NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., #88, & Mountain Dew – Words I don’t hear as much as in years past, but words that filled our days when our son was alive. We still keep up on the races since he’s been gone this past year and a half, but it’s just not the same anymore. Sunday afternoons now from February thru November are not always spent sitting anxiously in front of the TV listening to the National Anthem being sung in preparation for this week’s NASCAR race, nor for the rumble of almost 50 Sprint Cup race cars as the celebrity of the week announces “Gentlemen, start your engines!”. Chad would sit on the edge of his seat and ask us every five minutes “Where’s Junior?” throughout the entire 3-4 hour race. We still cheer for Junior, but when he doesn’t win, we miss hearing the words that Chad always said after each loss, “He tried, Dad! He tried!” When we see Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s car racing around the track at Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte, or some other track, I think of the words he said to Chad at Kansas Speedway in April of 2013 when we met him, “I just wish I had your “nerves of steel”, Chad, when I’m out there racing!” Junior was so impressed with Chad’s bravery and courage in facing Batten Disease that finally took him from us on Feb. 9, 2014.
There’s another person whom Chad truly admired and was proud to call “friend”, and that is Kerry Stitzel. Kerry is the Southwest Iowa Transit bus driver who picked Chad up four days a week and transported him to and from Nishna Productions, a sheltered workshop in Shenandoah, IA. On their trips back and forth, they forged a strong friendship and discovered their mutual love of NASCAR racing, although they differed on who their favorite drivers were. Kerry was a Tony Stewart fan, and of course, Chad wouldn’t cheer for anyone but Junior. Every race, they had an ongoing bet on who would have the best finish. Whoever’s driver finished behind the other had to bring a Mountain Dew to pay up the day after the race. That’s another thing they had in common, their love of Mountain Dew! Kerry always took the time to listen to Chad’s stories and understand his speech as it became more difficult for him to talk. He led him up and down the steps of the bus and to the house for as long as Chad could manage to walk. The last six months, he’d come early to push the wheelchair down the ramp and onto the lift of the bus, doing the same in reverse each afternoon. He laughed and joked with him the entire time, not once making him feel inferior or like he was any different than any other young man riding to work with a friend. He preserved Chad’s dignity when he was embarrassed to start using a wheelchair by not making a big deal out of it and accepting his limitations as they became more severe. For his kindness, words of encouragement, and for creating so many wonderful memories with our son, we will forever be indebted to him.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Kerry has been working on his own project to honor his special “buddy” for the past year, and he presented it to us recently. It’s a huge 4×3 handcrafted wooden sign with the words, “NASCAR, 88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., & Mountain Dew” on one side and “Chad Alan Dovel, 1989 – 2014” on the other with his picture above his name. (See the photos above). It’s coated in polyurethane, so it can be displayed outdoors. It’s a beautiful tribute that will add the perfect finishing touch to Chad’s Memory Garden, hanging from the arbor, right above the black and white checkered NASCAR bench with the #88 car on it. It’s obvious that a lot of love, sweat, and tears went into this amazing gift, and we will treasure it forever. Thank you, Kerry, for such a wonderful gift from the heart!