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NASCAR Salutes: Martha Nemechek’s unique form of service

Dressed from head to toe — from camouflage cap to steel point boot — in military fatigues; patches sown at her chest and a prideful smile on her face, Martha Nemechek stood alongside her son Joe Nemechek‘s Army-sponsored Chevrolet on the NASCAR Cup Series starting grid each race during his 2003-06 tenure racing with the military branch as team sponsor.

A long line of soldiers — generals, captains and enlisted men and women — surrounded the team on pit road for photos every week. Happiness and gratitude abounded. That was something Martha Nemechek always ensured.

Equipped with a military strength heart, Martha made it her mission to make sure the service members had a top-rank day at the race track. Always. Little did they fully realize the impact their happiness had on her too. Then and now.

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“When Joe first started running the Army car, I thought, hmmm, I‘ve got to find something that I can go to the races with,‘‘ said Nemechek, 83. “So, I went to the Army Surplus store and found pants, a shirt, the fatigues and I already had the drill sergeant hat. So, I dressed up and I didn‘t tell Joe what I was going to do until I got down there to the track.

“I surprised him,‘‘ she said with a laugh. “And he said, ‘gee mom. Why are you dressed like that?‘

“And at the time, there were generals there. Not only that, at Daytona especially, there were a lot of service people there from the Army. So at Joe‘s hauler, I had lots of food, I fed them. I talked to them and told them about Joe. It was such a pleasure to meet them. And Joe would always smile and say, ‘yeah, that‘s my mom.‘ “

Joe Nemechek, a four-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner and the 1992 NASCAR Busch Grand National (now Xfinity Series) champion, chuckles recalling those days. But there is unmistakable pride in his voice. He knows his mom made a real and lasting impact on people‘s lives.

“It did catch me by surprise,‘‘ he said of seeing her dressed in her military fatigues the first time. “I was like, ‘what in the world?‘ And then all the folks – anybody that was there, even generals – they just started sending her all kinds of stuff for her to wear. It was crazy.

“But she fit right in perfectly and she loved doing it.‘‘

Her grandson, John Hunter Nemechek, 25, the current NASCAR Xfinity Series championship points leader has a vivid memory of his grandmother‘s effect during that time in his father Joe‘s career.

“It was very, very neat to be able to walk with her down pit road while she was wearing the fatigues and how many people that she knew,“ John Hunter Nemechek recalled. “It was absolutely insane, but it’s really, really neat to be able to go back and look at the photo books that she has and being able to talk about certain memories.

“I mean, there’s things that I know that I was there for and have experienced and then there’s a whole other experience that they’ll start telling stories about just from looking at a couple pictures. So being able to see all of that and know how much effort that she has put into that and her heart and her soul into it to support my dad and myself and my Uncle John was really, really special. And just to have her around is really great.”

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Interestingly, for all the support the Nemecheks have offered to military servicemen and women, no one in the immediate family had ever served in the military at that time.

However, Martha Nemechek‘s own form of service was as vital as it was unique. Many soldiers the team hosted trackside were longtime and enthusiastic NASCAR fans getting the opportunity to attend their first race. Many others were new to the sport, the race diversion a crucial boost to their spirit after combat.

A behind-the-scenes garage tour and a hearty homemade pre-race meal was typically just the beginning of Nemechek‘s care for the servicemen and women she met. She could command a room and her sincere concern and appreciation for their work also extended to those that she never got a chance to meet.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (2nd-R) poses with Joe Nemechek (R), driver of the US Army Chevrolet, as Nemecheck

“I would take Joe‘s hero cards and I would take all kinds of stuff I had made up for our fan club with me and give it to the soldiers,‘‘ Nemechek recalled. “And I would give them my [business] card, my name, phone number, where I lived and Joe‘s card too. I carried it with me.

“They must have thought I was in the Army,‘‘ she said with a laugh.

Unquestionably, Nemechek was a special force — as much for her work away from the race track as at it. She cared deeply and was affected by the stories the servicemen and women would share. The sponsorship had become more than just a corporate partnership, it was a calling. She worried about those who were overcoming psychological trauma and those having to adjust to a new physical reality perhaps with prosthetic limbs. She worried about their families and the devout Catholic prayed daily for their safety.

Almost immediately, the Army sponsorship was about way more than how Joe finished in a race.

“A lot of times, I would return the [soldiers‘] emails at night,‘‘ Nemechek said. “My husband went to bed at 9 or 9:30 so I was on the internet after – up until 3 o‘clock in the morning sometimes – and I told them, if you ever get out of the hospital and want to come to a race, you let me know. I will clear it for you to come to a race and I will show you around and tell you about NASCAR.

“And so it was very, very good for me to go and help Joe. And of course, he would talk to them and take time with them.”

The result was relationships that have endured time. What started out as enthusiasm and support for her oldest son‘s NASCAR racing sponsor, became a sentimental outlet for Nemechek — a chance to give back and provide impact.

“There’s generals that my grandmother met during that time period and they still talk to this day,‘‘ John Hunter Nemechek said. “They email back and forth, text back and forth. They’re still in contact, which is absolutely amazing. And a part of this, she had pins on. She’s famous for her hearts as well.

“Always had hearts on and always wearing a patch in memory of John Nemechek as well ‘‘ John Hunter Nemechek said of his uncle and namesake, John who died of injuries suffered in a 1997 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.

The consideration — the strength and appreciation – Nemechek has shared with the thousands of service members in the decades since Nemechek‘s corporate relationship with the Army has come back to her multi-fold. Some of those same people she motivated through injury and despair have helped sustain her as she has triumphantly battled cancer over the last two years. She is currently in remission.

And not surprisingly, her great spirit undeterred.

“Whatever she does, she is, what I call, ‘all in,‘ “Joe Nemechek said. “That [sponsor relationship] had to deal with people and she‘s a people person. So it was exactly right down her line and she could really relate to that. ‘‘

“She‘s genuine. And dealing with the Army and the folks there, it‘s so easy, when you‘re a people person and you love talking to folks and associating with them. It was and it is special.

“We back all the military. We back all the police. We back the folks that keep us safe and give us our freedoms and that was special to her and to me.

“And it still is.”