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Martha Nemechek Sheds Grief by Outreach

May 10, 2006

In the months following the death of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver John Nemechek in March 1997, his mother was inconsolable. Martha Nemechek knew life never would be the same.

``I was very lost,″ she said. ``He was my baby. I prayed to God for something that would make me feel my life was important.″

As she continued to grieve for her younger son, who died of head injuries five days after a crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway and nine days after his 27th birthday, Nemechek received a phone call from a stranger that changed the course of her life.

Gordon Collins, whose daughter died in a 1983 plane crash, read about Nemechek’s loss and contacted her, as he has so many other grieving parents and children through the years.

``Gordon called me. He wrote letters to me. He told me to call him,″ she said. ``He told me he had found the way to deal with losses like ours was to help others with their losses. He got me back on track.″

It took Nemechek a while to get up the nerve to make the same type of call, and her first effort didn’t take.

``The first woman I called, I just didn’t know what to say to her,″ Nemechek said, shaking her head. ``I didn’t think I could do what Gordon did.″

But she persisted, eventually becoming comfortable with giving those she contacted the same message she received from Collins: ``The key thing is to learn how to live with the loss of a loved one and to be busy.″

Suddenly, Nemechek felt like she was living again.

It wasn’t easy, though.

Joe, the oldest of three Nemechek brothers and a sister, still was racing in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series and that was very hard for her to deal with. She went to Joe shortly after John’s death and asked him to quit racing.

``I did want Joe to quit because he’s in a more dangerous area than John was,″ Nemechek said. ``Joe said no. He said, `This is my life, my living.′ He also said that he and John had talked about the possibility of one of them being killed and agreed that the other one would go on.″

Ironically, Joe’s racing has opened up yet another way for his mother to reach out to people.

His car is sponsored by the U.S. Army. In addition to her continuing contacts with people with personal losses, Martha Nemechek has struck up friendships with dozens of soldiers, many of them in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s not uncommon for her to receive up to 90 e-mails a night, some from the grieving people she has contacted and the rest from soldiers on duty overseas.

``Most nights, when I’m home, I’m on the computer between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., e-mailing with my soldiers and friends,″ she said. ``I only ask the soldiers for first names, but they all know about John and many of them ask what they can do for me. I tell them to pray for Joe’s safety.

``Mostly, they ask me to pray for them or to send them something from home, things like candy and little things for kids. I buy stuff and mail it to them.″

She also invites them to the race track when they come home.

If they do show up, it’s easy to find Martha Nemechek. She’s the woman in full camouflage fatigue uniform, wearing a drill sergeant’s hat and with four stars on her collar.

``A general gave me the first hat and I just felt that the uniform is a really nice way to identify with the soldiers,″ she said.

Joe Nemechek, who asked his mother and his father, Big Joe, to resume coming to the track again shortly after John’s death, is proud of his mother.

``She has taken a tragedy in her life and turned it into a positive thing for many other people,″ he said. ``She puts a lot of herself into helping others and it has helped her to a better life, too.″

Martha Nemechek, who spends a lot of her time at the track waxing Joe’s race cars, relishes the life she has built in the wake of John’s death.

``I’m the luckiest lady there is because my family always wants me to be around,″ she said.

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