Thankful for the Time We Had

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Editor’s Note: John Olsakovsky, frequent contributor to OpenPaddock.net and brother-in-law to Kevin Neely, has offered up this tribute to Kevin. This Thanksgiving Day, we remember our colleague, fellow motorsports fan, and most importantly our friend. We’re thankful for the time that we had to share.

It’s taken me a month to be able to compose this. I’ve started a number of times and stopped, either because work got in the way, I became overwhelmed with emotion or simply ran out of words. Open Paddock readers are probably aware that Kevin Neely passed away last month. Kevin was my wife’s brother. Needless to say, the entire family is only now starting to recover from the shock of losing someone so young, so vibrant and so selfless and actually grieving. I’m fortunate that I haven’t caused permanent damage to my laptop from tears falling into the keyboard.

Kevin shared a passion for motorsport much the same as myself. The Neely family are all gearheads to some degree or another. The small Alabama town where Kevin grew up was about a half mile from Sayre Speedway, a quarter-mile paved oval that is nothing less than short-track heaven. His grandfather worked the pit gate. His grandmother worked concessions and my wife begged to work there as early as she could. Race fuel runs in the Neely family blood for many generations.

NeelyTribute-1When Kelly and I met, one of our first “dates” involved a tour of Talladega Superspeedway shortly after the final race under the Winston Cup banner. The signage had yet to be changed to Nextel and victory lane was still sticky with beer, Gatorade, soda and whatever else. I made a point to pry a piece of confetti off the pavement as a small souvenir and still have it somewhere. On that same trip, I met Kevin for the first time. After assuring me that I would meet God if I ever hurt his sister, he showed me his most prized possession: A personal letter from Jacques Villenueve from his CART days.

Every race fan wants to meet their heroes, and some get the opportunity. Kevin didn’t just want to meet one of the greatest race drivers and pick his brain. Kevin wanted him over for supper! Being a part of this family, I know that his mom would open her home and her table to Jacques, and probably made his favorite dessert. I’m sure Kevin would have convinced Jacques to make laps around the ten-acre property in the clapped-out homemade go-kart, after dessert.

It’s not hard to imagine that two lifelong race fans would bond over racing. He took me to my first Grand-Am race at Barber Motorsports Park, back when they ran in late June in the oppressive southern heat. Sitting in the treeline along the backstretch guzzling water, we laughed watching the Daytona Prototypes under caution trying to make laps and hold a door open to get a bit of airflow to stave off heat exhaustion.

I took a day off work to go with him to the first IndyCar test session at Barber. We both knew that this was a preclude to an IndyCar race at Barber, and we were both giddy at the idea. We committed to be there for the inaugural Honda Grand Prix of Alabama before it was even announced. And we did go, making it an annual ritual to perch on the hillside overlooking Turn 2. After moving to Houston, we continued to make the pilgrimage to Birmingham to see family and go to Barber. We watched the event grow and evolve, loving it more and more every year.

This year, I wasn’t able to go. My mother broke her leg and I went to help her return home from a stint in a rehab hospital. Knowing I wasn’t able to go, I asked Kevin if he would go to the Continental Tire booth and get me a hat if they had them available as swag. He gladly obliged, and when his parents came to visit later in the year, thy brought a care package with hats, lanyards, can and bottle cozies, hero cards, stickers and whatever other free stuff he could grab. It was the same bag of race stuff I’d have brought home if I’d been there.

Neely-and-WheldonWhile at that first IndyCar test, we were wandering through the paddock and came upon Kevin’s idol, Dan Wheldon. Kevin insisted that he get a photo with Dan. I didn’t understand that level of hero worship, but was glad to wait patiently while Dan finished his conversation with someone else. Dan was gracious and posed for a picture. Kevin cherished this photo and even laughed as we poked fun at his girth, titling it “The near-total eclipse of Dan Wheldon.”

When Dan met his tragic end in Las Vegas, his parents were visiting us to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday. We were strolling around a local car show and Kevin called us to say there was a bad accident, and the race was red flagged. He texted me updates when the stopped the race and that they were taking Dan to the hospital. We returned home and watched the accident on the DVR and waited for the news we all feared was coming. That day, I pulled up this photo. There’s some comfort seeing both Dan and Holly smiling, never mind that this was a personal connection we shared. Needless to say, this was the first photo I thought of when Kevin passed away. It’s eerie that the anniversaries of their deaths are a week apart.

We are all still adjusting to this void in our lives. Personally, I want to call Kevin for his thoughts with every bit of racing news I come across. “What would Kevin think?” has become a frequent question, and I’ve considered getting it made into a t-shirt. What’s funny, is that Kevin would react to nearly every racing news item with the same response: “I’m not surprised.” At first, I believed this was his attempt at sounding objective and knowing like a professional journalist. Over time, I figured out that he genuinely wasn’t surprised by much, and would think rationally and logically about the reasons behind events like driver retirements, team changes, and so on. When it came to IndyCar, he understood the inner workings better than anyone I know and it was my turn to say, “I’m not surprised” when Kevin was tapped to fill in Shaun as the IndyCar beat reporter while Shaun was deployed overseas.

NeelyTribute-2Kevin was more than a race fan, as we all are. He was a DJ and producer on top of his day job at a local law firm. He was part of a record label set up with a friend to promote Christian electronic music. He played for events ranging from proms and weddings to corporate events. The weekend before he died, he was playing at a Susan G Komen Foundation event at Talladega Superspeedway in the cold, miserable weather despite being sick. Kevin was able to somehow combine multiple passions and play music at a race track. He was truly blessed, and he knew it.
One thing that I’ve learned over the past month is that Kevin was one of the most selfless, caring men I’ve ever known. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. No hesitation. No pretense. No request for the shirt to be returned. Shortly before he died, he posted this on Facebook:

Everyday at work, I see homeless people downtown. I see the same people every day…the same people literally for years. Tonight, I saw a homeless guy who obviously wasn’t messed up or anything, but rather a victim of circumstance. That’s what really gets to me… Honestly, I’m going to have a hard time getting to sleep tonight because I keep thinking about it. Sometimes I don’t understand why God’s been so good to me when I haven’t always been so good to him. This is honestly why I get so depressed around Christmas. I feel guilty. Here most of us are, worried about buying presents or parties or decorating, when we completely ignore one of the main tenants of why we even celebrate Christmas. Christmas isn’t about GETTING. It’s about GIVING. How can I, in good mind, accept things when there’s so many people out there that don’t even have the basic necessities. We also have to remember that these people don’t just exist around the holidays…They’re there year round. you know…Sometimes I think I have problems… I don’t have problems, outside of the ones between my ears…

The thoughts were shared by some of his musical colleagues, and they organized a weekly event in a local park to use as a donation point for local charities catering to the homeless in Birmingham. Local DJs would play and entertain and others would receive donations, sort clothes and help out. It wasn’t a big deal, but it helped. The Sunday after he passed on, Kevin committed to play at the park. We felt it was only fitting that we took all Kevin’s clothes from his apartment and donated them at this event, one he had a hand in creating. It was a project coming full circle. It was the most perfect act I’ve ever been a part of.

It’s difficult to remember by brother without getting a bit preachy. He truly embodied the life that I believe Jesus Christ wanted us to live. He cared about himself last and gave of himself in everything he did. He may have been more than a decade my junior, but I looked up to him. I take that back. I still look up to him, and I always will. Thank you for being my brother, Kevin Neely. May you rest in peace.
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