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DAYTONA, FL - Geoffrey Bodine has been around racing so long that many of us started taking him for granted.

Besides, in recent years, he hasn't been the charger that he once was.

That's why his Craftsman Truck racing accident at Daytona International Speedway was good in just one respect - it made us remember.

I first saw him drive at his father's old Chemung Speedrome when Geoff was still in high school. He was so clearly the class of the field that after winning his heat race and the feature with charges from the back of the pack both times, the crowd showered him with beer bottles when he took the checkered flag.

It wasn't that they hated him; it was just that he was too predictably unbeatable. It was a precursor to what we now know as the "Jeff Gordon Syndrome."

He left Chemung and ran in the modified ranks, collecting national championships with the same ease he'd beaten the locals in his hometown. He passed through the Busch ranks too rapidly to make much of a mark: but, when he arrived in Winston Cup, suddenly everybody knew the short guy from New York State.

He didn't exactly fit among the good ole boys who then dominated the sport, and he didn't do things the same way, either: He introduced power steering, the cool suit and the full-faced helmet to NASCAR's top division and only the cool suit proved to be a passing fad.

He is credited with paving the way for many more Yankees into the country's fastest-growing sport and among those he led into that motorized promised land were his brothers, Brett and Todd.

When he won the Daytona 500 in 1986, his hometown went so crazy that the only bar inside the "city" limits stayed open all night while half the population of eastern Chemung County went on one glorious celebratory binge.

When Eli Gold brought his TV racing talk show there a few years ago so the Bodines could broadcast from the front of a family-owned garage, an area funeral director had to furnish the chairs so the whole town could sit in the street and watch the proceedings.

Geoff,as he was known for most of his career,and even Geoffrey, as he renamed himself a year ago, was an easy guy to talk to; forthright in his answers and possessed of a sense of humor that only occasionally showed itself off via a sly little grin.

Like millions of people, when I saw his truck crash, explode, tumble and fall into pieces of scrap metal last Friday, I thought Geoffrey Bodine had bought the farm. He could not have lived through an accident racing analyst Benny Parsons described as the worst he'd ever seen.

It was absolutely proper,then, when ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch analyzed the situation on a Sunday morning racing news broadcast. He showed the roll cage that was all that remained of Bodine's vehicle.

And then he held up the helmet Geoffrey had been wearing.

It was gouged and somewhat battered, but intact. Even the faceplate was still attached, although it looked as if someone had gouged the surface with an electric grinding wheel.

The gouges had come when Geoff's head had scraped the pavement while his racer cartwheeled itself into thousands of broken pieces. Without the helmet he had introduced, Jerry Punch proclaimed, Geoff Bodine would very probably have been dead.

Sometimes, being a pioneer can pay uncountable dividends.

Bob Rolfe - - - The Leader


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