Crew members touched by NASCAR's support
For crew members Blake Ray and Mike Tam, NASCAR's support in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy "hits a certain spot in your heart," writes Mark Ashenfelter.
Yes, it sounds like a cliché to talk about how sports can aid in the healing process. And at times it's easy to think the governing bodies of some sports jump on the bandwagon just for some "feel-good" publicity.
But to at least two members of the Virginia Tech community, NASCAR's efforts to remember those lost on April 16 will long be remembered. And appreciated.
Blake Ray isn't only a student at Virginia Tech; the engineering major also is an intern for Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which fields Ward Burton's No. 4 Chevrolet in the Nextel Cup Series. Ray wasn't in Phoenix for the Subway 500 but back in Virginia with his girlfriend, a fellow Hokie.
Leading up to Saturday's race, Ray talked about what all the support from his team and others in the sport meant. It was a feeling shared by Mike Tam, an engineer for Brewco Motorsports in the Busch Series. Tam graduated from Tech a year ago, and his brother is a freshman in Blacksburg, Va., this year.
"I've worked for Morgan-McClure for two years now and the support that they've put forth -- I've heard from the secretary to the engine builder to the owner -- and that means a lot," Ray said from Richmond, Va., where he'd gone with his girlfriend to get away from campus for a few days.
"Once I heard that they were going to be putting the decals on the hood and that all the cars would have decals; that really does mean a lot," Ray said, referring to the huge VT logo on the hood of Burton's car and the smaller logos that adorned each car in the Cup and Busch series events. "Just browsing Web sites [and seeing pictures of the car] & it's almost like a hug, metaphorically. You just feel that the nation is thinking about us."
NASCAR Nation clearly was thinking about the Hokies, and Ray and Tam were appreciative.
"In southwest Virginia, we have a lot of NASCAR fans that attend Virginia Tech, and [the support] certainly does mean a lot," Ray said. "It hits a certain spot in your heart. You feel the care and concern and the prayers that are offered up by everybody."
Ray and Tam -- who was in Phoenix -- haven't met, although Ray's girlfriend and Tam's brother both live on the first floor of West Ambler Johnston, the dormitory where the first shootings took place. It was a few anxious hours before Tam was certain that his brother was safe.
Tam was working in the Brewco shop April 16 when crew chief Stewart Cooper called him into his office to make him aware of the shootings. In the initial confusion, Tam thought all the victims had been in West Ambler Johnston, increasing his anxiety level.
"I guess he spoke with my dad around 2 p.m. and I didn't talk to him until that night," Tam said. "It was certainly a delay and not a lot of fun waiting around [to hear from him]."
Tam, who hoped to get a good picture of Burton's car, said the support for his school meant more than most could realize.
"It's nice to see the number of people that care," Tam said. "It's really great. Especially for all the alumni that are fans of NASCAR and all the current students that are fans of NASCAR. It kind of says, 'That person cares,' and I think that means a lot."
With the three-hour time difference between Arizona and Virginia, Tam hadn't had an opportunity to talk with many of his friends still on campus, pointing out that it was nearly midnight back east when he was done at the racetrack.
Tam said he was concerned about friends and family back home, and those -- such as Ray -- whom he has yet to meet.
The racing fraternity also is concerned. If placing decals on race cars helped get that message across, one small gesture by NASCAR and its teams clearly went a long way.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
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