Pumping the brakes

An alternate perspective on fandom in professional sports

Brooks Sutherland (left) and Joey Gase. Photo by Mike Dickie.

Joey Gase probably won’t be revered as one of NASCAR’s greats, when his career is all said and done.

His six years as an Xfinity series driver have turned out only one top-10 finish.

Whether or not that number grows and whether or not a win ever comes, his legacy from my perspective, reaches far beyond racing numbers.

I first met Joey in the summer of 2015 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. I was a young journalist fresh out of college covering my first NASCAR race for a local paper.

I was excited that day, but also nervous. Being a young writer and having the task of chasing down some professional athletes and providing commentary on the events was a neat opportunity. It was also nerve-wracking.

Joey came out of his trailer to interview with me and after I was introduced by the track’s public relations manager, we talked for a few minutes. He wore khaki shorts, a basic blue polo and had I not set up a personal interview with him, I may have had difficulty believing he was actually a professional race car driver at first glance.

I knew a little bit about Joey before our interview. I had researched him some in preparation. I knew enough to know that he was honoring a young boy from my local area of coverage that weekend. The boy who he was honoring passed away in 1998 from a car crash when he was just seven years old. Joey commemorated the young boy by featuring a photo on the bumper of his race car for his Xfinity race.

My initial impressions in preparing for the story were that I would simply gather some information about the race, the boy’s background and I’d have a feature. Joey’s story however, immediately pulled me in. I knew then that it was much bigger than a weekend tribute for him.

Joey’s mother died from a brain aneurysm when he was 18 years old. He was then faced with a tough decision at a young age. He and his family were to decide whether or not they would donate her organs. Joey’s family chose to donate his mother’s organs, and because of that decision, 66 lives have been saved through her donations.

Joey explained to me that “there’s over 1,200 people on the waitlist,” (to receive organ donations) and that this list is constantly “growing, instead of shrinking.”

For his community outreach, Gase was presented with the inaugural Comcast Community Champion Award in 2015

His main objective from his car tributes and sponsorship through Donate Life is to bring awareness, and to “get the conversation started about organ donation.”

While, I’m not a registered organ donor, I have to admit that Joey changed my perspective on the issue. Or to play into his own words, he “got the conversation started,” with me.

He also got a different conversation started within me. One that entails the role of athletes, and the legacy they leave behind. I’m of course talking about the legacy they leave outside the realm of their respective sports.

We often base the likeness of athletes solely on performances in the sport. I’m guilty of this as well. Joey has changed that kind of thinking for me however. Or he has at least altered it.

I see it all of the time. With fandom, we also often become apologists for said athletes. When athletes have shortcomings in their social lives, whether criminally, or immorally — we, as fans, internally minimize the severity. We are much quicker to look away.

That’s why role models like Joey, who have become rare, deserve more of our following regardless of their performance.

I’m certainly not insinuating that we should completely disregard our favorite athletes in place of others who aren’t as decorated, but do great things for their community. I’m simply noting that we should recognize and praise those who use their platform as an athlete in a positive way. Similar to how we recognize athletic performances.

What makes Joey remarkable is his ability to achieve so much with such a small platform in comparison to other professional athletes. I remember seeing the excitement on the faces of the young boy’s family when they saw his bumper. They were overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions, and afterwards, couldn’t stop praising Joey. It really makes me wonder what others, who have higher stature in the sports world, can accomplish.

Through covering the races that weekend, I was fortunate enough to get an in-depth view of what Joey Gase does with his platform as an athlete. That weekend, he gained a fan in me. Unlike, my fandom for other athletes, however, this one has nothing to do with sports.

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