Austin Riley Lambert

For Denny Hamlin’s spotter, each race begins with a prayer for Hailey and Austin

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Each second ravaged his soul more than the last. Chris Lambert crumbled after his wife and infant son died in a crash. He turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. When their numbing effects eroded, loss and anguish tortured him again.

What was the point in living?

Several times he contemplated suicide. 

Amid the blur of death, emptiness and self-medication, Lambert woke one day in an unfamiliar house, unaware of how he got there and around people he didn’t know. His wallet and cell phone were gone.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Lambert said to himself that day. “Is this how they would want you to be living your life now?”

A moment in time

Chris Lambert spots for Denny Hamlin in the NASCAR Cup Series and Brandon Jones in the Xfinity Series. Lambert’s role is that of friend, coach, part-time psychologist, protector and purveyor of whatever information the driver desires.

Hamlin and Lambert have worked together since 2012 but neither has won a Cup championship. They’ll try again Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC), 20 years after the most devastating moment of Lambert’s life.

“As a parent, I just cannot imagine,” said Hamlin, father of two daughters, about Lambert’s loss. “It just puts into perspective, ‘You think you’ve got problems.’ Any small or big ask he has of me, I go above and beyond … for him.”

It was to be date night for Lambert and wife Hailey. Austin, 15 months old, stood at the door as Lambert backed out of the driveway on his way to play softball with a church team. Austin soon would head to a park with Hailey before she would drop him off at her mother’s home. Then Lambert and Hailey would have some time together.

But between the park and her mother’s house, Hailey’s car crossed the center line of a rural road and crashed head-on into another vehicle.

Four people died.

Lambert remembers little in the months after the Oct. 16, 1999 crash. A moment, though, is vivid among the fog. It took place at the funeral home when some of Hailey’s friends came through the receiving line to offer condolences.

One of them hugged Lambert.

Little did he know how that would change his life.

 

Hailey Lambert

Hailey was a cheerleader. Lambert played football.

He was quiet. Lambert followed the advice of his grandfather, who would say that because a person has two ears and one mouth they should listen twice as much as they talk.

Hailey was energetic and outgoing.

But it was more than opposites attract.

“There was just something about her that made everybody happier and in a better mood,” he said.

Although they had been flirting for several weeks, it was Hailey who asked Lambert out. Sitting outside the school gym with friends as they listened to music one night, Hailey asked Lambert: “So are you ever going to ask me out?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “we can definitely go out.”

The next night after a football game, they went to a Pizza Hut popular with students.

Their first true date came the following night with a dinner and a movie. She then took him to her farm where her family was rebuilding their home after a fire. Other relatives were at the family barn sharing an evening of kinship around a bonfire.

“We were up all night just talking and getting to know each other better,” Lambert said. “From that point on, we were pretty much inseparable.”

When Lambert proposed to Hailey, he did not do it in private. On Christmas morning at the home of Hailey’s grandparents, in front of her extended family, Lambert asked Hailey to marry him.

After she said yes, Lambert turned to Hailey’s grandfather, a retired pastor, and asked him to perform the service. He said yes.

“Their entire family was just like she was,” Lambert said. “They took me in like I was theirs from day one.”

 

Austin Riley Lambert

Austin, born July 6, 1998, was learning to talk. He would say ‘Momma’ and ‘Daddy.’ He also said ‘puffs’ for the cheese puffs that he devoured.

Another of his early words was ‘cow,’ which he learned from all the visits to the farm of Hailey’s parents. He also loved their horses but had yet to say that word.

Already Lambert could tell which parent Austin mirrored.

“His personality, he was going to be a lot like his mom,” Lambert said. “He was just an overall happy kid.”

Before Austin was six months old, Hailey’s father got his grandson a lifetime fishing license so they could spend future days together bonding in the tranquility of nature.

Sitting still, though, was not something Austin did much of at his age.

“We were on the go a lot just to get out of the house and try to burn some of that energy off of him,” Lambert said with a smile. “He was never still.”

 

A conversation

One night, as Hailey and Lambert talked, the discussion turned to the future.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said.

Soon Hailey was saying that if anything happened to her or they were no longer together, she would be fine with him dating any of three friends in particular.

When one is young and in love, such affirmations float away like a random leaf in fall. There’s too much living to do to ponder such a dark future for more than a moment.

One of the friends Hailey approved of Lambert seeing if something happened to her was Angela. Hailey and Angela graduated together from A.L. Brown High school in Kannapolis, North Carolina. When Angela returned home on weekends while attending Appalachian State University, they would go out while Lambert watched Austin at home.

For as implausible as Hailey’s scenario and suggestion seemed at the time, there was something else that made the idea of Lambert ever dating Angela unrealistic.

“She’ll be the first to tell you,” Lambert said of Angela, “that she didn’t like me.”

 

The “lowest of lows”

When Hailey didn’t arrive at her mother’s home that October day in 1999, family members worried. No one knew where Hailey and Austin were.

A friend told Lambert that they had been with Hailey and Austin hours earlier at a park. He went to retrace the route Hailey would have taken from there to her mother’s house. Hailey’s sister then called. She told him to go immediately to the hospital in Concord, North Carolina.

Hailey’s injuries were severe. Doctors could not save her.

They kept her alive long enough for Lambert and her family to say their goodbyes. She was 20.

Lambert then raced 26 miles to a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, to be with his son, unaware that Austin died from his injuries during the helicopter flight.

Instead of comforting his son, Lambert had to identify the body.

 

Learning to live

After awaking in the house where he knew no one and didn’t know how he got there, Lambert vowed to try “my best from that point on to start living the way that I knew I needed to live.”

He worked and also helped a friend race at area tracks. One night, the team returned to the shop after a race and had a party. Among those there was Hailey’s friend, Angela. She had returned home from college to take care of her mom and finish her education at a local school.

Angela and Lambert started talking about Hailey, high school and life.

“Four hours later we were still talking,” he said. “I think it was a therapy session for both of us.”

While Angela had seen the kindness Lambert displayed around Hailey and Austin, she also knew about the fights he used to get in with others. She didn’t like that.

“Most of the fights were me taking up for people that wouldn’t take up for themselves,” he said. “If I saw somebody picking on somebody, I would try to stand up for (them).”

As Angela and Lambert talked, barriers came down.

Just as they did that night at the funeral home.

It was Angela who hugged Lambert.

Eventually, they began dating. But about six months into their relationship, he broke it off.

“I told her I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. Nothing she had done. It was just 100 percent me. I pushed her away.”

Lambert also faced an inner quarrel. Could he get close to another woman? His mother died from bone cancer when he was 3 years old. An aunt who looked over him died when he was young. Then his wife died.

“It seemed like every woman I got close to was taken too early,” he said.

Angela kept in touch, making sure he was OK during their time apart. They got back together within six months and were married Aug. 2, 2003.

“Our relationship has been the strongest it’s been ever since then,” Lambert said. “To understand that I’m worthy of letting myself go for the love of a woman, I know it goes back to that hug.”

Family routine

Angela and Lambert have two children. Hunter is 15. Cameron is 13.

With his role solely as a spotter, Lambert doesn’t work at Joe Gibbs Racing’s shop. That’s allowed Lambert to spend as much time as possible with his family between races.

They will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday to see if Lambert and Hamlin can win the championship.

They also are a part of Lambert’s routine before every race.

Once the prayer and national anthem are complete in pre-race ceremonies — and before engines are fired — Lambert calls his family. They wish him good luck and tell him they love him.

After hanging up, Lambert steps away from the other spotters for a moment alone.

He prays for family members who have passed. He prays for the grandparents who raised him. He prays for the wife who loved him.

And he prays for the son who stands against the door the last time Lambert saw him alive, waving goodbye.

 

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