Cancer in remission for TMS president
Usually when Gossage has something to say, drum rolls and neon lights aren't enough. But this time, the master promoter was void of fanfare. He was understated and to the point.
"He told us he had cancer," said Kyle Petty, a longtime close friend of Gossage. "It was four or five guys sitting in that office and we're a lively bunch when we're together. We were quiet. It was hard to take. Honestly, I was shocked, crushed and devastated. I think when anybody tells you that they've been diagnosed with cancer, your mind goes to the worst place."
Gossage knew he'd need his friends if he was to get through a difficult year of hospital visits and chemotherapy. He wasn't sure what to expect, only that doctors caught the cancer early enough to treat it aggressively.
Now, seven months later, Gossage is doing what he's done since the track opened in 1997: Trying to sell as many tickets as he can for a NASCAR race in Texas. Prior to Sunday's Dickies 500, he'll take pride in stepping on a makeshift frontstretch stage to welcome fans and drivers at prerace introductions.
"The cancer is now in remission," said Gossage, who still won't disclose what type of cancer he had. "I'm just thankful to all my friends. They really helped me get through it. I've never been through anything like that in my life."
At the time he told his buddies, Gossage and his wife, Melinda, had decided to keep the news private. Only a few folks in the TMS management group were even aware at the time of Gossage's condition.
Gossage knew something was wrong last fall, when he had no energy and felt bad after exercising. He lifted weights four days a week, and the movement didn't feel fluid to him. He didn't have much desire to work out and went to see a doctor.
"They caught it so early that it wasn't even time to treat it yet," Gossage said. "So I negotiated with my doctor."
Gossage wanted to oversee as much as he could at the speedway during race weeks, so he organized his calendar so that he didn't have to go through chemotherapy the weeks of the April race or the June IndyCar Series race. And he made sure he was off to take part in Petty's charity motorcycle ride in May.
"By the June race, I was in bad shape," Gossage said. "Chemo takes a cumulative effect on you. I just got weaker and weaker."
By July, Gossage wasn't at the track. He decided to make the news public.
"I cut my hair before June race, hoping it would grow back and nobody would notice," Gossage said. "But there was no hiding it anymore."
For the first time since the Carter administration, Gossage didn't have his trademark beard.
"I hadn't seen my face in a while," Gossage said. "You look in the mirror and don't have a clue who that person is."
Gossage didn't have much energy, so he watched a bunch of movies -- not to mention plenty of "Bonanza" episodes -- and tried to take it easy. But he still checked in with the office most days while assistant general manager Kenton Nelson ran the daily operations.
"He had his BlackBerry and he wasn't afraid to use it," Nelson said. "I can remember one night, maybe a week after he was through the roughest part, we were texting about speedway stuff until 1 a.m."
Gossage, though, was sick. And when the phone rang, he couldn't wait to answer it, hoping for a diversion from the pain. It was the little things that got him, like having the smell of food make him feel ill.
That lasted most of the summer. But Gossage slowly got better. His wife noticed it when he stopped complaining that his watch was slow and needed a new battery.
"She told me later that I didn't have a battery in my watch," Gossage said. "It's one that winds as you move it, and I wasn't moving enough. She knew I was OK when I started getting around better."
His friends knew Gossage was improving when he was e-mailing jokes again. One of his friends, in the joking spirit, sent him a pack of Rogaine.
"I told them I let the Rogaine sit there until it dissolved, and I sent a photo of me with whip cream all over my head like it was a dip cone at Diary Queen," Gossage said. "The next day, I told them my head was burning and sent back a photo of me wearing an afro wig."
That merited a message back from Petty.
"OK, you're back," Petty said. "We get it."
Gossage returned to work around Labor Day and is back to a normal schedule. He's lost 30 pounds and doesn't want to gain them back. The beard has returned, with more gray than before. And Gossage has what looks like a buzz cut. He has several Texas Motor Speedway hats that he wears in public.
"It's me being self-conscious," Gossage said.
Last week, Gossage was busy promoting the upcoming race, even using some unconventional methods. Gossage taped a guest appearance on Sirius' E Street Radio. He's a big Bruce Springsteen fan and picked out his favorite songs and discussed them, while encouraging listeners to buy tickets to the Dickies 500.
Gossage can't wait to see some drivers and NASCAR friends he hasn't met with since going through the treatment. That includes driver and fellow track promoter Tony Stewart.
"We've just been friends for a long time," Stewart said. "Eddie's always been good to us, and we've spent time on the Kyle Petty Charity Ride and we've worked on some charity events together. He's a great guy, and someone I've looked to for help in my career as a track promoter at Eldora Speedway. I'm glad he's feeling better and back in action."
Gossage is just thankful he's able to still promote the sport he loves.
"My doctor told me that cancer would most likely change my outlook on things and priorities," Gossage said. "I've thought about it and I don't think I've really changed. In part, because I feel like my priorities are right to start with. The people that know me as the promoter guy don't really know me. I've always been a spiritual person and family and friends are important to me.
"The promoter is a character I play. I don't get to be that character very often. The rest of the time I'm worried about budgets and other things to run a business. But three times a year, I get to play P.T. Barnum. It's a creative thing that's fun. I'm glad to be doing it again."
Richard Durrett covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.