Carvers making statue of driver killed at Indiana race track
Jun. 06, 2018
ELLETTSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — In the bottom shelf of Gary Combs' desk is a newspaper from May 31, 2013, a week after Josh Burton's fatal accident and the day after his funeral. A memory of the race car driver is now taking form just outside Combs' office: A 9-foot-tall limestone statue of Burton, wearing a racing suit and clutching his helmet, standing tall and proud.
Combs rests his face in his hands, elbows on his desk at Bybee Stone Co. in Ellettsville, when he talks about the statue and the man it depicts. A layer of Hoosier limestone dust covers him and most everything he owns.
"With every stroke of the tool, I think of that boy," said Combs, whom Burton called "Uncle Gary."
Josh Burton was a larger-than-life character while racing around the Bloomington Speedway. From his mismatched socks to the bright orange painted Hoosier Tires on his No. 04 sprint car, Burton stood out at the track.
Burton died May 25, 2013, after an accident on Turn 1 at the Bloomington Speedway. He was 22 years old.
Now five years after his death, the limestone statue will cement his legacy, overlooking the place he loved the most.
Combs and fellow stone carvers Thomas Dixon and Brian Patton are donating their time and talent to work on the statue that will be so realistic "you'll be able to see the veins in his hands," Dixon likes to say. They work on it after shifts and on the weekends.
"When the boy lost his life chasing his dreams, it was devastating," Combs said. "I could never imagine losing my son."
While there was no blood relation, the Burtons and Combses grew close over the years. Josh Burton raced often with Gary's son, Chad, starting out in go-karts together. At each other's homes, they don't ask for a drink. They walk into the kitchen and get it themselves.
To create a model for the statue, Chad Combs lent his racing suit — one that Josh had given him — to Josh's cousin, Anthony Terrell. Dixon took photographs and measurements of Terrell, then studied old photographs of Josh for the face of the statue.
Those who have seen mock-ups of the statue say it looks just like Josh.
Gary Combs had initially planned on keeping the memorial a secret from Josh's parents, Jerry and Darlene Burton. He wanted to surprise them at the fifth annual Josh Burton Memorial Race, held each Memorial Day weekend. The race supports young racers, and offers additional prize money to the winner if the race car has a properly installed halo bar, a safety device that might have saved Josh's life if he'd had one on his car.
The project is taking longer than expected, so Combs decided to tell the family about it. Darlene Burton is glad he did.
"They really meant a lot to each other," Darlene Burton said of Josh and Gary's relationship. "I can't really explain in words how special this is. It's a great tribute to Josh."
The Burtons still go to the speedway. There's still a sprint car that races with Josh's No. 04 on its side, orange Hoosier Tires carrying it around the clay track.
"I told Jerry that I could see me setting up a chair out there and just staring at it," she said of the statue.
Bloomington Speedway General Manager Mike O'Leary said Burton's death touched everyone in the local racing community. Honoring him is the right thing to do.
"My role in this whole thing is to do whatever needs to be done to get it erected at the track," O'Leary said. "I wanted to make sure it got done the right way and it was going to be a good tribute."
The statue will go up near the concession stands and will overlook the track, specifically Turn 1 — the site of Burton's fatal crash.
Combs worried the family might not like that location, but Darlene Burton said the family agrees it's the right spot for the memorial. That's what Josh would have wanted.
"I'm just glad the statue can see the track," she said. "Racing is what he lived for. I wish everyone could've met him. He was a special kid.
"I know he's just so happy."
Combs expects the statue to be completed in the next couple of months, and will plan a dedication celebration at the track.
He's glad that after years of thinking about a way to properly honor Burton, keeping that newspaper buried in his desk, they're on the homestretch.
"That boy was something else," Combs said. "He didn't have no fear. It was just one of those things."
Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com