Commentary

In death, fan offers hope to others

Updated: March 25, 2009, 1:22 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Wayne Guttormson was a car guy, the kind you see on television commercials who spends his happy hour with the hood up flanked closely by an oil-stained brown bag filled to the brim with a six-pack of beer.

He was from Mound, Minn., the land of Tonka Trucks, and worked for a salvage company that specialized in Cadillac Allante convertibles. He'd buy them and strip them and sell them off part by part. And he loved every second of it.

Wayne Guttormson
Courtesy Guttormson family You only needed to look at Wayne Guttormson's birthday cake when he turned 46 to figure out what kind of a fan he was.

For several years before that, Wayne worked for his ol' man at CR Manufacturing, a plastic injection molding company, and sporadically would wander in a bit late. It was a fairly high-profile company -- it created and patented the first plastic liquor pourer -- so tardiness was unacceptable. And especially for the boss-man's son.

Wayne's father, Fred, would greet him at the door, blood boiling, only to discover his son was late because he'd helped an old lady with a flat tire on the side of the road.

Hard to get terribly angry at innate kindness.

"That's who Wayne was," said Wayne's stepmother, Chic. "He was truly that nice."

He was also a lifelong sports nut. He loved Minnesota's Vikings and Wild, and was an ardent NASCAR fan, loved Dale Earnhardt and, by default, Junior. Fred says Wayne had a black, "3"-emblazoned T-shirt for every day of the week. For six years he formed and governed a fantasy NASCAR league for his buddies and his family.

First pick: Tony Stewart.

In the years following Earnhardt's death, Wayne took a liking to Stewart, whose rough, no-frills approach was as close to Ironhead as you'd find in new-era NASCAR. Like Earnhardt, Stewart was more concerned with wins than friends, yet somehow managed to secure both with what seemed relative ease.

Wayne had been to Michigan International Speedway with his boss from the salvage yard, but Daytona was his passion. His entire life he yearned to see, smell, breathe -- live -- the Daytona 500.

But he'd never gone. And he never would.

On Aug. 7, 2007, Wayne was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Less than five months later he was gone, but his love for NASCAR, selfless generosity and indomitable will live on, together. More on that in a moment.

Upon his diagnosis, Wayne entered Fairview Southdale Hospital. Two weeks later, following the news that his form of leukemia was a pit bull and would be hell to battle, he was still there. Fred and Chic were visiting one day when Wayne looked up at them and tossed a dagger, "Well, doesn't look like I'm ever going to get to Daytona."

The heck he wouldn't, they thought. Immediately they got to work arranging it.

Six weeks later, on Sept. 18, Wayne's 46th birthday, they delivered.

"We told him, 'Wayne, no matter what kind of shape you're in we're taking you to Daytona in our motor home,'" Fred said, voice cracking at the thought.

After four exhausting rounds of chemotherapy treatment, Wayne walked out of Fairview Southdale exactly as he'd walked in 61 days prior -- with leukemia streaming through 94 percent of the blood in his body.

"All that [effort], and the chemo did nothing," Fred said.

That Wayne walked out of Southdale at all was a miracle. Few folks in his condition do so. At that point his remaining course of action was experimental treatment, and as in every facet of his life he saw but one option -- stand on the throttle. But first, per usual, he tapped the brakes to recognize others.

When he got home from the hospital, Wayne sat down and penned a personal thank-you letter to every member of the hospital staff -- 51 in all.

Think about that. That's like going four rounds with Mike Tyson (circa 1988) and then thanking him for the whoopin'. Amazing grace, indeed.

The University of Minnesota had a pair of experimental programs, one of which Wayne began in October. Fred says it was called the "hot shot," a university-researched and developed serum specifically built to attack leukemia. Fred says there were five hot shots total that cost some $4.5 million to develop.

Wayne was game.

"Wayne was a gambler, and he was going to take [the shot] no matter what," Fred said.

It took just two days to realize it wasn't going to work.

The day after Thanksgiving, Wayne went back to the hospital to prepare for a stem-cell transplant from his younger brother. On Dec. 12 they did the procedure, and it seemed to be working in the days that followed, though doctors struggled to get Wayne's platelet count right. In fact, it wasn't working at all.

Early in the morning on Christmas Eve, Wayne died.

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At his funeral the entire family wore what Wayne would've worn, black Tony Stewart T-shirts. How's that for a NASCAR fan?

"Wayne packed more into 46 years than most," Chic said. "Some people live to be 80 and never get it. It's easy to put on a pedestal someone who passes before we think they're supposed to, but with him it was easy. He was genuinely that nice."

Wayne never made it to Daytona, but his legacy shows up every February.

Following his death, Fred and Chic held a benefit fundraiser in Mound to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Wayne didn't get to experience the dream, but his memory would help others do so through the Wayne Guttormson Daytona 500 Memorial Foundation.

Each year Fred and Chic raise money to send a Make-A-Wish child and his or her family to the race. In 2008, 14-year-old Chad and six family members went. Fred and Chic accompanied them. They spent the day with Chad's family, even went to Victory Lane when Wayne's man, Stewart, won the Nationwide Series race.

The hat Stewart signed for them that day hangs proudly on their living room wall.

"If the words bittersweet were ever [applicable], that's what it was," Fred said. "It was bitter because I'd much rather have been there with Wayne. But it was sweet to see that somebody else had the opportunity to fulfill their dream in his honor."

[+] EnlargeChic and Fred
Courtesy Guttormson familyChic Guttormson, left, and husband Fred finally made it to Daytona, and in recent years they've made sure some Make-A-Wish children have as well.

Fred and Chic held another fundraiser this past Thanksgiving, and that money combined with last year's leftovers was enough to send another boy, Ethan, to this year's 500.

They chose against going back this year. It was too hard. They needed time to regroup and pull themselves together emotionally. They'll raise money again this July in Minnesota, and in Florida in November.

For the kids. For Wayne.

"He was such a huge NASCAR fan that somebody needs to go every year in his honor," Fred said. "I feel that way, Chic feels that way, his brothers and his mom, we all feel that way, that we can't just let this go. He was such a giving person, and such a great race fan."

A painting now hangs above the bar in Fred and Chic's home. It's a depiction of Dale Earnhardt Jr., with his father right behind him. It reads, "Dale Earnhardt's Final Lap -- Daytona 500, Feb. 18, 2001." It is framed, and the border of the frame reads "We know you're watching. In memory of Wayne -- Aug. 18, 1961 -- Dec. 24, 2007."

"A year later we got a card from Chad's mother -- telling us how important what we'd done was," Chic said. "We were flabbergasted that she'd take the time to do that."

I'd venture to say she feels the same way about you.

Briefly, the Six.

Marty,

I thought I read that this is Kevin Harvick's last year on his contract with RCR. If that's correct, what are the chances of Harvick maybe following his good friend Tony Stewart in the 14 car, and starting up his own Cup team since he's an owner already?

-- Eric Huerta, Bakersfield, Calif.

Slim to none, Eric. Harvick's plate is already full trying to keep his Truck and Nationwide teams funded. If he had to concern himself with funding his own Cup career, too, he could lose his mind. He's finally learning to have fun out there. Doubling his pressure would strip a lot of it.

And remember, Stewart's ownership dynamic is completely different from, say, Michael Waltrip's or Harvick's.

Waltrip started with an old movie theater and a pile of Toyota's money. He built from the ground up -- not to mention did so in a year that required two different race cars. If he had it to do again he might not take such an aggressive approach.

Stewart-Haas, on the other hand, was pretty well already built, save for its management personnel. Stewart inherited turnkey infrastructure, a shop, resources, cars, motors and, um, Rick Hendrick.

Harvick's situation would be much more like Waltrip's than Stewart's -- even if he worked out a deal with Childress to supply cars.

Marty,

What's up with that rug on your boy Jimmie Johnson's face? He looks he's been on a five-day bender. I know he has to have some razors left over from Gillette. Tell him to use them!

-- Jason Streeter, Cambridge, Mass.

Go figure -- a guy from New England peddling Gillette razors. Johnson's beard is the biggest story since, well, Junior's beard.

He does sort of look like a human Wooly Willy, doesn't he?

Thing is, chicks dig it. All I hear from my female friends is how good it looks. Like I care. In fact, my friend Laura Craven says the beard makes him look like Eric McCormack, who I think is some sort of TV star.

Marty,

I am from just south of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Real sad to see the crowd turnout dwindling. We took advantage of tickets in Turn 4 as did many. Every time Newman's Haas-CNC Chevy passed I had to do a double-take thinking it was the 3 out there. Is the Haas-CNC paintjob a tribute, or just freak coincidence?

-- Josh, Griffin, Ga.

Coincidence. I asked the team for you to be certain, Josh, and it was confirmed. The team also said this is the FAQ du jour. Newman's publicist said it's essentially the Army paint scheme with different colors. But I'm with you, man. I didn't go to Fontana, and turned on SPEED Friday afternoon to watch qualifying. When Newman entered the track I had to shake my head and smack myself in the chin to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. It's freaky.

Marty,

I'm a big Kasey Kahne Fan. Do you think he can be competitive with the old engine? I think he is underpowered and will have trouble keeping up. Do they have plans to use the new engine? Your take?

-- Kevin, Bloomsdale, Mo.

You're spot-on, Kevin. Kahne's driving a knife in a gunfight. Look at the difference in his power compared with Kurt Busch's. Mark McCardle, VP of competition for Richard Petty Motorsports, said recently that using the new engine was deemed too risky during the first third of the season. Reliability is a concern, and the goal currently is to solidify RPM's teams in the top 35 before getting too aggressive trying to make more power.

The new Dodge engine -- R6P8, it's called -- makes for a much tighter box to conform to NASCAR specifications, McCardle said. Ultimately, McCardle considers it "likely" that RPM drivers will utilize the new motor this year at some point, but "to what level of commitment we haven't decided," he said.

Kahne has pretty good cars and an excellent crew chief. He's among the best drivers in the sport. His effort at Atlanta was promising -- his best since Pocono last summer. That new power will go a long way.

Hey Marty,

When is the mustache coming back? I love a sweet 'stache! It reminds me of the CHiPs TV show. On to NASCAR -- should the other top drivers in the Cup Series, like Jimmie, Jeff, Carl and Kyle be afraid of Kurt Busch coming up in their rearview mirror? How many wins do you think the Blue Deuce can rattle off on his way to the 2009 Cup title?

-- Chase, Farmington, Conn.

The way Busch ran at Atlanta, I'd be very afraid if I were his competitors, Chaser. He utterly dominated. And he was fast at Fontana. And he was fast at Vegas, too, before he had motor trouble. He'll win several races this year, and, yes, is a bona fide title contender -- something neither I, nor anyone else, predicted.

As for the 'stache, talk to Jack. That thing did Ponch proud.

That's my time today, team. Keep 'em coming. I'm off to the NCAA tournament to watch my Radford Highlanders battle North Carolina. I'll be the really pale guy with the "R" on his chest.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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