NHRA Chief Starter Mark Lyle Remembered For His Compassion

DSC_0729The National Hot Rod Association shared the news Monday that Mark Lyle, who in 2012 became only the third Chief Starter in the organization’s 61 years, died unexpectedly Sunday while on vacation.

One day after his birthday and just 11 days after celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary with wife Marcia, Lyle perished Easter Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico, reportedly while trying to save an individual who was struggling in the water.

DSC_8537Lyle’s friends in his native Pacific Northwest and across the nation remembered him Monday for his compassion and his competence.

Jason Fiorito, president of Seattle’s Pacific Raceways, said, “I cut my teeth in this business with Mark. I first met Mark when my family took over the track in 2002. Although technically Mark worked for me, I always looked at him as a mentor. Much of what I learned about the sport of drag racing was from standing next to him on the starting line.”

The track operator said he was proud of Lyle for being selected to the prestigious national position: “It was one of my greatest pleasures to go to another track for a national event and see Mark at work on the starting line.”

Moreover, Fiorito said, Lyle’s final act didn’t surprise him or anyone who knew the North Bend, Wash., resident.

“It sounds like somebody was in trouble in the water and he dropped everything and ran out there. That was just Mark. It never would have crossed Mark’s mind not to just run out and try to help somebody. He would have never thought about his own safety. He would just go help somebody else – that was just him. It fits what I know about him: If he saw somebody in trouble, it was his job to go save ’em and he never would have thought twice about it,” Fiorito said. “If one of those drivers was in trouble, he would have reached in and tried to get him out. There was just no part of him that would have concerned himself with getting hurt himself.DSC_0723

“Mark was one of the most kind-hearted, genuine people I’ve ever met in my whole life. The world is not better off, now that he’s not around,” Fiorito said. “He was a wise and compassionate man, and I will miss him dearly. My heart and prayers go out to Marcia and his family. This world is a better place because he shared time with us.”

It sounds like somebody was in trouble in the water and he dropped everything and ran out there. That was just Mark. – Jason Fiorita, Pacific Raceways

Chris Blair, general manager and executive vice-president at St. Louis’ Gateway Motorsports Park, said he is “fortunate enough to call Mark a friend for nearly 20 years through our connection to the NHRA Northwest Division. Mark was a part of our team on bracket, divisional, and regional events as well as the NHRA Nationals. Mark often would work events with us on his off weekends, just for the fun of it. He loved the sport, and the people in the sport loved him

“His passing leaves a tremendous hole in our hearts,” Blair said. “We want to thank his wife, Marcia, for allowing him to come play with us on his off weekends. Having Mark on the starting line ensured our events would be special.”

Lyle began his career at Pacific Raceways in the mid-1990s, when the track operated under the name Seattle International Raceway. He became the track’s official starter in 2000 and remained in place after the Fiorito family assumed operation of the facility southeast of Seattle that it had established in the 1950s.

Lyle with wife, Marcia. Photo via Facebook

Lyle with wife, Marcia. Photo via Facebook

Working with legendary starter and NHRA Northwest Division Hall of Famer Ray Rice, Lyle split his time on the Division 6 crew and as official starter at Pacific Raceways until 2005, according to Jim Doyle, Northwest drag-racing photographer and historian. Rice retired in 2005, and Lyle took over as the Northwest Division’s official starter. He replaced retiring Rick Stewart as the NHRA Chief Starter in 2012.

Mike Gittings, a former Pacific Raceways official starter, took the Division 6 duties from Lyle in 2012. Gittings will succeed Lyle this weekend when the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series reconvenes at the Denso Spark Plug NHRA Nationals at Las Vegas.

Rick Straley, Pacific Raceways’ current head starter and member of the NHRA Safety Safari, worked with Lyle both at Seattle and on the national event tour. Straley said, “I feel it a great honor to be taught by such a great and knowledgeable starter.”

Blair said, “All of us at Gateway Motorsports Park are saddened by the passing of Mark Lyle. Mark was a tremendous part of the racing community. Please keep his family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.”

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The NHRA announcement said, “On behalf of NHRA and the entire drag racing community, we offer our condolences to all of Lyle’s family and friends.”

Lyle was the third Chief Starter in NHRA history, following the late Buster Couch (1955-1996) and Stewart (1996-2011).

The racing community reacts to Lyle’s tragic passing:

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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