself with your friends and family, and someone comes in and does that," Torrence said.

"There were people saying, 'I thought this was part of the show.' I can easily see where that would happen. There are people who dress up to go to these things. So a guy wearing that stuff is not necessarily out of place at all," he said. "For that to happen to you and just the emotions that you would go through in that instance where your life is in danger -- someone is shooting people right in front of you, like fish in a barrel . . . It really takes a deranged individual to do that."

The Top Fuel driver said, "I feel sorry for the family, because no family at all wants their son or any member of their family to do that. That's total disregard for anyone who you care about or who cares about you. That affects them. I saw in the news that this guy's dad got on a plane and flew to Denver to do whatever. But he's not proud of his son."

Torrence prefaced more of his remarks by saying, "I can say a lot of things that are not politically correct" and shared his feelings about what should happen to Holmes, how his own faith causes him to handle the shock of such incidents, and what he thinks our country should do in the inevitable debate about gun control.

"You just get rid of that guy," Torrence said of Holmes. "That guy is no candidate to be rehabilitated. You're not going to make him any better. Someone that goes in and just takes the lives of others, just to do it, no motive whatsoever, you don't rehabilitate that guy. You don't waste our hard-earned tax dollars, putting that guy in a federal prison and housing and feeding him. You just eliminate that guy, get him out of the system."

The fact that some individuals cannot seem to separate fact from the fiction they see on the movie screens is a frightening prospect. Millican expressed it: "Movies are fiction. What that did was reality." Yet for the shooter, the lines seemed blurred.

Said Torrence, "We can go back to the cowboys and Indians shows. They're shooting each other (on the screen), but people had enough common sense and presence of mind to differentiate between what's right and what's wrong. And when you've got individuals who can't tell the difference between right and wrong and go in and do that [murder moviegoers] . . . It doesn't matter to him. He has no regard for his fellow mankind at all or himself, for that matter.

"Unfortunately, that's the world we live in. How many people were blown away by it? Not many, because that's just part of the world we live in. The Columbine shooting [in the Denver suburb of Littleton], the World Trade Center towers, the Oklahoma City bombing, all those things -- I mean, that has happened in my lifetime," Torrence said.

"It's sad we live in a country where those things are not uncommon -- and we're privileged to live in the United States, because other countries are way worse than that," he said. "I'm 29 years old, and I'm getting to the point I'm thinking about having a family. And it really is not a motivational point to bring a child into this world, you know?

"You've just got to pray the world gets better," Torrence said. "We've just got to pray for God. I'm a Christian. I don't push it on anybody. But there's a lot of people who need God. They need something to believe in."

He predicted America would be thrust into a discussion about gun control. And he was correct, for broadcast journalists such as Piers Morgan called for gun-control measures later Friday and New Jersey Democrat wasted no time in making headlines saying he will re-introduce yet another gun-control measure in the United States Senate. Torrence said he expected we'll see "all these people saying, 'We need more strict gun laws' and 'We don't need people with (fire)arms.' "

But Torrence had an appeal of his own: "That's the complete opposite of what we need."

Torrence whipped out his cell phone and found a passage he had saved from the late Charlton Heston, the actor and Second Amendment defender. He read Heston's statement: "There are no good guns. There are no bad guns. Any guns in the hands of a bad man is a bad thing. Any guns in the hand of a decent person is no threat to anybody, except bad people."

The racer said, "I'm a gun activist. I think everybody should have a dozen. And they should be educated about a firearm, because arms don't kill people. People do. That's a cliché quote, but that gun didn't pick itself up and shoot." He added, "You don't ban guns. Criminals have guns illegally, anyway. The bad guys are going to have guns, no matter what. That's not the fix."

Garlits, as always, was blunt about his solution: "If there had been a couple of people sitting in the front there with concealed weapon permits and guns in their pockets, the guy would have never got too many shots off, now would he? But you tell that to a liberal and they go crazy: 'You can't do that!' Really? That's how it's done.

"But I hear my liberal friends tell me, 'Oh, we got to take u all the AK-47s. We don't need to make any ammunition for them.' That wouldn't do nothin', because they're already out here. And no criminal's going to turn in anything," Garlits said. "What we've got going on is a major move to disarm America. It's as simple as that. We're the last free people on the planet. We can have our guns, and we've got lots of 'em. You will live to see the day they will say, 'Turn in your guns.' You're going to live to see it.

"If we care to remember, they had the same kind of shooting in Australia before they took out the guns. They had the same type of major shooting in England before they took up the guns. Crime has increased in both those countries over 42 percent, murder is up seven to eight percent, and the only thing that got disarmed is the citizens," he said. "But the government doesn't care about that. The government does not like an armed populace, because it's a restriction. That's why we were given the Second Amendment, to keep a totalitarian government under control. It ain't about huntin'. The upstanding citizens should be able to buy all the same weapons that the soldiers got."

Veteran Funny Car owner-driver Tim Wilkerson didn’t weigh in on the political side. Friends in Denver had invited his daughter, Rachel, to the same movie that same night but at a different theatre than the one in Aurora. He simply saluted the strength of Coloradans.

"I know [it] was a really tragic day for America, but it was especially a tough challenge for the people of Denver and Colorado. They've dealt with these awful wildfires all summer, and then the horror of that thing in Aurora would break most people," Wilkerson said. "Everyone was thinking about it, and the flag was at half-mast here, but it's our job to entertain people and we could tell they were doing their best to have fun at the drag races. If we helped a little, to make some people smile, we're proud to have done that."

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