February 25, 2009
When Lee Anne Darnell married Danny Darnell in the fall of 1980, she knew she was in for a wild ride.
It was a ride which sometimes took her on the edge of 200 miles per hour at some of the most famous stock car race tracks in America.
It had to be a fast, exciting and passionate ride. Marrying into one of the first families of auto racing in Lake County, Lee Anne wouldn't have it any other way.
It was also a ride which ended much too soon.
Lee Anne Darnell died unexpectedly last week at her Beach Park home, leaving her family and hundreds of friends bewildered at the fact of losing someone so full of life so suddenly at the age of 49.
I got to experience some of that passion and her love of family quite a few times over the past few years while watching the rise of her older son, Erik Darnell, through the ranks NASCAR racing.
Erik Darnell was born to be a race-car driver, being the son of Midwest short-track specialist Danny Darnell and the grandson of legendary USAC driver Bay Darnell. And, of course, the son of Lee Anne Darnell, who supported her three children's lifelong desires -- including Erik's dream of being a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
Erik spent his younger days cutting his racing teeth on various ovals throughout the Midwest, with Danny and Lee Anne usually by his side when they weren't running the family welding and fabricating business in Park City.
When Erik received a big-time contract from Roush Racing in 2004, it didn't stop Lee Anne from following her son's exploits across the country in the NASCAR Truck Series and other national events which Roush Racing set up for their up-and-coming star.
Lee Anne was there when Erik won truck races at Michigan and Kansas, and earned the NASCAR Truck Series Rookie of the Year Award in 2006.
She was also in Wisconsin each summer when Erik's truck team made an appearance at the Milwaukee Mile, keeping this grateful reporter informed on the goings on from the top of Erik's hauler -- all while dutifully keeping track of her son's practice-lap times.
I definitely wasn't the only friend she made at the track, as Lee Anne good-natured spirit made her a favorite of other drivers, teams and fans throughout the sport.
Lee Anne had to be beaming with pride when Erik was chosen earlier this winter by Roush Fenway Racing to move up from trucks into a part-time Nationwide stock-car ride for the 2009 season.
It's unfortunate she won't be there to see Erik race for the first time in the No. 6 car at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on May 1.
Erik Darnell is scheduled to compete in 15 Nationwide races this summer, and even through there will be only one seat in his car, he won't be alone.
Lee Anne has been there since Erik started racing go-carts at the age of 12.
And she will be there in spirit when he gets behind the wheel once again.
As a loving and supportive mother in the racing Darnell family, there's no other place she would want to be.