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Yuma driver remembered for love of racing, books
Generally speaking, there's not much overlap between the world of librarians and the world of drag racers.
Derek Sanchez bridged that gap. And according to friends, it's what made him one of a kind.
The 47-year-old Yuma resident and NHRA racer died Thursday after a crash April 6 left him in a coma.
Jeff Nolte, who ran Sanchez/Nolte/Maroone racing with Sanchez for 10 years, said his unique combination of jobs was just one thing that made him stand out to fellow drivers.
“Everybody thought it was cool he was a drag racer and librarian,” Nolte said. “It was two very opposite ends of the spectrum there. ... Everybody that has called said they will always remember Derek sitting on the staging lanes, on the roll cage of the car, reading a book. That always brings a smile to everyone because that's what he did.”
Sanchez worked for two years at the San Luis Library before getting a transfer to the main branch in Yuma in March. His manager in San Luis, Cecilia Tovar, said it was his other job that jumped out at her on his resume.
“I have to say that one of the things that stood out when he applied for the job was not only he had experience in the library, but his work as a mechanic and racing,” Tovar said. “I thought: what a great skill. He was able to follow his passion and be at the library as well.”
Sanchez was working on his masters in library studies from the University of Arizona.
“He was a wonderful, outstanding employee and he really loved his job in the library,” Tovar said. “He was a very positive person and loved racing. He loved his car. It's just hard.”
The accident occurred April 6 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Nolte said what caused the crash is not, and may not ever be, known.
“It was a high-speed accident at the top end of the race track,” Nolte said. “He and his opponent, they were in the second round of eliminations at the NHRA SummitRacing.Com Nationals. We don't know the exact cause of the accident, but just past 1,000 feet the car made a hard left turn to the left wall. We don't know exactly what caused that, and at this point we don't know if we will ever know.”
Nolte said Sanchez was in a 1933 Ford, the second car the team owned. When they started, Nolte said he and Sanchez had a 1955 Chevy that was the first car Sanchez raced with. The car was built by Sanchez and his father, Frank (who raced in Sanchez's native Albuquerque and was his introduction to drag racing), and Nolte said that made it hard to part with. Eventually, they sold it to a team out of Germany.
“It was obviously sad for Derek, because that was the car he grew up driving,” Nolte said. “But he was obviously glad to see it go somewhere really cool.”
Nolte said he and Sanchez got their start in part thanks to Gordie Rivera, a local NHRA driver. He has finished in the top 10 three times on the Pro Stock series.
Rivera said it was an honor just to have known Sanchez.
“When he first came to Yuma, he came into my store and asked me if I'd work on his engine,” Rivera said. “Right away I took a liking to him because his attitude was so clean. It was so fresh to see. To be honest, I don't take in a lot of jobs. I said yeah, no problem. I stated building his engines. The guy was so personable you couldn't help but liking the guy.”
Services for Sanchez will be Friday in Albuquerque. Nolte said a celebration of life is being planned for Yuma at a later date.
Rivera said due to the number of phone calls he got Thursday about Sanchez's death, he knows he's not alone in his admiration of Sanchez.
“I know for a fact everybody else felt the same way I did,” Rivera said. “Those people called me. I was on the right track with the man.”