Vigil honors teen killed in speedway crash

A Santa Rosa middle school student was killed Saturday night at Marysville Racing Park when he was struck by a sprint car being driven by his 17-year-old cousin.

Marcus Joseph Johnson, a 14-year-old eighth-grader and basketball player at Rincon Valley Middle School, left to use the restroom when his cousin Chase lost control of his car and careened off the track.

About 200 people gathered at Rincon Valley Sunday evening to hold a vigil in Marcus’ honor. They shared stories and memories of a young man who they considered one of the nicest you could meet.

Principal Matthew Marshall acknowledged Marcus’ hard work ethic in and out of the classroom. He described him as caring and genuine and urged those in attendance to live by his example.

Rincon Valley teacher and basketball coach Patrick Eagle, whose 13-year-old son Alex was one of Marcus’ closest friends, said Marcus was a team player and a dream to coach:

“He listened and would always try to be doing the right thing.”

Rob Johnson, Marcus’ father, also acknowledged his son’s willingness to help his fellow students:

“… all his coaches will tell you he’s the first one to help someone [or] give someone a hand or help somebody else.”

Rob Johnson told KTVU that the car flew an estimated 150 feet from the track. As Marcus was returning from the restroom, the tragedy occurred:

“[He] was walking back from the bathroom and the car just flew in the air and hit him.”

Chase’s car also struck and killed 68-year-old Grass Valley resident Dale Wondergem. Wondergem was pronounced dead on the scene, while Marcus was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Rideout Hospital in Marysville, authorities said.

Marcus was also an aspiring race car driver like his cousin, a Petaluma High School senior and fourth generation race car driver who’s been racing for 13 years, according to his website.

An hour before his race was scheduled to begin, Chase was “hot lapping,” or speeding around the track, when he lost control of his car at an estimated 90 mph.

Race announcer Steven Blakesley said he and others began to panic once Chase went off the track:

“… we wanted the practice to stop and so a lot of people were frantically waving to the officials to stop all the other cars so we could get our safety people over there.”

The race park became very silent upon discovering that Marcus had been killed by his cousin’s car.

Saturday’s California Sprint Car Civil War Series was cancelled as a result of the tragedy.

Petaluma Speedway track announcer Ron Lingron said it was tragic for something like this to happen to someone as focused and talented as Chase:

“There’s not a better kid you’re going to find in the racing community than Chase Johnson.”

Lingron also acknowledged the Johnsons as the first family of the Petaluma Speedway; Chase’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were also champion drivers in Petaluma.

The Yuba County Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the cause of the crash.

However, Rob Johnson said that Chase told him the detachable steering came off the column of his car while he was hot lapping.

Even though Chase had double-checked his new steering wheel, Rob Johnson said he understood that such accidents can still happen:

“Something had to have failed in the quick release mechanism. I don’t know how it could have come off.”