SOUTHLAKE -- If you were looking for Tommy Saunders, you could usually find him behind the wheel, autocross racing. And if he wasn't there, he was with his friends and family, especially his daughters.

Those are the people who now don't know what they'll do without him.

An investigation is underway after Saunders, 62, died in a fall from a 12th floor balcony at a Florida hotel. He was chaperoning his daughter and a group of her friends for spring break in Panama City Beach.

'I'm really going to miss him,' Greg Piper said.

He was Saunders' roommate for more than a decade. He was there through his friend's career as a pilot for American Airlines.

Peter Fehn watched as Saunders' love of amateur racing won him national titles year after year, and he got to share the sport with youngest daughter, Rachel.

'He was in the zone,' Fehn said. 'If I was in a plane going down, I'd want him driving!'

According to the Sports Car Club of America, Saunders was a 12-time SCCA Solo National Champion, the 2006 Driver of Eminence award winner, and the 2008 recipient of the Roger Johnson Spirit of the Sport Award.

Last year, both Fehn and Piper helped after Saunders had a stroke. Since then, he's been on medical leave from American, regaining strength and balance.

Feeling good, Saunders agreed to chaperone Rachel and her friends on spring break. Wednesday morning on their hotel balcony, friends think he suffered a medical emergency.

'From the video surveillance, they saw him stand up and it looked like either he leaned against the wall or fell against the wall,' Piper said. 'But then he fell over the side of the balcony.'

They hate that his youngest was there, but there is comfort from how he and his daughter spoke with each other.

'Every time they talked on the phone and they got off the phone, it was always 'magic string,'' Piper said. 'No matter where he was in the world, they were always connected.'

A connection they'll count on even more, now.

Authorities in Florida are expected to complete Saunders' autopsy in the coming days.


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