Forty of the best race-car drivers in the world will fire up their engines at 2 p.m. Sunday for the 59th annual Daytona 500.
Also known as The Great American Race, it is indisputably the premier event on the entire NASCAR schedule.
Normally, Daytona is a cause for celebration among race fans. But when this year’s contest begins, a bunch of area residents likely will be watching with tears trickling down their faces.
Their grief will be tied to special decals affixed to many of the cars in the field. The decals depict a Goodyear tire with the name Ryan Copeland, along with “1974-2016.”
You’ve probably never heard of Copeland, who grew up in Green and lived in Lake Township. But the folks inside NASCAR considered him a genius. He was a Goodyear tire engineer who, according to the crew chief for veteran driver Kasey Kahne, was simply “the best.”
Copeland’s tragic death just a few days before Christmas not only devastated his family and friends but shook up the whole NASCAR world.
When a former colleague set up a GoFundMe account to benefit the family, donations came roaring in, many from NASCAR drivers and crews. The effort raised just shy of $50,000. Retired superstar driver Tony Stewart personally gave $5,000.
The visiting hours and funeral drew 500 people, including four or five NASCAR teams that drove all the way up from North Carolina.
“Copey,” as he was known in the pits, died while riding a snowmobile in his own yard — with part of his family watching. Doesn’t get much worse than that.
The weather was icy. He was zooming through the front yard, starting to make a loop, when the snowmobile skiis got hung up in the ice. Everyone knew it was bad.
The obituary appeared on Christmas Day.
As you can imagine, the family is still reeling.
“It’s so hard,” says his wife, Maria. “We met when we were 15.”
Maria says their children — Tyler, 11; Vincent, 9; and Gina, 7 — “are just so lost. He was the best dad. The best.”
Her description may qualify him as the best husband, too.
“He was always selfless, never wanting anything for himself. He only wanted to provide the best life for our family.
“Ryan expected you to do your best. It was easy because you wanted to make him proud.
“I looked at him with such admiration. He was my living legend.”
The tremendous pain left by his passing has been eased somewhat by a huge outpouring of support.
“All of NASCAR and Goodyear have just been so wonderful in reaching out and supporting me,” Maria says. “The Goodyear guys have been over here almost every weekend. They all feel the loss there, too.”
One of his rocks has been Sam Bernard, one of the first female Goodyear racing engineers, who was at the house the night of the crash and “has become a true friend.”
Gina also praises Uniontown Elementary and Lake Middle schools for their support, as well as Holy Spirit Church, family, friends, neighbors and “even complete strangers.”
“I know how happy Ryan would be with all the outpouring of love.”
Born in Barberton, Ryan Copeland attended Green High School and in 1998 graduated magna cum laude from the University of Akron in mechanical engineering.
Not that he was always a stellar student.
“When he was young, he wasn’t too enthused with school,” says his dad, Roger, with a laugh. “By the time he got into this engineering curriculum, then he really got a hold of it.”
Ryan was a gearhead growing up — no surprise, given that his dad was into drag racing. The father says his son was ready to roar early on: “He bought a car when he was 15, a 1980 Malibu, and within a year of getting his license he was wanting to pull out the six-cylinder motor and put in a V-8.”
Roger knew Ryan had blossomed into a top-flight engineer, but he didn’t realize just how talented he was until witnessing NASCAR’s reaction to his death.
“You’re always proud of your kids,” Roger says, “but you don’t really know how good a job they might have been doing until something like this happens.”
Make no mistake: Ryan was very, very good.
This from Rick Campbell, the primary interface between Goodyear and NASCAR: “Ryan was a low-key, quiet, background kind of guy. But he was the expert in his field.
“He lived and breathed NASCAR tires, and he particularly focused on the durability. He was really zeroed in on making sure a tire could handle whatever it needed to handle.”
Campbell says Copeland was superb at figuring out what would work best on each of NASCAR’s widely varying racetracks.
“He was very effective and very successful over quite a long period of time. It’s going to hurt us. It’s a loss.”
Keith Rodden, the crew chief for Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, also sings his praises.
“He and I got into the sport about the same time, and he became ‘that guy’ for me to talk to,” Rodden says. “He was the best.
“He was a most straightforward, genuine, open person to talk to.”
Rodden says Copeland was comfortable in both “the lab world” and the “tire-hitting-the-track world.”
“He understood what they built in the lab, but was open to how the tire actually acted on the track, which is why he was so good at what he did.”
Personally, Rodden says, “Ryan was a great guy. He talked about his family a lot, and last year at the Michigan race he brought his family to the track and that brought it all home for me. They were all super-nice, and it was pretty special to tie that all together and meet the people he talked a lot about.”
Among the people taking Copeland’s death particularly hard is a former neighbor.
John Messina, who managed the old Jack Horner’s restaurant in East Akron for 27 years, lived two doors down from Ryan when he was growing up in Green.
“I’ve known him since his mom was pregnant with him,” Messina says. “I’m 74, and I have three sons, and Ryan was part of my family.” His voice catches. “I’m choked up because I have a hard time with this. It’s like losing my own son.”
Messina says his former neighbor was “an excellent father and excellent young man. ... Just a super person. He touched a lot of lives.”
Messina repaired the crashed snowmobile “just to get it away from the house. It was hard for me to do, but I did it alone where I could cry if I had to.”
He had to.
Messina will be among those watching the race on WJW (Channel 8). He is eager to hear what is said about Ryan H. Copeland.
Maria Copeland is thrilled that her husband is being saluted at NASCAR’s biggest event.
“It’s such an honor,” she says, “and I know Ryan would be moved and touched beyond words for such recognition.”
Not that he would ever lobby for attention. To the contrary.
“When they cleaned out his desk at work and brought his stuff home, all of his patents and all of his achievements and the awards he ever got were literally at the bottom of the drawer.
“I couldn’t believe it. I knew he had patents over the years, but he was never one to boast about his accolades.
“That was so him.”
This time, for once, it’s all about him.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31