Stewart helps old friend quietly
Stories of genuine goodwill happen every day, but for myriad reasons, we don't hear much about them. Most, then, go unnoticed. I couldn't let that happen this time.
This is one such story of compassion, one Tony Stewart has no clue that I know about and one he would never ever tell.
That's the true beauty of it: Stewart, like Dale Earnhardt before him, doesn't want folks to know about his random acts of kindness.
Jack Miller has a Hall of Fame voice, one that for decades kept sprint car fans riled up throughout the Midwest. His "Holy cow!" declarations at Knoxville and Belleville and the Chili Bowl were as signature as Harry Caray's at Wrigley Field.
But when the phone rang at his Odessa, Fla., home one recent June morning, he asked his wife, Louise, to do the speaking. She was better suited in this instance.
I called the Miller residence to inquire about a story I'd heard, that Stewart had opened his heart to Miller. The announcer had known the driver for more than 20 years, had championed his career with verbal documentation of his sprint car exploits long before the IndyCar and NASCAR titles, and the team ownership and the millions of dollars that came with them.
Miller began calling motorcycle races in the '50s. He was in the Air Force, based in Rantoul, Ill. He'd race his bike, then, once his event was complete -- or if he failed to qualify for the feature -- he'd scoot upstairs to call the others.
"He said, 'I found out that I could talk for a living, and I didn't have to work,'" Louise said with a chuckle. "He was doing something that he totally and completely enjoyed."
It paid more than racing did, too.
In the '60s, Miller was a weatherman on local Oklahoma City television during the week, and on weekends transitioned from bikes to open-wheel dirt cars at the Oklahoma State fairgrounds. He also called International Motor Contest Association races. That was critical -- it taught him the nuances of every person's job at the racetrack. His boss demanded it.
In the mid-'70s he found sprint cars, calling races at Devil's Bowl Speedway and Ascot Park, and honed his craft while working for the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show and Evel Knievel.
In 1974 he called the Knoxville Nationals with legendary auto racing reporter Chris Economaki. He would announce every one after that for the next quarter century. In '78 he called the first World of Outlaws race ever run at Devil's Bowl in Texas.
Miller approached his job with a simple philosophy: talk with the fans, not at them. That resonated.
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Miller was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2001. He was a founding supporter of that Hall and, Louise said, had been to every induction ceremony to honor fellow inductees.
But this year was different. He wouldn't make it this year, couldn't muster the strength.
He had been in tremendous pain for 18 months, and one test after another revealed no answers. No matter the drug they offered to quell the pain, it would not subside.
Then four months ago, two nodules appeared on a CT scan. They were biopsied. Cancer. Doctors felt the cancer was localized to the end of the pancreas and chose to remove it surgically. But when they opened Miller up, they found it was far worse than expected. It has metastasized to his stomach, pancreas and intestines. They simply sewed him back up.
"The surgeon came and told me, and of course this just was quite a shock because I wasn't expecting it," Louise said.
Soon thereafter Miller, 75, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
Doctors say he has less than six months to live.
Knowing how badly he yearned to attend the 2010 Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction ceremony this past Saturday, Louise called a friend who called a friend. That friend happened to be Larry Martz, one of Stewart's closest friends. Martz called Stewart and told him the situation.
Stewart didn't hesitate.
He sent his pilots, in his private plane, from Pennsylvania to Clearwater, Fla., picked up the Millers and flew them to Pella, Iowa, then shuttled them to Knoxville for the ceremony.
"It was so amazing, because we -- first of all, we'd talked about this prior to going, and most of all we did not want to take away from the new inductees," Louise said. "But at the end of the inductions and the luncheon, people were lined up all the way to the back of the room to shake his hand and give him a hug.
Tony is so wonderful. I know some people give him a bad rap, but I'll tell you he can't do enough for people. He does things that no one knows about.” -- Louise Miller
"It was tremendous. And the photographers followed us all the way out of the building and took pictures, even, outside. I felt kind of like a movie star. It was amazing."
It was an emotional lift Miller needed badly.
"My husband kept saying, 'Is this a dream? Am I going to wake up? It's not really happening, is it?'" Louise said. "You can imagine how he must have felt."
The Millers are home now. After meeting with oncologists, it was determined that chemotherapy would not prolong his life, so he declined it. Louise, a nurse for 40 years, regulates his pain with morphine.
"We're doing as well as we can," she said. "He has good days and bad days. He's still able to walk around with a walker to a certain extent, and at least he can carry conversations and talk on the phone and do what he did Saturday, which was absolutely fantastic."
As for Tony?
"Tony has the biggest heart in the whole world," Louise continued. "If you could have heard the conversation between us and the pilots they said that this was the best job of their whole lives because of the way they were treated.
"They were just tremendous. They went above and beyond everything they could do for us on the trip. It was kind of like they were part of our lives. It was really wonderful.
"Tony is so wonderful. I know some people give him a bad rap, but I'll tell you he can't do enough for people. He does things that no one knows about."
Indeed. But they should.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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