Christine Deuker was devastated when her son Joseph died after a sudden, undiagnosed illness in July, 2001. Joe was a smart, curious young man who loved to read. He played the trombone in the school marching band. He wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. Joe was 18 years old when the illness became too much, and he took his life.
There were terrible, dark days ahead for Christine. At times, she wondered, why go on? She had two other wonderful children whom she loved very much. After being divorced, she even found her soul mate in her kind and gentle husband Steve. But losing Joe was like falling through a cold black hole with no bottom. “The loss of Joe left us in devastating shock,” said Steve Deuker. “Life went on day after day, much of it unmemorable today.”
Steve was a lifelong racing fan who had saved money from every two-bit job he could find to race open wheel cars at dirt tracks in Arizona. He introduced Christine to NASCAR. Witnessing her fiancé’s passion for NASCAR, watching his face brighten when recounting racing memories, she was completely open to the sport. She wanted to investigate and experience what made Steve so happy. She quickly became a fan. Then she lost Joe.
The following NASCAR season, Ryan Newman appeared as a rookie on the NASCAR scene. Christine immediately noticed him. She’s a well-educated high school social studies teacher who observes people to understand them and to try to make sense of the world. Watching Ryan Newman in interviews, she noticed stunning similarities between the then-21 year old driver and her departed son.
There were obvious shared physical characteristics – eyes, eyebrows, hair, and the hunched-up shoulders. Somber faces that would break into an impish smile. Two shy, patient and introspective young men who’d surprise you with their dry sense of humor. But it was recognizing eerily similar mannerisms connecting Joe and Ryan that drove Christine to think about the new NASCAR driver more and more. When listening to a difficult question he didn’t want to hear, Ryan was a spitting image of Joe. Both men would cast their eyes down, lost in thought. They’d stammer when searching for a specific word. That’s the sign of a person with much more going on inside than shows outside, Christine realized. Just like Joe. She constantly thought about Ryan Newman and was riveted to NASCAR on TV for a chance to see him.
Through preordained fate or dumb luck or random events or however you make sense of the world, Christine would soon meet Ryan. A NASCAR fan had extra tickets he couldn’t use. He wanted his coveted passes to go to someone who’d genuinely appreciate them. He found out Steve was a big fan and offered Bristol tickets. The Deukers got to Bristol Motor Speedway and heard Ryan would be signing autographs. To Christine, this was more than simple luck. She believed destiny was bringing her to Ryan. When have you ever heard of an impossible-to-score Bristol ticket offered by a total stranger to someone who hadn’t even asked?
In meeting Ryan, Christine’s welled-up feelings were confirmed. “His eyes, his smile, his halting speech, how he used his hands when talking, it was like watching my son,” Christine said. Afterwards, she broke down for half an hour.
Christine was relieved to share common interests and values with the Newmans. Ryan and his wife Krissie rescue dogs. Christine volunteers for the humane society in Minneapolis. Ryan, a graduate of Perdue University, established a scholarship for students and talks about the value of education. She is a teacher.
Dealing with their grief, the Deukers began to lose themselves in Ryan Newman and NASCAR. “Ryan, in just being himself, offered us a glimpse of the face of the son we had lost,” Steve said. “If you’ve ever had a dream where you ‘saw’ someone you missed badly, when you wake up and reality hits, you’re saddened the person is not there. But you still feel good that you got to see him in your mind. That’s what it is like. To us, Ryan just being himself was helping us to heal and continue to claw forward.”
In grief counseling, Christine was advised to keep her mind occupied. When she wasn’t preparing school lessons or in front of her classes, the growing preoccupation with Ryan Newman helped her generate positive thoughts. During the week, school kept Christine busy; on weekends, watching Ryan compete in NASCAR and journaling about it eased her grief.
“The whole race weekend helped carry me though,” she said. “It would start with qualifying, right through to Victory Lane on Sunday. NASCAR was like a train that pulled me through the year. I got on the Ryan Newman Express. I learned how to start having fun again.”
As Steve explains it, “There will always be a hole in our life. We’re just learning to not step in it as much.”
Steve heard the NASCAR Hall of Fame was offering bricks for sale and allowing fans to inscribe a personal message. He bought one and had it etched with a tribute to Ryan, reading:
TO RYAN NEWMAN:
REFLECTS A SOUL
U NEVER MET. IN
YOU WE SEE OUR
SON, JOSEPH HELD
One day, when listening to an interview on Sirius Radio about the progress of the coming NASCAR Hall of Fame, Steve nearly crashed his car. The Hall’s director, Winston Kelley, mentioned a poignant brick memorializing a boy with a connection to Ryan Newman.
“I was shocked Winston had not only seen what we had written, much less remembered it to share in an interview,” Steve said. “I was very touched and thankful.”
He wrote to Kelley with the full story behind the brick. He wanted people to understand how Ryan had help make a difference. He also wanted to assist the Hall of Fame. “I thought our story might be used to raise more funds than we could send ourselves. Years from now, no matter how many races Ryan wins, he will always be our driver, based on the ladder he unknowingly offered so we could climb back to the life we’re now living. Although Joe will never be forgotten, we’re able to smile again.”
The note to the Hall of Fame was forwarded to Newman. The story of Joe Deuker moved him deeply. He printed the email, and placed it on his desk at his home in Indiana.
“I was completely touched, and knew I’d want to write back to tell Steve and Christine,” Newman said. “Adversity is a part of every day life. The difference is how you deal with it. This was obviously a very tough situation of unfathomable grief. It was gratifying to be able to help, even without knowing it. In my mind, it’s the ultimate fan tribute. I’m just myself, and they applauded me for that. This is way more than just a brick to me. It’s how two people overcame a great challenge, and I’m honored to be even a small part of that.”
After Newman responded, the NASCAR Hall of Fame arranged for the Deukers to meet him prior to the Daytona 500, a race he’d won the previous season.
It would be a chance for Christine to thank Ryan for his part in her recovery, diverting her mind from the destructive thoughts preventing a person from healing. Yet Christine also realized some people hearing her story might consider her unbalanced. She was concerned about meeting with Ryan. What if he thought she was a stalker?
“We were worried Ryan might feel this was a bit creepy. You lose someone you love and start creating that person in someone else. I could see how anyone might think, ‘This woman is out her mind with grief.’ But I know Ryan is different than my son. Joe was not a racer or mechanical. He loves music. He grew up under different circumstances. Even with their stark similarities, I focused on their differences so I wouldn’t make Ryan out to be Joe. He’s not Joe. But Joe’s spirit is recognizable in Ryan.”
The Deukers were to meet Ryan on February 14. As part of a “thank you,” they made a Valentine’s Day box for Ryan and Krissie. Joe knew which cars Ryan and Krissie drove and scoured the internet to find “his and her” die cast cars – a red 1957 Thunderbird and 1949 Jaguar XK120. The cars went in a glass case Steve and his daughter built. Steve drove around Minneapolis to locate a pet store that had heart-shaped Halloween treats for each of the Newman’s dogs – Digger, Socks, Harley and Mopar.
The morning of the face-to-face with Newman at Daytona, Christine again grew worried she might fall apart. “But then this opportunity to say thanks would pass me by,” she said. Christine remembered pulling herself together in front of her students when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV and again on September 11, 2001.
With gifts in hand, she was ready to talk about Joe in an informal and positive context. “This will not be a tragedy that happened, and the rest of life is hopeless,’” she said.
An hour before the scheduled meeting, Newman and his new teammate (and team owner) Tony Stewart were running practice laps on the track’s high banks. Stewart was drafting behind Newman when his teammate’s Chevy veered right into a skid. He’d blown a tire. Stewart mashed the brakes, but he was doomed. His car plowed into Newman’s. Both were totaled. The drivers would have to go to backup cars in the Daytona 500.
Christine saw the wreck unfold on a TV hanging from the ceiling in the media center. All she could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” She and Steve wondered if Ryan would have to skip their meeting. It would be completely understandable. Teammates had just wrecked before the biggest race of the year. They needed to huddle with their crews and devise a strategy for furiously preparing back-up cars. But Newman, looking as relaxed as if he’d stepped off a cruise ship, showed up at the U.S. Army hauler not a minute late, eager to meet the Deukers. He put what happened on the track completely aside. He was easy-going and affable. His regular-guy manner and casual sincerity reinforced everything Christine had been feeling about the kindred spirits who had never met – her dearly departed son and special NASCAR driver.
Ryan got a kick out of the dog treats and vintage cars. News photographers snapped photos. Sirius Radio was on air asking about the brick. Local newspaper scribes were thrusting tape recorders under her chin. So many things were happening. Ryan stood with her and Steve for all of it. They embraced and said goodbye. The meeting had passed in a blur. Christine felt relief and joy and sadness and the lightness of a burden removed. She sat on a tire next to the Army hauler and had a good cry.
Before we parted ways after an extraordinary day at the race track, Christine said, “Ryan was totally gracious; an every day guy. Just ‘Newman being Newman,’ as they say. He was what I expected – low-key but forthright, plain spoken in a simple Midwestern way. A lot like Joe was. It’s a massively comforting thing to see my son’s qualities out there. They haven’t disappeared from the face of the earth. I won’t look at pictures of Joe much any more. I don’t have to. I see him alive in Ryan.”
Reprinted with permission from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010).