Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ryan's Hope

Ryan’s Hope

            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:


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).

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Nursing Junior to a Championship

Some people live to save the world.
            Barbie Robbins lives for Dale Earnhardt Jr. 
            Once time, Junior wrecked and was shaken up.  Barbie, who was at home, thousands of miles from the race, put on a nurse’s outfit.  She wanted to channel healing vibes to her number-one driver.  
Every morning, the 49-year-old Californian wakes up underneath a collage of Dale Jr. photographs pasted above her bed.  Before shedding her No. 88 pajamas, she bee-lines to the computer to vote for her man in the NASCAR Most Popular Driver contest.  She punches up her MySpace page, checks the guest book for new NASCAR friends and gazes at the latest Dale Jr. photos posted.  In one shot, the driver is sleeping peacefully in his race car.  Thought bubbles, like those in cartoons, rise from his head to a superimposed cloud framing Barbie’s smiling face.  A photo of Dale’s car speeding past the start-finish line has the caption, “Junior looks at Barbie.”  A shot showing Junior with chin on clenched fist, deep in thought, is captioned, “Hmmm…should I call Barbie?”  A photo of Junior appearing surprised is tagged, “Is that Barbie?”  In another one, NASCAR’s biggest star is with fellow driver Tony Stewart who exclaims “Look Dale, there she is again.  I think Barbie is stalking you!”
Barbie sends daily notes on the life and times of Dale Jr. to dozens of friends met on the web.  On race day, members of the virtual club sit with their laptops in front of the TV telecast, typing bulletins to one another.  If Junior is rammed by another driver, Barbie will fire off sailor-worthy cusses.  She’s known online, and among many in the physical world, as “Junior’s Baby 88 Girl.”  Some in her San Diego neighborhood call her “NASCAR Chick.” 
Most days, she puts on a Dale Jr. t-shirt, which had been ironed and carefully set out the night before.  She selects a Dale Jr. hat.  There’s a set rotation – on Sunday night, shirts and hats are matched to days of the week.  She has been unable to find Junior Under ‘Roos and will take any leads offered.  At the corner store in her San Diego neighborhood, the counterman catches a glance of her NASCAR garb and long Stevie Wonder-style braids and invariably shouts, “Hey, NASCAR Chick!” 
            Barbie Robbins, formerly of Chicago, Illinois and a nondescript civilian life, now of San Diego, California and a minor celebrity in her neighborhood and Auto Club Speedway 104 miles due north, became Junior’s Baby 88 Girl after seeing the driver in a TV interview.  The attraction was mystical and instantaneous.  The Sicilians, as any fan of “The Godfather” knows, have a term for such otherworldly instant connections: “The Thunderbolt.” The thunderbolt is deeper and more complex than what Americans might call “love at first sight.”  This is not puppy dogs and floating hearts.  The thunderbolt is serious, life-altering destiny not to be messed with. 
In Sicily, the Thunderbolt is called, “lu lampu.”  
In San Diego, Barbie Robbins said to the TV screen, “Damn, he fine!” 
The hour she first believed, she watched Dale Junior answer the reporter’s questions, slightly impatient, index finger prone to reach up and clean his ear, a plain spoken North Carolina boy saying “y’all” and “ain’t” whenever he darn well pleased, a man of unkempt rugged good looks who’d rather be hunting or fishing than facing questions about the so-called Earnhardt family legacy.  Barbie saw beautiful unvarnished authenticity in a glossed-up world populated with too many pretty boys, and was zapped by the thunderbolt.  She started tuning to NASCAR races to see the free-spirited cowboy ride. He was courageous and could drive that car.  He had his own chocolate bar.  She hates chocolate.  It was the sweetest candy she’d ever tasted. 
Junior’s Baby 88 Girl is never to be bothered on Sunday even during family emergencies, always eager to display the Dale Junior tattoo covering one shoulder blade and to speak wistfully about the “Junior Nation” one coming to the other.   She never shies from a chance to promote the individual who is the object of many of her waking thoughts and desires.  And some while she’s asleep. Ask Barbie about her life, and she’ll flatly tell you, “It’s all about Junior!”  There’s a twinkle in her lagoon-green eyes, and she’s not joking.
            Junior’s Baby 88 Girl wasn’t the kind of woman to go trawling for celebrities occupying a central position in her life. It was out of character for her to feel an intimate connection to any pop culture icon – those distant figures of tabloid renown captured and co-oped by the media to sate the public’s insatiable appetite for unconsummated fantasy, tart gossip and computer wallpaper.  The possibility of Barbie connecting with a NASCAR driver was more remote.  It wasn’t because most African American women in Southern California have little in common with the front men of a sport rooted in Carolina moonshine.  It’s just that while Barbie had watched Indy Car with cousins, she wasn’t much of a race fan.  She wasn’t opposed to it.  Racing was cool, but there were so many other things to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Beside, she actually prefers connecting with people personally in the flesh, over a Bud Light and a Newport, rather than plumbing the lives of public figures through supermarket checkout magazines.  Then came the lu lampu.   She didn’t plan it.  No one asks for the thunderbolt.  Now there’s an unmistakable connection, a spooky empathy at play.  
“When Dale Junior does an interview, and I see he’s sad, it makes me sad,” Barbie said.  “I will pick up on his moods and will really feel the same way.” 
After Dale Jr. left the team formed by his father – which after Senior’s passing was run by his step mother Teresa – to join the NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Barbie noticed the driver was relaxed, freed from the politics and pressure of the family business.  The days following his shocking move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at a new team brought relief to the driver and his biggest fan. 
“Watching Junior talking about his new team in the press conference, you could just see how happy and excited he was.  And so was I.”  As she likes to say in her emails, “Life is Gr88t!!!!”
            Even cocooned in her car on the freeways of California, Junior Baby 88 Girl is identified by a batch of Dale Jr. bumper stickers drawing odd looks.   “Sometimes on the highway, a driver will pull alongside.  He’s seen my Dale Jr. stickers.  The look on his face, says, ‘That is not her car.’  Yes, it’s my car, and I’m a NASCAR fan!  I’m a redneck with a permanent tan!  But when I get to the track, I’m just another race fan, fitting right in.  I’m probably the most crazy fan, like an Energizer bunny but doing all I can to not jump over that fence and grab onto Dale Jr.’s car.  But I’m still just a fan.  Every other NASCAR fan I’ve met has been awesome.  They don’t care if I’m black, pink or orangeI’m not into black or white.  I’m into Green.  Number 88 green!  That’s all that matters” 
Getting close to the driver of the number 88 green car is the weekend’s main goal.  “I have my Junior Station set up where I lay out my hoochie outfits, oops, I mean respectful, family friendly NASCAR-themed clothing,” she says.  To look her best, Junior’s Baby 88 Girl sits for eight hours to get her hair specially braided.  Getting ready for the drive north, she cranks up Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Workout.” Grilled foods are wrapped in foil.  The ice chest is filled with Bud Light.  Most of the beer will come back, since NASCAR fans offer theirs to her all weekend. “NASCAR tailgating rocks,” she said.  “Oh my god, two times a year, drinking beer at 8 a.m., it’s the only way to party.  Those other so called big sports events have nada on NASCAR.”
She loves seeing the new crop of Dale Junior t-shirts and having her picture taken in his colors.  She once bought a bunch of new tees in the parking lot and began dancing for fans snapping her picture.  She didn’t know it, but the goods were illegal knock-offs.  The police snuck up and busted the counterfeiter.  Nearby at her SUV, Junior’s Baby 88 Girl was posing in her new wares.   She explained it was her car, she bought the shirts not to sell but for herself as she is the biggest Junior fan.  She said the photos were not to encourage the sale of illegal merchandise but to promote her favorite driver.  No, she was not being compensated.  Yes, she does this at all the races.  Yes, OK, it’s a little over the top.  No, she’s not kidding about all this. 
The cops shook their heads and pulled away.
She’s found a niche, making dozens of friends at the track, on a first name basis with Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker, a familiar face to some of the team crews.  Yet still feels on the outside, nose pressed against the glass.  Myriad web sites, fan magazines, TV and satellite radio coverage bring fans their NASCAR fix whenever they want.  But not all the time, any time.  Life beckons.  There’s a job to go to, assignments looming, appointments to make, groceries to buy, a boy to raise.  Thankfully, her son drinks the NASCAR Kool-Aid, too, and they’ve not missed a single race at Auto Club Speedway since 1998.  Pit passes bring them close to the drivers.  At one race, Junior nearly bumped into them before the drivers’ introductions. 
“I reached out and touched Junior for a hot second, rubbed his arm, spoke to him,” she said.  “I said, ‘I want a hug,’ just to let him know, ‘Dude, I love ya, I’m always loyal, dedicated and right there with ya.’  His smile was priceless.”  Telling this story, her eyes filled with tears.
Try to squeeze Peyton Manning’s shoulder before a game.  You’ll be handcuffed and thrown in jail.  The chance to get up close is what Junior’s Baby 88 Girl likes most about the sport.  But as near as she can get to the drivers, it’s only twice a year.  When race weekends start, and she’s at work punching information into the computer, there’s no way to know what’s going on in the race shop and at the track.  The data entry position is a job, not a career.  Her dream is employment at NASCAR, winding up on the inside, a life with no barriers to knowing what’s happening with Dale Junior exactly when it’s happening.   She brings her resume to each race she attends.  You never know.
At work cut off from NASCAR on a Friday afternoon can make a fan like Barbie very frustrated.  She sometimes has a premonition, like before the race at Talladega.  She felt something wrong and snuck a peak at the internet.  Dale had blown a tire during a practice run and crashed.  A feeling of dread washed over her.  
The online NASCAR network kicked into gear.  Friends with jobs allowing them to follow NASCAR on SPEED or Sirius sent news.  Junior was fine – checked out in the infield care center and released, walking to the garage to set up the backup car. 
This time, Barbie could leave the nurse’s outfit in the closet.

Reprinted with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Summit of Fandom


             The loyalty of NASCAR fans to their favorite drivers and sport, and the measures they’ll take to prove it, is legendary.

There’s the iconic gentleman whose photo of the number “3” manscaped into his prodigious hairy back lives in internet infamy.  There’s the ambitious farmer in Ohio who, like Michaelangelo on a Yardman tractor, marvelously groomed green acres into an expansive tribute to Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 car (

You could do a coffee-table book just showing the tattoos.  All noteworthy examples of fan devotion; but extreme outliers boldly venturing where none have gone before have a new mountain to scale. A mild-mannered gent by the name of Patrick Hickey upped the ante to higher levels. His was a feat of extreme danger and borderline lunacy. Hickey, who has a deathly, debilitating fear of heights, took a NASCAR flag to the top of the world – the summit of Mt. Everest. 

Adding to this incredible accomplishment, the mountain climber, registered nurse, nursing professor at University of South Carolina, managed to time it for May 24, matching the number of his favorite driver, Jeff Gordon. When Hickey stood on the roof of the planet, he had completed a dangerous eight-year quest to scale the “Seven Summits of the World” – the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He joined an elite group of one of less than 150 people in history who have attained this “Holy Grail” in mountaineering. “The Seven Summits was the fulfillment of a quest so wild and fanciful, few have ever dreamed it, and fewer have experienced it,” Hickey said.

As he charted the course for conquering the final – and most dangerous – summit Hickey wasn’t planning on taking a piece of NASCAR with him. As with so many things that go down in this sport, the fans had a say. In a blog tapped out during 64 days on Everest, Hickey wrote he could deal with the cold, isolation and constant danger. But there was one very distressing, depressing thing about the trip. He was cut off from NASCAR.  What was happening with Jeff Gordon, Hickey wondered? Soon, online updates from strangers in 20 different countries began pouring in.

“All kinds of hits came in from so many NASCAR fans. They were giving race results, points updates, and news like Dale Jr. leaving DEI,” Hickey said. “Co-workers were amazed to learn I was a NASCAR fan, when I had no idea they were fans, too. Of course, the best part was being up on the mountain and hearing Jeff was doing so well on the track.”  

Hickey noticed something else: NASCAR fans were giving generously to The Summit Scholarship he had created to promote nursing amid the growing shortage and to support the education of nursing students at USC.  The goal was to raise $29,035 – or a buck for every foot of altitude of Mt. Everest.  (Donations can still be made at

One blog reader, Elizabeth Henry, is also tight with Kristin Nave of NASCAR Corporate Events.  Henry was following Hickey’s fascination with Jeff Gordon, and she contacted Nave to see if NASCAR could send something to Pat.  Presto, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series flag was heading from Daytona Beach to base camp at Mt. Everest.  Eight days later – and two before his climb – the flag arrived on a U.S. MedVac helicopter, which swooped in to take away two sick climbers. 

Up on the summit, completing the most challenging physical task on the planet, Hickey quickly removed his insulated mittens, grabbed the NASCAR flag and posed for a photo.  He had to be fast – after 30 seconds, frostbite will set it at temperatures reaching 40 degrees below zero and winds gusting to 125 mph. Hickey had serious business to attend to as well.  Stowed in his backpack were the ashes of his dear friend, Sean Egan, who had perished on Everest in 2005.  Since 1921, the mountain has been climbed by more than 2,200 people.  More than 190 have lost their lives – frightening odds for not making it down.  Hickey would worry about that soon.  For now, he opened the urn and released Egan’s ashes high into the raging winds and across the wide expanse of mountains.

While Hickey downplays the danger associated with the climb, it is wickedly perilous.  The mountain’s top 3,000 feet is considered “the Death Zone.”  The digestive system of climbers starts to shut down just when their bodies need nourishment the most.  There is increased risk of high-altitude cerebral edema, an often fatal swelling of the brain, as well as pulmonary edema, where fluids gathering in the lungs can drown a person.

Basically, the human body is not built to survive such heights. We rapidly deteriorate.

Moving upwards in the Death Zone, on his way to the summit, Hickey had been caught in a violent windstorm.  His legs went numb, and he couldn’t move them.  He luckily spotted his climbing team’s tent and used his arms to pull through the ice to safety.  He could only speak in unintelligible grunts and was unable to offer his comrades any clue about his condition.  Fellow climbers diagnosed advanced hypothermia. Hickey was revived in a tent only three hours before the final climb to the summit. Once there, he lost sight in one eye and had extremely limited vision in the other. 

If you meet Hickey at a race, he looks like any other fan. But don’t let his slight frame and easy smile fool you. He’s a tough, stubborn, experienced mountain climber.  Even so, the elements on Everest are brutal, and at the top of the mountain, Hickey was completely beaten up. He knew making it to the top doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t make it down. He’d heard about the difficulties of the three-day descent – where 80 percent of climbers lose their lives – but would now personally experience the hazards when it was his own depleted body wanting to shut down. More than once he sincerely believed he’d be another well-dressed carcass eternally frozen on the face of Everest.

“Your emotions are riding on the exhilaration of summiting Mt. Everest, which turns to sheer terror when you remember you have to get down,” Hickey recalled. 

Unable to see much, he was confronted with a series of frightening moments that stretched to agonizing days. Deprived of oxygen and woozy, and battling his paralyzing, stomach-turning fear of heights, he had to cross deep crevasses by crawling over aluminum ladders in strong winds. On the verge of complete exhaustion, he fell down.  Instead of tumbling toward Tibet 10,000 feet below or taking a steeper drop into Nepal, 12,000 feet downward, he crashed to stop on a very forgiving part of the trail and was snagged by safety lines preventing a sure death plunge.

“Everest is the ultimate high and the ultimate risk,” Hickey said. You’re not eating or sleeping. You’re not hydrating. Your legs are going rubber. My needle was past the E, and I still had to make it down a vertical ice wall. The steepness of the canyon walls and the radiation of the intense sun reflected off the snow and underlying glacier combine to sap your fluids until your tongue seems glued to the roof of your mouth. I knew I needed lots of water, but every time I swallowed it felt like sharp pieces of glass were tumbling down my throat, so raw from the wind.”

Worse than the severe dehydration was not being able to see. Hickey visualized his wife, Carol, holding in his head her image and the thought of seeing her again.  Virtually blind, freezing to death, and malnourished, he dug deep to find reserves of courage and determination he didn’t know existed.  He kept moving forward, taking one small step, crawling, getting up, then another step, then another.

“With each step, I kept repeating: I’m coming home, I’m coming home,” he said.

Home is where Hickey became a NASCAR fan, but not until he was in his 20’s.  He grew up the eldest of nine on a 100-acre farm in rural Canada.  As a boy, he was plagued by his bad asthma and that fear of heights.  Once he missed dinner because he was stranded in the barn, holding onto a plank in the rafters for dear life.  He felt awkward in school, wearing second-hand clothes and mismatched gloves from a bus depot’s lost-and-found due to the family’s meager finances.  He did poorly in class, his mind wandering to dreams of exotic places far away.  A guidance counselor directed him to study nursing.  He was initially confused and put off; wasn’t that a women’s profession?  But he was a tender, caring soul and realized the possibility of traveling the world, saving lives. A lifelong passion for helping others and visiting strange lands began.  While studying for his advance nursing degree at the University of South Carolina, Pat kept the TV on “for background noise.”  One Sunday the race was on, and he grew interested.

“I got caught up in the soap opera of the sport” he explained. He was entertained by the changing alliances on the track and the simmering grudges in the garage. He was immediately drawn to Jeff Gordon.  He saw an admirable leader who remained positive no matter the present circumstances, qualities which would preserve his own life climbing on several continents.  He liked that Jeff was a staunch competitor, always quick to praise unsung team members, which would be his philosophy on hospital trauma teams and developing new nurses.  He was impressed that Gordon was an ambassador for goodwill in channeling millions of dollars for the needy through the Jeff Gordon Foundation.  After all, Hickey’s own desire to help others inspired him to become a nurse and then to train and mentor future nurses as a university professor, nursing advocate, spokesperson and creator of the Summit Scholarship.

Hickey’s first Sprint Cup Series race was at Darlington Raceway in 2006.  He sat three rows from the track, riveted by the thundering procession, aiming his mobile phone at the passing rush of cars.  A year later, as he was climbing to the “roof of the world” and tackling the seventh and final summit, Jeff Gordon was racing at that same Darlington track.  Before heading to Nepal, Hickey had told his good friend Judy Barr, a Tony Stewart fanatic working at the University of South Carolina, “If Jeff Gordon wins at Darlington, I want Jeff to know somebody will be smiling on top of the world.” 

“The whole time I was at Darlington, I kept thinking about Pat’s words,” Barr said.  “When I climbed to the very last row in the stands for the race, I thought of Pat climbing.  I was right in front of Jeff's pit box.  Throughout the race, Jeff had water issues.  There was just no way he was going to win the race, let alone finish.  Steam was pouring from the engine.  When Jeff ended up winning, even he said he had no idea how the engine held up.  Drivers talk all the time about the ‘Racing Gods.’  The way Pat’s climb and Jeff’s win worked out, I like to think the Racing Gods were looking down on both of them that weekend.”

Word about Gordon’s win got to Hickey on the mountain, and he was naturally elated.

After hearing Hickey’s Everest tale and Seven Summits accomplishment, NASCAR helped arrange for him to attend the Sprint Cup Series race in Charlotte in October 2007.  At the prerace ceremony on pit road, he presented the NASCAR flag he took to the top to NASCAR President Mike Helton.  It will reside in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte when the facility opens in 2010.

Pat finally got to meet Gordon prior to the race.  The two world-class athletes who tempt fate in an often hostile and unpredictable environment stood in the narrow hallway of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet hauler.  Hickey peppered Gordon with questions about maneuvering a stock car around at track at 180 mph inches from good friends and respected rivals.  Gordon wanted none of that.  He was hitting Hickey with questions on making it up – and then down – the treacherous ice and howling-winds of a mountain so breathtakingly majestic and satanically cruel at the same time.  Hickey pulled from his backpack a rock retrieved from the top of the world and handed the unique keepsake to his NASCAR hero.  The race car driver said to the mountain climber, “Some people question what I do.  But I think you’re the crazy one here.”

Hickey keeps another rock from the top of Mt. Everest in his office desk at the University.  “I want to remind myself of the great potential we have within us to do anything we put our minds to, and also the great responsibility I have to find that potential in my students,” he said. “Each of us has a sense of adventure within us.  Mine are just more noticeable because they’re more extreme.  For some, the adventure can be to climb a mountain, run a marathon, learn a new language, travel to a foreign country, or seek a more challenging job or position within an organization.  We all have the potential to do better in our lives.  I hope my Seven Summits helps show that.”

The next time you’re confronted with a daunting, seemingly impossible task, maybe you’ll remember fellow NASCAR fan Patrick Hickey.  Asthmatic and afraid of heights, Pat went to the highest, thinnest air on earth.  He ventured far outside of his comfort zone, testing his limits way beyond reason, and discovering what he’s truly capable of: Anything.

It was Pat’s idea to bring the banner of his favorite sport to the top of Mt. Everest.  But if NASCAR had its choice for a flag bearer, there would be no better selection than Dr. Patrick Hickey, a giving man whose deep, dark fears could have robbed his full potential.  Pat did what few attempt.  He got down on his hands and knees, and he crawled right over those demons.


For more stories like this, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans is available online.

Friday, October 17, 2014

There’s Nothing Flat About Tire Man

Throughout history, a host of useful and important inventions have come from unplanned accidents.
In China 2,000 years ago, a cook mixed charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter.  The concoction exploded in vivid colors.  Fireworks were invented, and life immediately got better for teenage boys.
In 1879, a researcher spilled a chemical on his hand.  He went off to lunch, forgetting to wash his hands.  The bread he munched on tasted unusually sweet.  The world would get its first artificial sweetener, saccharin.
Penicillin was discovered by chance in 1928 when a British scientist was experimenting with bacteria in petri dishes.
            And so it was for Chris MacNicol, who for five dollars purchased Joe Nemechek’s right front qualifying Goodyear tire at the 2004 Daytona 500.  The tire was heavy.   MacNicol put it down.  Looking at that wheel, he had an epiphany.  Wearing only shorts, he sat in it.  When he got up, the tire stuck.  Hilarity ensued.  Fans gathered around.  Photos were taken, autographs signed.  Tire Man was born.
Most celebrities need a build up to develop their base.  It’s usually gradual. The biggest stars of modern times, The Beatles, played for years in relative obscurity before the madness began.  Tire Man, however, happened instantly.  Fans saw the buff dude in the Goodyear Eagle and frayed straw hat and instinctively called out, “Tire Man!”  He was an immediate Pied Piper for the enthusiastic NASCAR masses, who formed a bellowing impromptu circle in the infield.  A Florida state trooper was called in to investigate the ruckus.  She approached the well-built young man mugging for the cameras in a role he’d been waiting his whole life to fill. 
Picture the scene: female state trooper in her snappy uniform, addressing 30-year-old Chris MacNicol, ostensibly naked, save a race car wheel.
“Please tell me you have something on under that tire,” the officer said.
“Why don’t you look?” Tire Man suggested.
The cop was flustered and embarrassed.  Here was this good-looking muscular guy, could have been a Chippendale’s dancer, his formidable, well-rounded pecs dancing a happy jiggle when he laughed.  They didn’t cover this in the training academy.
            Tire Man respects the law.  His dad is a retired cop.  He wasn’t about to let the trooper lose face, particularly in front of dozens of preening fans awaiting the outcome of this peculiar showdown.  He reached into the Goodyear.  A hush settled over the crowd.  He yanked up his shorts.  Major cheers.
The state trooper tipped her cap and moved on, utterly relieved with the quick and suitable ending, escaping the awkwardness of hauling in a guy, for what?  Wearing nothing but a Goodyear?  Was she supposed to impound the tire and take it back to the NASCR R&D Center for inspection?
On the day Tire Man was born, so many fans wanted their photos taken, it took Tire Man and his dad six hours to walk from turn four to their campsite in turn one.  Chris sensed what Superman felt wearing that cape. He innately knew he’d be inside this tire at other tracks…especially his beloved Talladega Superspeedway.
“He put on that tire, and the whole thing was absolutely immediately hilarious,” said his dad, Bruce MacNicol. “It was the best scene at any sporting event I’ve ever seen.  All the women wanted to know what he had on underneath.  Chris said, ‘an inner liner.’ A few of the ladies got a little risqué, but it was all in good fun.”
Tire Man’s supportive wife wasn’t there, and maybe that was a good thing.  “As lucky as I may be to be married to the guy, I have not yet ventured to the track to see him wearing the tire ‘live,’ though he has put it on at home and modeled it for me,” Tonya said.  “The funniest part is seeing pictures of Chris, and in the background there’s a large crowd taking even more pictures…and then there’s the line of people waiting to meet him.  Just amazing!”
Tonya and Chris met in college, where he was pursuing his degree as an exercise physiologist.  Chris had back problems, and took to swimming.  Tonya was a life guard, and they’d swim together when Chris wasn’t doing cannon balls off the diving board.  It took more than four years, but he made her laugh till her sides hurt, and finally got his girl.  
Even though Chris is hoofing around the track mostly au natural, posing for pictures with scores of strange women of unknown repute, Tonya completely supports her husband’s alter ego.  “Chris is not shy about anything. He loves the sport of NASCAR and anything that puts him in the center of it.  I love the whole idea of Tire Man, because I know Chris loves it.  He is such a people person, and whatever he can do to make people smile makes him the happiest.  I look at his website and Facebook page in awe of the friends he’s made and the loyalty they show. The man they see is the same one I’m at home with every day, who makes me smile and makes me crazy all at the same time.  I have nothing but pride when I hear someone say, ‘That’s your husband?  I just saw him at the track.” 
 “I just love making people laugh,” Tire Man says.  “I was the class clown, the guy always doing the stupid stuff no one else does.  I’m kinda like Mikey, the kid in the TV commercial, who will eat anything.”
If you take an informal poll of NASCAR fans, many have seen Tire Man, in person or through internet photos or in features in NASCAR-friendly outlets like The Sporting News or SPEED. When ABC News’ Prime Time Live ran an in-depth series on NASCAR, they found Tire Man.  Even Will Ferrell, appearing on talks shows to promote his film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, remembered venturing out into the infield late at night and marveling at this gregarious guy in a straw hat with a tire around his waist.
During the week, when Tire Man goes back to his civilian “Clark Kent” persona, he is a sales rep for a medical supply company, specializing in breathing devices.  At the company’s annual sales meeting, a photo of Tire Man went up on the big screen to motivate hundreds of managers from all over the country.
 “It’s an amazing and diverse bunch that congregates around Tire Man,” says Tire Man, who like Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley, frequently slips into referring to himself in the third person.  “I have met everyone from CEO’s to the gainfully unemployed. But for five days twice a year, we hail from the same place and hoot and holler side by side.  After doing this a few years, I’ve built a lot of friendships and going to races is really like a reunion.”
Tire Man is built like a bull that goes to the gym.  Still, the first time wearing the wheel, he was supporting its full 45 pounds against his skin.  “I suffered a severe tire rub in my right quarter panel,” he says.  He still has a scar on his hip where the tire sat that day. 
He went home, got out a saw horse and circular saw and went to town on the tire.  There was all kind of noise, and smoke and rubber all over the place but also a method to the madness.  Tire Man sliced away some rubber to insert pipe insulation.  He drilled holes for U-bolts attaching to two-inch heavy-duty Dickies suspenders.  The tire now hangs from the suspenders, steadied against his hips.
The trickiest part is going to the bathroom.  Tire Man has to lean back and use a side wall for required stabilization and leverage.  “At every race, someone will inevitably walk in the bathroom, and you’ll hear, ‘Holy S--t!'”
Even before the creation of Tire Man, Chris showed his devotion to NASCAR in curious ways.  About a year after he married Tonya, Dale Earnhardt won a race.  Chris celebrated by diving into the biggest mud hole that he could find. 
“You guessed it - off comes the wedding band,” Tonya explained.  “Apparently Chris searched for nearly four hours for that ring before having to come home and confess what had happened.  Bystanders took pictures, and he came home with a stack of photos showing him digging through the mud pit looking for his wedding ring.  I just had to laugh.  I guess everyone must have anticipated I was going to make his life miserable. They took pity on him and posted messages to me on his website vouching for how long he had searched and how sad he was.   Needless to say, the ring he wears today is from Wal-Mart.”
Tire Man wasn’t always so passionate about NASCAR.  Although his dad was a drag racer in Detroit and a friend of NASCAR driver Benny Parsons (the two men belonged to the same Masonic lodge in the Motor City), he grew up indifferent to racing.  In fact, he’d never been to a NASCAR race until college, making his first trip to the track under mild duress while at Jacksonville State University
“My teammates on the baseball team wanted to hit the race at Talladega.  To be honest, my first reaction was, ‘I’m not watching that crap.’ I just had no idea, and like a lot of people resorted to the stereotype that it’s not a sport, and would be boring.  I had no interest at all.”
The fellas talked about how cool the race would be.  Their resistant teammate was not swayed.  Instead of Rusty and Dale at Talladega, it might was well have been Anthony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera.  There was nothing intriguing about hanging around a race track.  It sounded like a colossal waste of time.  Then his buddies promised a big party.  Bingo; that was the magic term the gregarious, outgoing class clown needed to hear.  Now they were speaking his language.  Six strapping ballplayers loaded into a pickup truck, heading for the Alabama border.   
            “From the moment we rolled into Talladega, I was hooked,” he said.  “I went just to hang with the guys.  Seeing those cars going ‘round and ‘round, I started to ask questions, learning about the drivers and their history.  It really grabbed hold of me.  And to be 19, in the middle of that huge party.  Oh, man, I was in heaven.” 
Since 1993, Tire Man hasn’t missed a single Talladega race weekend.  There have been big parties and sad, poignant times as well.  “In the infield, if you go to the second to last light pole on Talladega Blvd. headed towards turn 1 and 2, you will find a memorial plaque for Steve Citrano embedded in his camping site,” Tire Man explained.  “Stevie Wonder, we called him, because he was mechanical genius. Stevie was always fixin’ someone’s motor home and most of the fixin’ was on his own which kept breaking down on the way to the track  About five years ago, we lost Steve to a diabetic induced coma.  We found him on Sunday morning before the race. That race was rained out and finished on Monday.  We stayed and watched the race in his honor, then somberly packed his things and left the track.  At every race, we display checkered flags at his plaque, because Stevie Wonder has finished his own race.”
Tire Man started taking his dad, Bruce, to races in 1995.  At first they rolled out sleeping bags and slept under the stars in the bed of Bruce’s Ford Ranger pickup truck. He now travels in style to races at Daytona, Atlanta, Bristol and Talladega in a 35-foot Fleetwood RV with comfortable beds and satellite TV.
Tire Man and his dad have spent some of their closest times at the track.  Chris is considering tires for his two boys, six and four.  “Maybe a bicycle tire!” he says.  Eternally level-headed Tonya is putting a kibosh on that for now.
 “One day, I do want them to see the reaction their dad gets at the race track,” she says.  “I think Tire Man encompasses everything about Chris.  It’s really his character, his charisma, his charm that draws people in.  Anyone can throw on a tire – but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to like the man wearing it.  When people meet Tire Man they are definitely meeting Chris – the guy that loves to smile, loves to laugh, loves NASCAR, and loves his family.” 

For more stories like Tire Man’s, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans is available online at places like