By Don Radebaugh — I’m not sure if you can uncover more emotion from a human life in one afternoon, but the Nemire racing family got just about as close as you can get.
Longtime ARCA/USAC competitor, winner, champion Jerry Nemire has been fighting cancer for the better part of 15 years. Monday morning didn’t start out all that good for him. He was weak and wasn’t feeling well. He also knew that Tony Stewart’s dad Nelson was on his way to pick up (and take away) his pride and joy — the beautifully-restored bright orange No. 14 AJ Foyt USAC Silver Crown car. The car had been especially built for Foyt by renowned open-wheel craftsman Grant King. Nemire also drove the car in Silver Crown competition, and is responsible for restoring it to its present day grandeur.
Nemire had received a text from Tony Stewart earlier in the week letting him know how much he appreciated the opportunity to buy the treasured piece and how sorry he was that he couldn’t be there when Nelson came to take the car away. It’s also widely known that Stewart’s hero is Foyt. If there could be any solace in the matter, at least the car was going to someone who genuinely cared about its future.
At any rate, Nemire, with the aid of two men at his side, slowly made his way out to his shop, just behind his home in Erie, Michigan, just a mile north (if that) of the Toledo, Ohio border, and completely unaware of who was waiting inside.
“It took me the longest ever to get to the garage…I was so weak,” said Nemire.
Once inside, he was assisted into his wheel chair. They spun him around, and there he was…Tony Stewart, with a big fat smile, stepped out to greet him.
“You didn’t think I would have missed this?” said Stewart, who leaned over and down to hug Nemire. “You could have at least cleaned the shop,” he joked. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Nemire was overcome with emotion and couldn’t say anything.
“The whole day was so emotional,” Nemire said. “I don’t know how to explain what this day meant to me. My boys (Kenny and JD) made it happen. They cleaned the car all up and got it all ready. Kenny arranged everything with Tony…I had no idea. Tony told me his dad was coming and that he couldn’t make it.”
Stewart’s path with Nemire crossed several times over the years, competing together in USAC Sprint and Silver Crown competition.
“I know Tony…he knows me, but we never knew each other all that well. They way he carried himself yesterday, you’d think we’d known each other all our lives. We sat there and listened to each other tell stories…he was so attentive to me. We laughed about other drivers…I’m still in awe.”
Nemire knew better than to even try to monopolize Stewart’s time. After all, he knew he was there to pick up the car and carry it back to Indiana. Just five minutes with the man already meant the world to him.
“I finally asked him…how much more time do you have? ‘I got as long as you want to talk,’ answered Stewart. ‘My pilot can just wait.’ “
And so it went between two great men with so much in common, with so much admiration for the other. Then a call went out to Inky’s Pizza, a Toledo tradition dating back to the 1940s. With the best pizza in town on the way for their special guest, the five-minute conversation stretched into five hours. And of course, the conversation, as you might expect, turned back toward ole No. 14 (both men idolize Foyt).
“That car’s all original…the bumpers, the upholstery, most everything. That’s the same upholstery that AJ sat in back in 1974. I was rookie of the race in that car at the Hoosier 100 in 1981.”
Then the party went from the shop back outside to where No. 14 was basking in the daylight. It didn’t take long for Stewart to climb in.
“Funniest thing. Tony calls Foyt when he was sitting in the car. He asked Foyt if he knew how to use Facetime. Tony said, ‘hang up, and I’m going to call you right back…just answer the phone when I call.’ “
With the Nemire family grinning, looking on, Stewart kibitzed with Foyt on the phone while giving the auto racing legend a video pictorial of the car he was about to take ownership of. The car is going straight to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum as part of a special AJ Foyt display for the month of May leading up to the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.
“Tony made sure that wherever that car would be on display, that my name will be shown with the car. That was really big for me…that he would take the time to tell me that.”
The Nemires also fired up No. 14 in the driveway.
“Stewart was pinching his own arms…said he was getting goosebumps.”
But by now the afternoon had clearly gotten away as the two men continued to trade stories while the family listened. Nelson had to get going…he was towing the car back to Indianapolis that night, and Tony’s plane was waiting for him at the Toledo airport.
Nemire put out one final request…that if there was a little round table discussion between Stewart and Foyt at the museum during the month of May…and if he was still among the living…if he could somehow, someway be a part of that.
“I told ’em…I have one more goal. I want to be a part of that conversation at Indy.”
Whether it happens or not remains to be seen. Getting time with one industry icon, let alone two at the same time, is a tall order. But even if it doesn’t happen, it’s pretty safe to say that Stewart went the extra miles with a dying man when it mattered most.
After Stewart left, Nemire’s son Kenny dialed Stewart up one more time…a courtesy call to ask him if it would be okay to share some of the photos they took throughout the day on Facebook.
“You can do whatever you want with them,” Stewart said.
NOTES: Jerry and Judy Nemire are celebrating 52 years of marriage. The family has become exceptionally close with the doctors who have been caring for Jerry over the last 15 years. Amazed by Jerry’s fighting spirit, and his tenacity to live, doctors are now using his story as a case study, which is shared with colleagues and students in the field of medicine. After so much chemo, radiation and several operations, Jerry has decided to stop all the treatments. His final days will be at home with his family by his side.
In addition to his long, storied USAC career, Jerry is a veteran of the ARCA Racing Series and is the 1997 ARCA Midget Series champion.
Jerry was in the grandstands that awful July night at Raceway Park in 1957 when his dad Kenny Nemire lost his life in a racing accident. He was only 11 at the time. Stewart was not aware of Nemire’s father but listened intently to the stories and went through the family photo albums. Just before leaving with my visit with Jerry and Judy this morning, I asked for permission to use one of Tony Stewart’s texts to Jerry regarding the sale of the car.
Stewart’s text read, “Hey Jerry. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to buy your AJ car. I will take care of it and share it with everyone in your name. Wish I could be there when it gets picked up. Thanks again.”
Sounds like Stewart and the gang pulled a fast one on Nemire. Well played…and for all the right reasons. #Stewart #Class #Heart #Integrity #RememberYourRoots