Whenever the drag racers of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) are ready to roar down the track, you’ll find their entire crew standing directly behind them at the starting line.
Everyone — team owners, managers, crew chiefs and crew.
They’re all watching, usually with arms folded, concentrating, wishing their cars down the track.
If you’ve ever watched NHRA racing on television, or been out at the track, you’ll see them keeping one eye on their dragster, the other one on the scoreboard clock at the end of the 1,000 foot track.
Everything is now in the hands of their pilot.
It will all be over in four seconds or less.
Then they all head back to the pits to get the car ready for the next pass.
That’s where I first saw Terry Chandler.
Wishing her two cars to victory.
As a journalist, my media credentials allow me on-track access.
I can't stand with the teams at the starting line but I can stand on the side of the track, beside the Jersey barrier, as the 10,000 horsepower dragsters roar down the track. Journalists can find a spot anywhere along the first 200 feet right to try to get an in focus photo or two as the cars fly by in the blink of an eye.
But Chandler was allowed to stand with the teams.
Of course, I wondered why she was there and who she might be.
I soon found out.
Chandler funded two of the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) Funny Cars — the Make-A-Wish car driven by Tommy Johnson Jr. and the Infinite Hero Foundation car driven by Fast Jack Beckman.
At the races, lead track announcer Alan Reinhardt always makes it a point to mention that Chandler fully funds these two cars.
Make-A-Wish and Infinite Hero don’t have to spend a penny, yet they get millions of dollars worth of free advertising in return.
Chandler, Johnson and Beckman, along with many others in the DSR family, work tirelessly to raise funds for both organizations, donating about $1 million over the past four years.
I’ve been covering the NHRA for several years.
I first started heading down to the races in Pomona — the NHRA season opener in February and season finale in November — mostly to cover the exploits of two people; Santa Maria’s Alan Johnson, a 15 time Top Fuel season champion as team owner, manager or crew chief, and San Luis Obispo native Ron Capps, who broke through for his first Funny Car season championship last year.
Capps is a member of the DSR family, driving one of the seven DSR cars — four Funny Cars and three Top Fuel.
Schumacher was in the pits one of the first times I stopped by to interview Capps and I had the chance to meet him.
Since then, Schumacher has always taken time to talk to me about his cars, drivers and sponsors — really anything I wanted.
My planned five minute conversations regularly stretch into a half hour or more.
One of the first things he ever said to me was “There’s the lady you want to talk to.”
He was talking about Terry Chandler.
If Chandler wasn’t at the starting line, you could always find her at the DSR hospitality pavilion surrounded by her “Wish Kids.”
She lived for her husband Doug, her two Funny Cars and the kids.
More than anything, it seemed to be the kids.
They called her “Aunt Terry.”
Most people called her Aunt Terry, including me, even though she was three years younger than me.
And she always had time to talk — after she spent time with her Wish Kids.
No matter how I tried to get her to talk about herself, she always wanted to talk about the kids or the cars and drivers.
"The cars were great," she'd tell me. "I love to win."
She was a lifelong fan of drag racing and her brother Johnny Gray was a well known Funny Car driver.
Terry and Johnny even financed Johnny’s DSR car during his final year as a pilot.
When Johnny retired at the end of the 2013 season, Terry kept the funding going. She hired Johnson to drive and re-branded the car for Make-A-Wish.
Soon after, Chandler saved a second DSR Funny Car from the scrap heat, re-branding Beckman’s car for the Infinite Hero Foundation.
But she never let our conversations focus on her — it was the kids who were her real passion.
She always told them that the Make-A-Wish car was their race car.
She worked hard to bring sunshine and a smile into the lives of seriously ill children.
Sadly, Terry Chandler died Tuesday at the age of 65 after a short battle with cancer.
Schumacher called her the spiritual leader of DSR.
The whole team, indeed the whole NHRA, Make-A-Wish and Infinite Hero family will race on with heavy hearts.
DSR says it will honor the Aunt Terry’s memory beginning this weekend at the 20th annual Fallen Patriots Route 66 Nationals in Elwood, Ill.
And the DSR family will leave a spot, her regular spot, for Aunt Terry at the starting line.