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Santa Rosa race-car crash victim remembered as beloved, well-mannered basketball ace

Classmates and friends gather around a memorial during candlelight vigil held for Marcus Johnson at Rincon Valley Middle School on on Sunday, March, 17, 2013

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ PD
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 9:43 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 9:43 a.m.

A 14-year-old Santa Rosa middle school student who was killed at the Marysville Speedway when his cousin's car flew off the track was an avid basketball player and part of an extended racing family.

Marcus Johnson was a powerhouse on the eighth-grade basketball team at Rincon Valley Middle School and known for working hard on the court and in the classroom, Principal Matthew Marshall said.

He was honored Sunday evening at a vigil held at the school.

"His two big passions were basketball and racing. It's just terribly tragic," Marshall said.

Johnson had been watching his cousin, Chase Johnson, 17, of Penngrove do warm-up laps at the Marysville Speedway at about 6 p.m. Saturday when his cousin's winged sprint car left the track, according to the Yuba County Sheriff's Department.

Chase Johnson's car was entering its first turn on the quarter-mile banked clay oval when the car instead careened forward, crashing into a concrete barrier where Marcus Johnson and another bystander, Dale Richard Wondergem Jr., 68, of Grass Valley, had been sitting, according to the Sheriff's Department and witness accounts.

Wondergem died at the scene. Marcus Johnson died at Rideout Hospital in Marysville, sheriff's officials said.

"Their whole world is shattered, and they're just great people," said Marshall of Marcus' parents, Rob and Gina Johnson.

Johnson's death also rocked his school, where about 200 people gathered in the courtyard at the Badger Road campus with candles, posters and memories. Teens stood arm-in-arm. Parents hugged children close.

The group stood in near silence as small groups walked up to an array of photographs, flowers, balloons, candles and a basketball gathered on a table.

A poster read: "We love you No. 18," referring to Johnson's number on the team.

The quiet was broken when Johnson's family arrived, surrounding his parents and his younger brother, Hayden, a fourth-grader. As they walked up to the group, Marcus' mother, Gina, sobbed and was quickly embraced by many.

Marshall, the principal, called everyone to surround the memorial table and share memories. Children and adults told stories about how Johnson carried books for a friend between classes, had a constant smile and effortlessly set an example when leaving a classroom by always saying goodbye and thanking the teacher by name.

"Marcus was an incredibly well-loved young man," Marshall said to the group, asking that they live by his example. "He was honest, caring and genuine."

The vigil followed an impromptu ceremony earlier in the day of about 40 students, led by his friends from the basketball team. The teens gathered with about a dozen adults mid-day at Rincon Valley Community Park and wrote notes and messages on balloons they released in honor of their friend. The teens wrote messages on the balloons or tied notes to the strings.

"I said, you were always fun to be around and you were always fun to play basketball with," said Alex Eagle, 13, one of Marcus Johnson's closest friends and son of Rincon Valley Middle School teacher and basketball coach Patrick Eagle. "He was never mean."

They released the balloons at 2:24 p.m. to symbolize Marcus Johnson's love of basketball and, in particular, basketball player Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, who wears the number 24 jersey.

Marcus Johnson was remarkably polite and respectful, and a dream to coach, Eagle said.

"He was always a team player, very coachable. He listened and would always try to be doing the right thing," Eagle said.

He loved sprint car racing, and was an integral part of a family racing tradition with strong ties to the Petaluma Speedway.

On Saturday, Marcus Johnson was at the California Sprint Car Civil War Series on the opening day of the Marysville Speedway season.

Chase Johnson and five or six other drivers were doing "hot laps" as a warm-up before the start of a race when his car careened off the track.

Chase Johnson, Marcus' cousin, is a senior at Petaluma High School and a fourth-generation race car driver. He has been racing for three years at the Petaluma Speedway, where he has won multiple races and was last year's series champion. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were also champion drivers in Petaluma, where the family owns a muffler shop, said Ron Lingron, the track announcer at Petaluma Speedway.

"They're the first family of the Petaluma Speedway," Lingron said Sunday. "There's not a better kid you're going to find in the racing community than Chase Johnson. To have something like this put around his neck is a tragedy."

Wondergem owned one of the other race cars, sheriff's officials said.

The Sheriff's Department is investigating whether Marcus Johnson should have been present in the pit area where crew members gather. As part of the review, they will determine whether he was an official member of Chase Johnson's "pit crew." Chase Johnson's website lists the younger cousin as a member of the crew.

This story includes information from the Associated Press.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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