The plane ride from Philadelphia to Los Angeles lasted 6 hours, but Geoff Stoneback felt like he was trapped in the sky for eternity.
The professional Formula Drifter was headed out west to do some last-minute maintenance on his Nissan S14 before the 2015 season opener, held on the streets of Long Beach. The reigning rookie of the year looked forward to not just kicking off his sophomore campaign in Formula Drift, but to hanging out with his L.A.-based best friend and crew member, Mark Lenardon, in the days leading up to the big event.
Shortly into his Sunday-night trip, however, Stoneback noticed something strange: He had working WiFi, which was out of the norm. Minutes later, he received a haunting message from a friend.
Mark was in a crazy accident, the text read. If you can, call his mom.
Stoneback’s heart sunk. “I had a real creepy feeling,” he says. “I was stuck on this plane for hours and hours, and I didn’t know how bad his accident was.”
Immediately after touching down at midnight, Stoneback jetted to Long Beach Memorial to see Lenardon. The police had found him 100 feet from his motorcycle and couldn’t determine the cause of the crash, though they suspected speed was a factor. By the time Stoneback had arrived to see him, doctors had placed Lenardon in a medically induced coma on account of dangerously high brain pressure.
Stoneback stayed in the hospital for the next 24 hours and simply sat beside his unconscious friend. An aspiring videographer, Lenardon filmed Stoneback’s drifting videos and photos, and helped the driver edit event recaps, rope in sponsors, and constantly work on his car. “Anything he coulddo, he would,” Stoneback says. “He just wanted to make me as successful as possible.” (See another great example of What Male Friendship Really Looks Like.)
With his race approaching on Friday, Stoneback mustered up enough might to drive to the course for prep on Tuesday—but only at the strong insistence of Lenardon’s family, who told him that he needed to practice.
On his trip to the track, however, Stoneback broke down in tears. “There I was crying in my car,” he says. “How was I supposed to go drive this 1,000-horsepower, $100,000 car when my best friend was in a hospital bed dying?”
That week, he drove like “complete crap,” and ran into a mechanical issue that prevented him from practicing before his qualifying round on Friday. He felt hopeless. “It was so emotionally tough.”
Still, Stoneback told himself that “Mark would have just wanted me to rip it that weekend,” and vowed to find inspiration in his ailing friend. He partnered with apparel companies to make T-shirts in Lenardon’s honor, with proceeds going toward his medical costs, and helped spread awareness for the Mark Lenardon Family Fund, which has since raised more than $34,000 in just 18 days.
Stoneback even wrote “I <3 Mark Lenardon” in big, white letters on top of his purple Nissan, the brightest symbol of a season-long dedication to his crew mate.
On Friday, April 10, race day rolled around. Right before he headed to the track, Stoneback stopped by Lenardon’s hospital room to place a bracelet on the teddy bear in his bed.
“I told Mark, ‘I know you’re with us,’” Stoneback says. “And he was.”
Despite his lack of practice, Stoneback qualified 14th out of 40 pro drifters—the best he’s ever placed in Formula Drift. The next day, he won his first tandem battle and moved on to the top 16. Although he lost in that round to the drifter who ended up winning the whole competition, Stoneback is proud of his performance—and knows Lenardon helped give him an extra push.
“When you dedicate a performance to someone, you attack it with double the amount of energy and power,” Stoneback says. “You act as though that person is by your side. It gives you a drive you never thought you had.”
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Lenardon passed away on April 14, from injuries sustained during the motorcycle accident. He was just 26, but “he had already touched everyone in the drifting community,” Stoneback says.
As for what his best friend taught him most, Stoneback singles out Lenardon’s unstoppable drive. “He always tried to be the best at he wanted to do, and he made himself better. His videos will always be here. His photos will always be here. But the way he was so passionate is how I’m going to remember him. Now I’m going to apply that in my life.”