Auto Racing / Sports

NASCAR and Mother's Day: As mom and grandmother, Martha Nemechek has memories of success and tragedy

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The family-owned NEMCO Motorsports shop in Mooresville, N.C., is a treasure trove of NASCAR.

Martha Nemechek, matriarch of the racing family, has one of every racing suit her son Joe wore as a driver. His helmets, his gloves, his shoes. Hundreds of trophies, photographs, a wall of bookcases filled with scrapbooks. Scale models of every car Joe ever raced (and a dirt bike) are on display. And, parked in a warehouse is one car from every sponsor Nemechek has represented in a 25-year NASCAR career.

"Dale Earnhardt would come to our motor home to eat and come out to the shop and say to Joe, 'I don't have as much stuff as you've got. You are very lucky,' " Martha said.

For Martha Nemechek, that's the world of a NASCAR mom. Collecting, saving and preserving memories is only one part of the job for these ladies, who like moms around the world are honored today on Mother's Day.

"My mom has been right there involved in everything I've ever done, from racing motorcycles to Cup racing, to sports back in school," said Nemechek, the 1992 Nationwide Series champion who won both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway in 2004.

"She's done everything from cooking meals, cleaning, waxing the car, writing press releases, helping us put together sponsorship proposals, taking pictures, doing pit tours, entertaining sponsors. . . . She's done it all.

"Now I have a son coming along."

Indeed, Martha Nemechek, 74, is also a NASCAR grandma.

Joe Nemechek's son, John Hunter Nemechek, races late models in North Carolina and is running a partial NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule this year. On Friday night, Joe finished ninth in the family's No. 8 Chevrolet in the SFP 250 at Kansas Speedway, because John Hunter Nemechek, 16, is not old enough to race on 1.5-mile tracks.

"We try to go to as many of his races and help as much as we can," Martha said of her grandson.

John Hunter Nemechek was named for Joe's younger brother, who was killed in a violent crash when his truck spun into the wall in a Camping World Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1997. He was 27 years old.

The pain never fades for a NASCAR mom struck by tragedy.

"Our family has been through a lot," Joe Nemecheck said. "She's a tough lady."

After her son's death, Martha asked Joe to consider getting out, but a racer is just that. Always a racer.

"Like a lot of parents, you taught them to be good and safe," she said. "I worried about it, but like Joe always told me, 'Mom, John and I always talked about if one of us got hurt, the other one has to keep on going.' He said, 'I can get shot on the street corner, killed in a car wreck . . . I can have a disease or something.' . . .

"I was always worried I wasn't going to be there, which I wasn't when John got killed at Homestead. I was with my parents. . . . I always worried, and I try to keep up with Joe. He usually calls and lets me know how he's done. . . . I pray a lot."

Joe Nemechek, 50, has been a career underdog, driving mostly for underfunded race teams or fielding his own one-car team, so even now Martha stays busy at the shop, running errands, taking messages, picking up the mail and baking cookies for the team.

"I feel so sorry for Joe, he's had to learn it all," she said of her son, who has four wins in 657 Sprint Cup starts. "It doesn't show how good he is. . . . I would bet my Social Security check, if he could get into one of the top Cup driver's cars, he could drive it just as good as they could.

"There's no doubt in my mind. I know Joe. He's thinking about racing all the time. . . . It's hard on him, but he's done well over the years."

Martha and her husband of 55 years, Joe Sr., don't attend many races far from the Carolinas, "because I rather save my money and help Joe with tires or whatever," she said.

"But it doesn't stop me from calling him all the time and talking with him when he's gone, because I do that."

She also lends her support to Nemechek's wife, Andrea, and John Hunter, who won a record 15 races and the Allison Legacy Series championship in 2012.

"Andrea knows a lot about what I've gone through with Joe and John," Martha said. " She's nervous like I was. It seems like when I went to the race, I took two blood pressure pills. . . . If you love your children, and you want to see them do well, I think you have to be involved in their life and let them know you love them. Our family is close and we'll always be close.

"Every time John Hunter won a race in the Allison Legacy cars, we'd look up to heaven -- I was there at his races -- and he'd say, 'Thank God for this car, No. 8 for my Uncle John.' He always gave John credit for that.

"When the anniversary comes up for John, everybody knows, and says, 'Mom, do you know what day?' And I say, 'Yes I do.' "

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

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