Life... If we don't pay attention to it and those around us it can one day suddenly be a different place. That happened as I got a text a couple days ago informing me that a racer I grew up watching at the Saint Louis Karting Association and then became a coworker was in the final verse of his battle with cancer.
Gary Shekell had been in karting for many years before I had ever turned my first lap. The name Shekell at the SLKA was regarded with esteem as both Gary, and his brother, were fierce competitors but also raced with the utmost respect for their fellow racers. I never really talked to Gary much in my first nine years in racing but he actually did make an appearance in my book when I talked about the time I black flagged a board member.
It was 2004 and was the next to last race. The ICC shifter class was on the track and the race director raced in that class which put me in charge. For safety's sake we had a zero tolerance policy on passing in any sector that was yellow. If a pass was made the black flag would be shown and Gary made a pass in a yellow zone and there was no wiggle room and even though he was the 2 cycle tech director and the pass was of a slower kart rules are rules. I displayed the black to him and next time by I had my first conversation with him as he stopped at the finish line and asked, "What did I do?" I didn't have much of a voice back then and I was very much weak in confidence so I meekly said, "You passed under yellow?" to which he said, "What? You're going to have to speak a little louder, my engine is running and it's loud!" Here's a driver who's just been black flagged out of the lead and he still was able to make a joke. Once he heard me when I spoke loud enough he said, "I did? I didn't see it but okay." and he sped off. No yelling, no protesting, just acceptance.
Gary would've locked the championship up had it not been for my call so he had to run the final race and in practice he had a nasty flip that required a helicopter ride. I wondered if he held it against me so I always stayed a bit away from him the following year, but there would be no avoiding him when I became the race director for a regional series and I would be riding in the car with him to Quincy, Illinois.
The car ride up is a ride I think about every day. This post is not about me, but while today I travel with USAC and SKUSA around the country this race in 2006 was my first bit of doing anything of the sort and he, along with Greg Yocom, were there to see it. In the first several miles once we left the metro area Gary brought up the sequence of 2004 and the passing under yellow and said, "if I did it then you did the right thing. That's what you have to do as race director." This calmed my nerves and he then gave me more advice on running a race and being race director because I was nothing short of a deer in headlights, but after all that he asked me what I was doing not at the track but in life. I mentioned I had been writing a book and he asked many questions on the subject and all in all he made what was going to be one of the more stressful days of my life and calmed it. Looking back at many of the races I went to with him that was one of his finest qualities.
While he was a fierce driver he was a master mechanic and whomever he was wrenching for would have a chance. The smile he had after Rock Island in 2007 was contagious as this photo shows. (he's on the right)
Here's the thing; life happens and jobs change and the people we know become the people we knew and communication may end. I'm trying to think about when the last time I saw Gary was; it might have been the 2009 Supernats, or a trip I had to make to a motorcycle shop that he worked at, and each time I drove by that shop for the past five years I've thought, "maybe I should go in and say hello... nah, better not." That's the thing, there may not be a next time.
Could I truly call myself a "friend" of his? Probably not, but then again I'm not much of a friend as I stick to myself and rarely will communicate outward, but that's no sign of the respect I had for Gary and all the miles we traveled and stories we told. Every one, everywhere is leaving a lasting impression as everything we do could be the last. Gary lived that way; everything I saw him do he did to the fullest, even if it was throwing a kid kart chassis, with one hand, into a trailer because of a barking dog, but he gave no indication other than that of his frustrations. Whether it was on track, or the check, double, and triple checks he would do for his driver's karts Gary was always striving for perfection. I have no memory of Gary ever doing something at 90% and that's going to be my memories of him. On that ride in 2006 he did everything he could to calm me as it was overtly obvious I might have been in over my head, but he didn't let me think that.
What you, the world, sees today is a project that took a long time to get to where I am. I didn't become who I am over night and at the end of my presentations I now am saying that and also adding that, "I really wish I could thank the people that got me here" and often people think I am only talking about the person that hired me at Easter Seals Midwest, or my parents, or my teachers, but it's more than that. It's the people like Gary that supported me in seemingly minor ways but that helped me be confident at that time and if it weren't for that successful debut race in 2006 I guarantee you I wouldn't be doing what I am today.
So with all this said what can I say? How can I have a fitting end to this? Again, I doubt the word friend can be used and I certainly am not family, but I feel this great sense of regret not giving him a ring when I first learned he had cancer a year or so ago, or stopping by the shop five years ago just to say hello. This never happened and now it can never. I, along with everyone else, am now just left to memories of Gary from the daring moves he pulled off onto the race track to a personality that could really never be kept down. I wish I would've said then, but Gary Shekell you were awesome!