It was cars that first took me to Austin, Texas. Well, a car, at least. We’ll get to that.
What I knew about Austin before my visit was limited and typical of a Lone Star State neophyte. I knew Earl Campbell bulldozed his way to a Heisman Trophy while a running back at the University of Texas. I knew Austin was a hotbed for live music. I knew it was Austin – not Dallas, Houston or San Antonio – that served as the capital of Texas. I was aware that a state-of-the-art Grade 1 FIA racetrack opened in 2012. I also knew it was home to one of my dearest friends, Kevin Turhan Doner.
Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is a sprawling 20-turn maze that extends just shy of 3.5 miles. In October 2012, Mario Andretti was the first to rise the 11 percent incline into Turn 1 in the Lotus he piloted to a Formula One championship 34 years prior.
By mid-November, COTA staged the United States Grand Prix; F1’s American return after its final race in Indianapolis in 2007. New venue, new year, but the result was the same: Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag at COTA just as he’d done at IMS. Yet the wind of enthusiasm for the new track couldn’t be stifled by the knolls of the Texas hill country.
Austin was thrilled with the new facility. My friend Kevin was among them. He urged me to come take in a race while enjoying the city he made his adulthood home. We always flirted with the idea.
Kevin was the smartest of my high school friends, his mind working as seemingly effortlessly as the sleekest of any high-performance automobile. It was a deceptive brilliance, one Kevin masked by running around with guys like me. Once life got through the open tests and qualifying runs, however, he ran from the field with the precision of the most finely-tuned machine one could see. After an early graduation with honors from Vanderbilt University, Kevin sat on pole for his med school class at Indiana University. After an oncology residency in Dallas, he took his craft to the Texas Oncology Center of Austin.
There have been a plethora of COTA events where I could have visited Kevin’s new home – Formula One, Supercars, MotoGP, sports cars and X Games among them. As often happens in life, however, things get in the way and plans get shelved for another year.
Which takes me to the car. It was the one that finally brought me down. It was a beautiful machine, the black paint glistening in the light and the open sunroof allowing the scent of its fresh leather seats to greet me as I approached. There I was, within an hour of finally arriving in the city of Austin, staring at the vehicle I’d use to leave.
It can be a cruel irony how life can work. A brilliance that helped so many. Yet when the disease struck my friend, he was the only man on earth who couldn’t seek the help of his state’s finest doctor.
Kevin Turhan Doner passed away from cancer on July 24, 2016. He left behind a group of patients blessed by his treatment, a group of friends blessed by his loyalty and a group of family blessed by his life. He also left behind a gift for his father. A new car.
Our mutual friend, Mike Byron, and I flew to Austin to retrieve it. Our time there was brisk and businesslike. We arrived with the goal to hit the road, playing the tunes that were the soundtrack of Kevin’s life while babying his pride and joy back to his roots in Indianapolis.
On March 24, I’ll return to Austin when the IndyCar Series makes its highly anticipated COTA race debut. I’ll finally be seeing the course I’d always discussed with Kevin. I’ll be able to watch Indy cars tackle for the first time the 20 challenging turns, the scream of their Honda and Chevy engines providing the soundtrack of the moment.
I’ll think of my friend and break into a grin. I’ll be right where I’m supposed to be, knowing he’s happy to see me in the place we were always meant to be.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)