So, my question in the title asks "Transplants and Racing?" Is the relevance between the two similar to that of "Ice Cream and Tomatoes"? Come to think of it, I believe I saw Tomato Ice Cream on the menu at one of those hippy-dippy ice cream parlors in Berkeley, the one with a line around the corner that ends in Alameda somewhere. But, Transplants and Racing do have some common ground...allow me to explain.
Carroll Shelby, legendary racing driver and originator of the Cobra, received a heart transplant followed several years later with a kidney from his son. Niki Lauda, the three-time Formula One World Champion, has been the recipient of two living-donor kidney transplants. When NASCAR star Davey Allison died in a helicopter accident, his widow Liz granted her permission to share his organs. Which brings me to Joey Gase.
Joey Gase?...Joey Gase...hmm, never heard of him. Not surprising. Joey is a 21 year old driver in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, a championship kind of like the highest minor league is in baseball. It is intended to be a development series for people wanting to earn a seat in Sprint Cup, NASCAR's "Majors". Three years ago, Joey's mother Mary Jo died of a brain aneurysm...and Joey had to make the decision whether or not to donate her organs and tissue. Can you imagine? At a young age he had to think very hard to make an extremely important adult decision, and quickly. Many will agree when I say that he made the correct choice, and Mary Jo saved several lives. Joey is a busy racer, but gives a lot of his time visiting hospitals, schools, and any venue where he can urge people to become organ donors.
Since then, Joey, already a local track champion driver at Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Grand Rapids, IA, has been struggling to make it up the NASCAR ladder. In all forms of racing, the real fuel isn't gasoline or ethanol, it's MONEY! And lots of it. The team for which Joey races in Nationwide is Jimmy Means Racing, and it is not one of the big buck organizations. Its owner, Jimmy Means, raced for many years at NASCAR's top level, but on less than a shoestring budget. Things are still hard, especially securing a steady sponsor with big pockets.
Joey's story and hard work have brought moderate, one-race-at-a-time sponsor deals with local Organ Procurement Organizations around the country, many under the national brand of Donate Life. These arrangements aren't available at every stop on the Nationwide schedule so often the #52 car runs in a virtually pure white livery. So far, however, Joey has made it to all the races this year. Television coverage of the latest race at Chicagoland Speedway featured a very nice piece on a local donor family who Joey had invited to the race. A picture of their loved one appeared on the back of the #52 Chevy along with one of Joey's Mom. The family was interviewed on ESPN in the pit area wearing Joey Gase T-shirts.
Recently, via Facebook, it was announced that for a small contribution, a picture of one's important transplant person could be likewise displayed on the racecar. At several upcoming dates on the circuit this will be available, starting with this Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wow!...but what caught my attention was the race at Watkins Glen, in beautiful Upstate New York, on August 9.
Why the Glen over Indy, you ask? As a 12 year old racing geek, Yours Truly and the Moss Family visited former neighbors, The Gorts, who had relocated from Pittsburgh, PA to Elmira, NY. Family head Bill Gort knew about my car thing, so he suggested a ride over to nearby Watkins Glen. Although the original course had been laid out on public roads and city streets in the late 1940s, for safety an actual race course was built on gorgeous rolling farmland outside of town. In 1962, it was simple just to drive out on a dirt path, directly onto the racing surface, so we did! Bill got this devilish grin going, leaned over the steering wheel of his green Plymouth Valiant station wagon and gunned it. He slammed off some expert shifts on his "three-on-the-tree" and provided the racing sound effects to boot.
The Three Gort Girls, Linda, Donna and Pammie (with my litle brother Gary who always liked to hang out with The Girls) hooted and hollered from the back seat while I was up front with Walter V (my Dad) and Bill, taking it all in. Of course, WVM had his eyes out on stalks with his imaginary brake on full-stop. We dropped down a steep hill into a hard right hander before the start/finish line (what is now Turn One), and I could easily imagine all my heroes lined up on the paint marks signifying the starting grid from the '61 United States Grand Prix. Yeah, including Dan Gurney in a Porsche. Then, we slowly rolled out the (non-existent) exit gate and back to town. It was over way too soon.
See why I say The Glen? Joey now has a picture of my donor, Ruben Bernal, Jr., in his possession that will take a place of honor on the #52 at Watkins Glen on August 9. The perfect scenario would be for Ruben's image, and those of all the other Transplant Heroes thereupon, to end the day with Joey and the team in Victory Lane. But remember what I mentioned about $$$ and big-time racing? "Speed costs money; how fast you wanna go?" is a very old guiding principle, in Joey's case particularly. Neither Joey, nor Jimmy Means, nor Donate Life have the funds to get consistently farther up the finishing order. Not to discourage anyone, because one never knows. A top-twenty would be awesome, though. Doubly so because The Glen is not an oval track, like the ones Joey learned his trade on, but a road circuit with right turns. left turns, hills and a LOT of shifting and braking. Hard work, and I have the experience there to know!
I haven't gotten the impression Ruben was a car guy, or that he ever looked at more than two minutes of NASCAR. But since I consider that a large portion of my time should be spent recognizing and thanking him for my current enjoyment of car stuff, I want to share this passion with him. He will get many more laps, at faster speeds, with real racing noise, than I did over fifty years ago.