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Renna farewell comes home

Ralph Liguori had the talk with his grandson again. This time it broke his heart.

In more than 50 years of racing, from stock cars on Daytona Beach to open-wheel machines at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the youthful 77-year-old Tampa resident has learned the danger of auto racing, personally felt the pain when speed mixes with disaster.

That was why he had a sober talk with his grandson, Joe, when he decided he, too, wanted to go fast. Now 17, Joe is starting to go faster than ever. Liguori was reminded on Oct. 22 how perilous it can really be.

Having just completed a long drive back from Indianapolis with a truckload of racing equipment, he was met at the front door by his wife, Jane, and told there was awful news.

Tony Renna, an aspiring Indy Racing League driver in his first official duties after signing just a month ago with the mighty Chip Ganassi Racing team, had died after his car went airborne during a tire test at IMS and crashed into a barrier.

Renna was a few months from beginning his dream job as a full-time IRL driver, a month from turning 27, less than a month from marrying his fiancee, Debbie Savini.

He was also like a son toLiguori, who had been close with Renna's parents for decades and watched Tony grow from an energetic child to the popular young man whose death drew almost 400 mourners to St. Peter's Catholic Church on Friday morning.

"The kid had a dream from when he was 8 years old. He was going to win the Indianapolis 500 one day, and let me tell you, if he'd stayed alive, he would have won it," Liguori said. "If I had a son like that, I'd thank the Lord. There couldn't have been a better I'm emotional about this as good a race driver as he was, he was even a better man."

"He always knew that the brightest day would be tomorrow," Renna's manager, Mark Coughlin, said. "There was a spring in his walk, his confidence at an all-time high, because he knew he belonged."

Renna had five top-10 finishes in seven races as a substitute driver for Kelley Racing in the IRL over the past two seasons. He finished seventh in his only race this year, the Indy 500.

"I left the morning he got killed not knowing it happened," Liguori said. "I don't play the radio when I'm driving and towing equipment because I concentrate on my driving. When I got home my wife told me she had bad news for me and I thought it was someone in my family. But that kid was like my family."

So he sat down with his son and daughter-in-law and Joe. The message: He couldn't bear the thought of something happening to Joe, so he didn't wish to support his career any longer.

"Before he ever started racing I said, "Listen, in this sport it's not a matter of if, but when you're going to get hurt,' " Liguori said. "If you stay in it long enough, you're going to get hurt. They accepted that. Then after Tony got killed, I came back and told them this is what can really happen and I didn't know if I was behind it anymore."

The response was as expected, likely what Liguori as a younger man would have told his family.

"He said, "Grandpa, whether you help me or not, I'm going to be a race driver,' " Liguori said. "So I have to help. This sport is like a drug, but it's legal."

Liguori moved to Florida in the 1950s to race stock cars _ he raced in NASCAR's top circuit in its early days, before it was called Winston Cup _ but the $65 local purses were insufficient to make a living.

He met his wife in Tampa and his father-in-law to be helped land him a job at Sunshine Park, now called Tampa Bay Downs. Liguori, who was eventually put in charge of admissions, parking and programs, met a jockey there named Joe Renna, who became a close friend and Tony's father. The Liguoris often drove from Tampa to DeLand for Tony's races once they retired, and had dinner with he and Savini a few weeks before Tony's death.

Liguori knows Renna won't be the last to die in this dangerous passion.

"Maybe we're crazy, but I don't think we're are," he said, sniffling. "I think we are dedicated to what we do and love what we do. It's like a jockey. When they get hurt, they get back on."

Tony Renna, an IRL driver who was killed in a testing accident Oct. 22 at Indianapolis, was from Florida and had friends in the bay area.