An hour before Justin Owen’s car flipped into the air, its motor making an eerie noise that sounded like a deafening scream, before the hush fell over Lawrenceburg Speedway in Indiana, Ryan Barr had one last conversation with his fellow sprint car driver.
Owen was smiling, laughing and telling his blush-inducing jokes during the entire 30-minute drivers’ meeting. Barr felt lucky to be by his side. Owen was the guy at the racetrack everyone wanted to talk to. He was the guy who would give the shirt off his back, or in Owen’s case, the radiator out of his car, to help a competitor. He actually did that once.
But on the evening of April 8 before USAC’s AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship event, Barr would hear his last joke from Owen, who died in a crash during the event. He would see for the last time just how pumped Owen was to get on the track for his first race of the 2023 season.
Barr listened as Owen told him Saturday how he was hoping to repeat his Lawrenceburg Speedway title in 2023 on the racetrack where he was known as a sort of king. The track was Owen’s stomping grounds, just 15 miles from Harrison, Ohio, where he grew up.
Owen was at Lawrenceburg all the time. He welcomed new drivers, making them feel less intimidated and more confident. He showed fans around. And he raced sprint cars with abandon.
Owen wouldn’t get to see the first race of 2023 at Lawrenceburg Speedway. He crashed in his qualifying run. His fellow drivers wouldn’t see that race, either. After Owen’s accident, USAC canceled the race, drivers turned in their transponders and the racing community grieved.
It is devastating to think back now, Barr said, how happy Owen was before that race. He had camped out the night before with his racing partner and best friend, Michael Fischesser, and the two went to a nearby casino. Owen spent $20 and lost $20, but he told Barr he’d had a great time anyway.
Owen was looking forward to a few Michelob Ultras or maybe Natural Lights, his favorite beers, after the race to celebrate his season debut. He had no idea when he stepped into his car with Fischesser-Owen Racing he would never step back out.
Barr didn’t see the early seconds of the crash, but as he worked on his car, he heard the shriek of the engine, turned toward the track and saw Owen’s car airborne. ‘It just sounded like his motor was screaming and it looked like black soot was blowing everywhere.’
Then came the somber silence. ‘We didn’t know the severity, but we knew something was bad,’ said Barr. ‘You don’t hear a crash like that and not think it is bad. It felt like a punch in the gut.’
One of Owen’s best friends came running toward the trailer. He was yelling. ‘Oh no, oh no. This is not good.’ Barr looked at him and pleaded: ‘Please tell me he’s out of the car.’
Owen was out of the car, but not on his own. First responders cut the cages to get to him. Sirens wailed as EMTs performed CPR. People began to cry.
‘At that time, we all kind of knew but we all didn’t want to know,’ Barr, 21, said. ‘That’s when it all became very sober. You were in a moment of disbelief.’
Until it all became very real. Barr watched as Owen’s car was brought back to the trailer parked next to his, a mangled machine. ‘I think just about every person on every team turned their heads because we didn’t want to see it,’ Barr said, ‘because we knew what it meant.’
It meant that USAC would cancel the race. It meant that the tight knit community of sprint car racing would begin to mourn a 26-year-old driver who was their fearless, larger than life, beloved friend.
‘I could just tell … it was not good’
Tyler Kendall had just finished his hot laps Saturday evening at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana, 140 miles northwest of Lawrenceburg. He was walking around the track trying to find the lineup when a guy from another team yelled at him: ‘Hey, did you hear about Justin?’
Kendall had no idea what the guy was talking about. He and Owen had been friends since they were teenagers when they hit it off working as snowboard instructors at Perfect North Slopes in Lawrenceburg. One day up on a ski lift together during a break, Kendall asked Owen what he did for fun. Owen told him he loved to race sprint cars. Kendall’s family raced sprint cars, too. That was that.
The two started hanging out on the weekends. They watched and cheered one another on as each got more skilled and faster on the track. Kendall says Owen was happier than he was when Kendall won his first feature race.
‘What do you mean? What’s wrong with Justin?’ Kendall asked Saturday night. ‘And he said to me, ‘I don’t know, but you might want to try to find out something. I think USAC canceled the race.”
Kendall was in a panic. He immediately sent a message to Fischesser’s wife. ‘I said, ‘Please, please call me.’ And she called me right away and I could just tell by the sounds, the way she was acting, that it was not good.’
Owen was in the midst of his qualifying run when he drifted high into Turn 3, lost control and slammed into the wall. His car went airborne, flipped several times before coming to rest in the middle of the track. USAC immediately red flagged the event just before 6:30 p.m. and, 30 minutes later, the series canceled the event.
Owen’s death was announced by USAC just after midnight April 9, when he should have been drinking Michelob Ultras and Natty Lights, celebrating his first race of the season. Instead, his fellow drivers are left trying to cope, trying to find peace.
In the days since Owen died, Kendall has been thinking a lot about their years together. How he and Owen had grown together in their racing careers. How they would park next to one another at Lawrenceburg. How everyone laughed as he greeted fellow drivers with a flip of the finger, saying, ‘Hey there, sexy.’
‘He was very outgoing and funny. He was kind of the jokester of the group everywhere he went,’ Kendall said. ‘He was always making fun of us, making jokes, dogging on us.’
But mostly, in the days since that horrific crash, Kendall has been thinking about a race early last season when Owen did something he will never forget.
‘A testament to who Justin was’
During hot laps at a race in spring of 2022, Owen’s engine blew up. As Kendall pulled in to pit, Owen heard the Kendall Racing team talking about a rock lodged in the radiator and how, if Kendall raced, it would destroy it. But Kendall didn’t have another radiator.
‘Without even asking, I looked over and he’s taking his car apart and he’s pulling his radiator out to put in my car,’ said Kendall. ‘He wouldn’t accept no as an answer. We ended up running and (placing) second that night at Lawrenceburg.
‘That was a testament to who Justin was.’
Owen loved life, he loved making people happy and if he couldn’t race, he wanted others, even his competitors, to get the chance. The sport was in his blood.
He was six when he talked his dad into getting him his first go cart. ‘Justin was pretty fearless,’ Kendall said. ‘He took to it pretty quick.’ By the time he was 15, Owen was running sprint cars.
Isaac Chapple was working at a store that sold race car parts when Owen walked in years ago. The two shared their love of sprint cars and became friends. Owen came into that store all the time in his early years of racing. He didn’t have a big team behind him, Chapple said, but he would scrape his own money together to buy what he needed.
Chapple said Owen was always smiling. Always. Except when he got serious about racing. ‘He meant it when he got into that car,’ said Chapple, who drives with Isaac Chapple Racing.
‘He packed so much into 26 years of life,’ said Barr. ‘He made so many people happy. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He was just J.O. and people loved J.O.’
Remembering Justin Owen
Owen is survived by his parents, Marita (Mike) Cable, Scott (Niki) Owen, his fiancé, Kenzie Knapp, and his sister Alyssa (Eric) Stone, brother Josh Creech, and step-sister, Ryleigh Dennis. He is also survived by his grandmother, Shirley Standley and grandfather, Mike Marqua.
‘His life was his family, friends and his golden doodles, Louie and Lacie,’ Owen’s obituary says. ‘He also played baseball, football, soccer, basketball, snowboarding and lacrosse. Justin was a 2014 graduate of Harrison High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in operations management from the University of Cincinnati in 2018. Justin was looking so forward to the next chapter in his life which he was marrying the love of his life, Kenzie Knapp.’
Visitation for Owen is at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Spring Grove Funeral Homes, 4389 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati. Services will follow at 11 a.m. with a reception 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the funeral home.
In honor of Justin, donations can be made to Driven to Save Lives: The Bryan Clauson Legacy Fund.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.