Caesar Bacarella nearly didn't make it to Daytona International Speedway to race this weekend. He didn't know if his heart was in it.
The 42-year-old father of twin 8-year-old girls from Parkland, Florida, learned Thursday that three friends had been among the 17 killed Wednesday in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in his hometown.
About halfway into his three-hour drive to the track Thursday, he learned of reports of a shooting at his kids' private school, so he turned around to head back to Parkland. About 45 minutes later, he learned the reports were false, so he decided to return up I-95 to Daytona and continue with his plans to race. He left Saturday night to head home after a career-best 13th-place finish in the Xfinity Series season opener.
"It was very emotional [all weekend]," Bacarella said. "Knowing three kids that passed away, I cried on Thursday. When you first start to hear it, it freaked me out as a father. You start getting phone calls and text messages [on Wednesday] on who was hurt. It's the worst experience for a parent -- you see all the ambulances; you see all the kids crying.
"Parkland is a very tight community. ... It's gut-wrenching. It's very surreal when people think it's not going to happen in that community and it does."
A New Jersey native, Bacarella has lived in Parkland for years. He races sports cars in the Pirelli World Challenge and also races Ferrari GT3s. Bacarella has only recently started racing in NASCAR, having competed at Phoenix and Homestead last year. He did not finish better than 30th in his first two starts but stayed out of trouble for the career day driving for car owner B.J. McLeod.
He said the race allowed him to forget about reality.
"It crossed my mind not coming," Bacarella said. "But I figured, when I get to the racetrack, this is kind of a Zen place when you're in a race car. You forget about the world. ... When you're alone, you start bawling because you think of your kids and what happened.
"When you get in the car, your mind goes blank and you concentrate on what you have to do."
He has watched videos of the shooting so he could see the reality of the situation. He hopes to send his kids back to school Tuesday.
"They're young, but they're questioning the situation," Bacarella said about the impact on his kids. "They already know what happened. Immediately we told them, sat them down and told them what was happening in the world and what to expect."
Bacarella said his sponsor, Alpha Prime, planned to donate to the victim fund.
"This has to stop," Bacarella said. "It's out of control. ... When you drop off your kids, you don't want to think, 'What if?' Your home is your sanctuary, your church is a sanctuary and school is a sanctuary. Those are the safe zones we're supposed to have as human beings."