How To Win from Third Place

[Republishing this here for Father’s Day. Thank you for the kind words of support and condolences. Kids, hug Dad today and tell him you love him- you only get one. Dads, Happy Fathers Day.]

We’ve been reminded lately that when tragedies strike, people come together to give kindness in unexpected ways. For this Father’s Day, I want to share one that, while very personal, is one of those stories.

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It begins with an ending, on Monday, June 6, 2016, during the make-up of the previous day’s rain soaked Pocono 400. It was typical for a Monday race. Attendance was low, the anticipation had waned, and nothing too exciting seemed to be developing.

But as the race continued, my attention divided between work and NASCAR, I was interrupted - immediately, and forever.

Without warning, my father was dead.

My father had been at a conference out of town, so the full story took a couple hours to unfold. He had collapsed while giving a talk, and then it was while he was visiting a colleague. He was in the hospital, then he was being rushed somewhere else. Every moment I learned one thing, another thing came along to unseat it.

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But it was all just a bunch of noise, and as it subsided so did the signal become clear. The damage was done. There had been no way to prepare, no time for final goodbyes. Nothing. Only the deafening echo of trying all at once to remember every single thing we’d ever done together.

While fighting back tears I tried desperately to leave the office as fast as possible. There was at least one person I had to call - my brother.

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There would be many surprises over the days that followed, almost all of them overwhelmingly joyful. But there are only two I need to share. And they both begin and end with Chip Ganassi Racing, NASCAR, and the #42 team of Kyle Larson.

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My father was many things to many people.

He was a physician, Naval Commander, chairman, moderator, deacon, missionary, student, teacher, grandfather, and so on. He sent young men and women to the Naval Academy, he saved lives through his medical practice, and he lectured around the world about his research into new treatment protocols for diabetes.

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But his number one title, by far, was Father and it is one that he earned by raising two incredible sons.

Proof of my claim that I’m amazing is that I once made a tiny fire suit for my son to wear to Talladega when he was just 4 months old.

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Proof that my brother is amazing is that, as a member of the team, he made that happen, and much much more.

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My dad made me into a car guy. He also loved Jalopnik and was constantly sending me articles. He would share posts I’d written on Opposite Lock and once, while on a plane to Indianapolis, leaned over and asked James Hinchcliffe - the James Hinchcliffe - if he’d seen this article about the new IndyCar aero kits. It was one I had put together and one that Hinchcliffe had most certainly never seen. But that didn’t matter to Dad, he still told him - an IndyCar driver - that he should read it.

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Dad’s other son, however, didn’t know a brown diesel manual wagon from a flaming Italian supercar, and drove a Land Rover that had never even broken down. Dad’s car lesson had missed him. So consider our amazement when he became NASCAR driver Kyle Larson’s PR guy in Larson’s 2014 Rookie of the Year season.

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Dad always had a knack for becoming an expert on the things his sons pursued, so in no time he studied up on every aspect of NASCAR. During that time, we would have near nightly briefings on racetracks, set ups, pit strategies, and so on. His obsession grew overnight and his friends thought he had lost it.

Of all of my Dad’s titles, this was the most unexpected: Diehard NASCAR Fan!

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A typical Saturday or Sunday would start with a text message about when the race started and then a photograph of the television where my brother appeared in a pre-race promo that included Kyle Larson. (Looking over old texts, I received this picture no fewer than 11 times.)

The real fun, though, was when we actually got to go to a race. If you know someone in racing or in NASCAR, then you know you never see that person on the weekend. Their workdays are our weekends and the season goes on forever. To NASCAR and the teams’ credit, though, it seems that they’re aware of this as they can be generous when it comes to allowing friends and family to spend time at the track.

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Nothing made Dad feel cooler than standing on track with the drivers before the race and standing by the car during the National Anthem. He’d always make it a point to tell Kyle good luck before the race and shake the hand of every team member he could to say thank you.

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We even made a small tradition of serving SAW’s BBQ (Birmingham’s finest) to the team before practice at Talladega. Just as NASCAR and the #42 Team took my brother in, they took us with them and we did our best to return the favor.

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On Monday, June 6th, during Pocono, I reached someone at the team and asked him to pull my brother from his spot at the pit box. It was my job to tell my brother that we had lost our dad.

And this is where we talk about Family. In particular, the NASCAR Family.

News of my father’s passing spread like wildfire in our hometown and it was my job to return and assist there. My brother’s job was to get to Denver to take care of my mom until they could make it home.

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I worried. All I had to do was drive home, something I’d done dozens of times before. But what about my brother? How could I ask him to make immediate travel arrangements to Denver from a race track in Pennsylvania after what I just told him? I tried to help, frantically searching for some combination of flights, hotels, and rental cars. I worried that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off and mom would end up in Denver alone.

But, as it turns out, I never actually had anything about which to worry. And that’s because there was a family of unrelated people behind the scenes silently taking these worries away from me one by one. I never asked for it, and they never offered it. They just did it.

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I’m not going to go into detail here about exactly what was done or by whom, but suffice it to say that teams came together at a time of our personal need and got my brother to Denver almost immediately. He was there before Mom arrived so that she never had to spend one minute alone.

That would be an amazing place for the story to end, but that would not be the case.

Because I told you up top that there were two things.

The next race was in Michigan on Sunday, two days after our father’s memorial service. For a Sunday race crews typically arrive Thursday and work relentlessly until the haulers are packed and on the road mere minutes after the checkered flag drops three days later. It’s a tornado with brief silent interludes that ultimately produces a race and some very smokey burnouts. Free time is at a premium.

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And yet, some of the crew from the #42 and #1 (Larson’s teammate) still took whatever free time they had to fly down (nowhere even close to Michigan) to attend Dad’s visitation, and others for the funeral the next day. To anyone that would listen, I repeated this exact story, of how incredible these teams’ generosity had been to help my brother get where he needed to be and to take their own time just to show that they cared. I had a hard time putting into words what that all meant to me.

When Sunday morning rolled around, it finally dawned on me. For days I had received near constant messages, genuine ones no doubt, that all went the same way: “if there’s anything you need, let me know”. But these people, this NASCAR family, they were the one group that never asked at all, but simply knew what to do and did it. It finally made sense.

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And then, literally at that very moment, this picture came in a text message:

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And then this tweet:

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All I can say is that men and women of the #42 team are men and women of class. They gave help without being asked and they honored our father in a way that would have brought him to his knees.

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At church, I shared the picture with all of Dad’s best friends who teared up at the gesture. (Dad was the only one of his friends that watched NASCAR. Watch-ed. They do now!)

With my brother at home for a rare weekend, we watched the race as a slightly smaller family. Kyle drove well, the team performed, and they ultimately finished P3. In my opinion, they had already won. And then, after the race we were all once again humbled by this:

I share all of this first as a way to remember my Dad. My son was born on Father’s Day and this is my first Father’s Day without my dad.

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I also share this as a reminder to be good to each other. NASCAR is as derided as it is adored, and it gets bashed as much as it gets unconditionally loved by fans. But that’s NASCAR on TV.

When we talk about NASCAR in terms of the people, we’re talking about the men and women in the pits and the garages, and in the fire suits, and back at the race shops, and driving the haulers and the motor coaches. I’m talking about the people that make it possible for us to even have something to deride or to unconditionally love some 40 weekends a year.

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Those people showed me and my family the exact kind of support and generosity that we needed on those days. They may seem like small gestures - a phone call here or there, a decal on a car - but to us in that moment they meant so much more.

There is a lesson in this: the small things count, so do what you can. You might not ever know what your actions mean to another.

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And, of course...

ROOT FOR KYLE LARSON!!!!

THANK YOU TO THE 42 TEAM, TO CGRT, AND THOSE OTHER KIND FOLKS THAT HELPED US CARRY THE BURDEN.

And Happy Father’s Day.

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