AMONG THE UNHEARD STORIES: Death leaves a void in NASCAR family

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New mom, sisters are trapped in a blazing Town Car limousine
December 9, 2003
By Jennifer Dixon
Free Press Staff Writer

ORNELIUS, N.C. — Tara Howell Parker’s life finally was coming together. Her heart transplant two years earlierwas an established success. Her husband’s rise through the NASCAR ranks was in high gear. The baby they wanted to adopt was at home with them in their brick colonial.

The former Miss Winston had everything she’d ever wanted on that September evening when she left 2-month-old Jagger with her husband, Shawn Parker, crew chief to race car driver Dale Jarrett, for a night out with her sisters, Mysti and Megan. Hours later, as the sisters headed home from a Fleetwood Mac concert in Greensboro, N.C., a pickup barreled into the back of their rented Lincoln Town Car limousine. It burst into flames.

Police say the fuel tank was punctured, and gas spewed out of the cracks. “The fire and the heat was so intense, I couldn’t even get close to the doors to see if I could even get the doors open,” said the limo driver, James Canady.

Largely unnoticed
The Howell sisters are among dozens of people whose deaths have gone largely unnoticed in the scrutiny of fiery, rear-impact crashes in Ford Crown Victorias. Attention has focused mainly on the police version of the Crown Vic. But the Crown Vic is built on the same basic mechanical underpinnings as the Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis. The Free Press has documented at least 69 fatalities in rear-impact crashes with fire in the three sedans since 1980. Eighteen were police.

Ford Motor Co. has declined to discuss the number of civilian fatalities, saying people die at no greater rate in the Crown Vic, Town Car and Grand Marquis than in other vehicles. The gas tank in all three sedans is behind the rear axle. Critics say the tank is susceptible to puncture in rear-end crashes.

Although Ford insists all three cars are safe, the company has taken several steps to protect the gas tanks in the Crown Vic Police Interceptor, including shields that cover sharp parts of the rear axle. But the company says the changes aren’t needed for civilian models because civilians are not in dangerous roadside situations as often as police.

“There have been civilian deaths in every make and model,” said Ford lawyer Doug Lampe, referring to all types of cars. “While each one is tragic, what we know is every make and model is susceptible to fuel-fed fire in a high-speed rear impact. That is not evidence of a defect, but evidence that they were hit at high speeds.”

Joan Claybrook said she thinks there is a problem with the Crown Vic, Grand Marquis and Town Car and that Ford needs to make not just police cars safer, but civilian vehicles as well. “I don’t see any reason to make a distinction,” said Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Fire was the only cause of death
If not for the fire, Howell Parker, 29, Mysti Howell Poplin, 24, and Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16, would have survived the crashwith minor injuries. Autopsies showed they burned to death. In the heart of NASCAR country, the sisters’ deaths hit especially hard.

Jarrett, who drives No. 88, a Ford Taurus, said there were no words to express the overwhelming sadness he felt. In a statement the day after the accident, Jarrett called Howell Parker a special person who “exemplified the true meaning of perseverance and determination.”

Lampe said the Town Car had been lengthened into a limousine, which could affect its performance in a rear-end crash.  Motor says the Town Car line meets current 30 m.p.h. federal safety standards for rear-end crashes, as well as Ford’s own higher standards of 50 m.p.h. The sisters’ Town Car was struck by a vehicle going about 60 m.p.h., Lampe said.

A lifelong battle
Howell Parker had suffered from heart problems all her life. She had her first heart surgery when she was 6 days old. Her heart had just a single ventricle. Growing up in Mocksville, N.C., Howell Parker was a skinny child with a blue cast to her skin. As a teenager, she was a cheerleader and on the dance squad. After high school, she assumed the role of Miss Winston, traveling the NASCAR circuit, handing out cigarettes in the stands, congratulating the winners.

She met Shawn Parker in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1997. She knew who he was and approached him at a restaurant. The next night, they had dinner. And Parker found himself taking the pretty young woman with the weak heart to the hospital several nights a week. Past surgeries had led to a buildup of scar tissue, causing her heart to beat irregularly.

Three years after they met, in July 2000, Howell Parker had open heart surgery, and it didn’t go well. Her kidneys failed, and she went on dialysis. She and Parker planned their wedding from her hospital bed. They married on Nov. 25, 2000, but there would be no honeymoon.

The following May, she went to see her doctor for tests and was admitted into the hospital. She wouldn’t leave for weeks, until she had a new heart. From her hospital bed, she made pins of green ribbon, a symbol of organ donation. And with her laptop computer, she talked to NASCAR fans by e-mail about her wait for a heart and the need for organ donors.

“Racing,” Parker said, “is one big family.”

And as she waited 12 weeks for a heart, she listened to tapes from her preacher and kept a journal. She said in the journal: “I continue to pray each day.” The tapes, she wrote, “help me to remain faithful to the Lord at all times and to not give up. I won’t give up. I treasure my life and my family way too much.”

On July 28, 2001, a heart arrived from Savannah, Ga., from a pedestrian hit by a car. By then, Howell Parker was so weak she needed her mother, Cathy Merritt, and her grandmother to help her take a bath or fix her hair. She left the hospital in August but was on dialysis until December.

A new hope
In fall 2002, she and Parker talked about starting a family, and in January, they began the paperwork for adoption. Soon, a pregnant woman chose them to be her baby’s parents. Howell Parker’s life became a blur of baby showers and preparations for a newborn.

The call came on July 6. Howell Parker arrived at the hospital 25 minutes after the birth. The birth mother handed her the little boy. She and Parker called him Jagger Alexander Parker. “Everything was right for us,” Parker said. “She was finally getting over the hurdle of all this heart surgery,” he said. “I was doing what I wanted to do. We couldn’t ask for anything else.”

On that night in September, Howell Parker was in the mood to celebrate with Mysti, her stepsister and a young mother herself, and Megan, her half sister, a high school junior and aspiring doctor. Howell Parker rented the limousine so she wouldn’t have to drive. Her father thought they would be safer that way.

Her husband prefers not to talk about the wreck and controversy over the fuel tank location. Cathy Merritt misses her daily conversations with Howell Parker. She longs for the daughter who rescued stray animals and always said hello and good-bye with a hug. “She used to tell me: ‘You know, Mama, I love Daddy and I love Shawn, but you’re my mama. You are mine,’ ” Merritt said. “We were blessed to have her for 29 years.”

Contact Jennifer Dixon at 313-223-4410 or [email protected].