Kendall was on the verge of becoming a top racer
By Wade Hemsworth
The Hamilton Spectator
(Oct 3, 2006)
Tim Miller has trouble believing that Kendall Hebert can really be dead.
Miller, an auto racing writer with 31 years' experience, was with the 17-year-old drag racer and the owner of the jet-powered car in which she died shortly before Sunday's fatal accident at Toronto Motorsports Park in Cayuga.
He chatted with Dan Pirisi, the owner of the car, and Hebert as she prepared for what would be the last run of her short life.
Four months earlier, Miller had written for The Spectator about Hebert and the incredibly powerful car -- one that was travelling at nearly 500 km/h when it crashed Sunday. The car Hebert had been driving was powered by a helicopter jet engine.
Miller, the author of three books on auto racing, had been impressed by the young driver, and believed she had the potential to become a powerful role model for women in racing, a field dominated by men.
She was poised, confident and talented, Miller said, and was developing a strong reputation.
On Sunday, Miller had gone to see Hebert and Pirisi not for a particular story but just to bring himself up to date on what had been happening with them since he had last written about them. Miller spent nearly an hour in the team trailer talking with them about racing and saw Hebert pull on her fire suit and lace up her shoes.
Miller left before the race to keep an important social engagement. He will always remember his last sight of the young driver. She was smiling and waving goodbye.
At about 3:30 p.m., just over two hours after Miller had left Cayuga, he got the call. She was dead.
"I just ache for her family and friends," said an emotional Miller yesterday. "It doesn't matter what a person's doing. To be taken at this age, it's just not right."
Since Sunday, members of racing's tight community have been trying to come to terms with their shock.
Hebert comes from a racing family, and grew up around cars. Her father, Ken, is a professional driver and her younger sister, Shelby, drives, too.
Kendall had been driving since she was eight years old, an age when drivers take the first in a long line of baby steps that start with driving junior dragsters powered by five horsepower go-kart engines.
In just nine years, she had worked her way almost to the top of her field. At the time of the accident, she was building driving experience toward her own jet-car licence. On Sunday when the accident happened, she was the only driver on the track.
Bob Elliott, a former driver with more than 40 years' experience in the racing industry, said there were only six drivers in Canada with experience behind the wheel of a jet-powered car -- a group that included himself, Hebert and Pirisi.
Jet-powered dragsters are considered exhibition vehicles only. Their power and their novelty draw crowds wherever they appear, but they are not part of the International Hot Rod Association's regular competitions.
Driving a jet-powered racer is vastly different from driving a traditional drag racer, Elliott said. The thrust of a traditional wheel-driven racer is all in the start, while a jet-powered racer starts slower and finishes fast.
Driving a traditional dragster is a physical workout, he said, where the driver wrestles the car the whole way down the strip. By contrast, the jet car requires little help -- unless something goes wrong. If that happens, particularly in the latter half of the race, it is incredibly hard to bring the car back under control.
Ontario Provincial Police investigators are working to unravel the complex web of safety regulations that govern the racing industry and exploring what went wrong with the car, including why Hebert was ejected from the car after it struck a wall and rolled.
Hebert's home track was at Milan Dragway, near Detroit and just over the border from her home in Tecumseh, Ont., outside Windsor.
When news reached there on Sunday afternoon, race director Chris Baxter was with a group of drivers. They were devastated, when he told them.
"Everybody was really saddened," Baxter said. "We wish the family all the best. She'll be missed."