BY JEFF FALK
LEHIGHTON – Justin Nicarry made a wish upon a star. But what he realized went beyond even his wildest dreams.
During the intermission of Saturday night’s racing card, Niccarry, an 18-year-old resident of Fredericksburg and a senior at Northern Lebanon High School, was the very special guest of Mahoning Valley Speedway and Lebanon stock-car driver Bobby Gerhart. What Nicarry was treated to was not only the thrill of a lifetime, but something only a few people have ever experienced – the opportunity to pilot Gerhart’s very expensive, black number-five Chevrolet Monte Carlo, ARCA-series race car.
Yet it was more than just a spin around Mahoning Valley’s quarter-mile paved oval for Nicarry. Decked out in a racing suit and helmet provided by Gerhart – and with his name decaled over both doors – Nicarry got to compete against two other professional racers.
In front of Mahoning Valley’s appreciative fan base, but showing very little apprehension, Nicarry’s right foot took to the throttle of Gerhart’s car immediately. And by the time honorary race official Gerhart had dropped the checkered flag on the ten-lap exhibition, Nicarry, who suffers from Ewing’s sarcoma, had become very accustomed to Mahoning Valley’s turns and the handling of Gerhart’s speed machine.
“It was fast, tight and fun,” said Nicarry, who’s undergoing chemotherapy treatments. “It felt amazing. I wish I could do it again. I was just getting used to it. I know how to drive, but that was the greatest feeling clutch I ever felt. I just barely touched the gas, and I took off.
“It felt like a lot of power,” continued Nicarry. “I probably had too much courage for what I knew. The only thing I’ve ever been in that was that fast was the plane I was in 30 minutes before I came. It was darn close.”
“He got a little emotional,” said Gerhart of Nicarry. “You can’t help get emotional. I got goosebumps just thinking about it. I knew it would be a hard thing to do. It just fits into his life.
“I have no idea how he did,” Gerhart continued. “I was as nervous as he was. My track record as an owner is not good. Getting drivers calm is the biggest thing. I tried to tell him, ‘This is what you’re going to feel.’ He did exactly what I told him to do. He did a great job.”
On his behalf, the local Make-A-Wish foundation initially approached Gerhart about the possibility of Nicarry visiting his race shop on East Cumberland Street in Lebanon. For Gerhart, that wasn’t special enough.
He concocted and then proposed to Make-A-Wish and the Mahoning Valley management his idea for making a surprise Nicarry would remember for the rest of his life. All that was left for Gerhart to do was provide him with a little pre-race instruction.
Nicarry knew what to do from there.
“No, I didn’t know nothing,” said Nicarry. “I just found out I was coming to the race yesterday. I just kind of got the gist of what they were saying. No, I could never imagine I was going to drive the car.
“I like racing, but today was the first day I met him (Gerhart),” added Nicarry. “I did hear of him before.”
“It was perfect,” said Gerhart, an eight-time ARCA Daytona winner. “It started out with a phone call from Make-A-Wish. They just asked me what I thought. This is what I came up with. I told them they just needed to run it up the ladder, and they did. There isn’t anybody who wouldn’t want to be a part of it. I was proud to be a part of it. But it was the race track’s idea to put the other cars out there.
“We were celebrating someone’s life,” Gerhart added. “Make-A-Wish put the ball in my court and asked me about the ideas I had. I’m just fortunate to be in a position to make something like this happen.”
Ewing’s sarcoma is a bone cancer found mostly in children and adolescents. If detected early enough, the affliction can be treated and managed.
“I’m feeling good,” said Nicarry, who was diagnosed in April. “I have four more months of chemotherapy and I’ll be all clear. Chemo’s hell, short and simple. Hell. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
“Make-A-Wish stopped out to see how I was doing,” Nicarry continued. “They asked me what I liked. And I said, ‘cars’.”
“Tonight was a career night for me,” said Gerhart. “To do something that was so important for a kid like that, there’s nothing more fulfilling. Hopefully, he’s going to be around for a long time.
“It (the car) fits into the process of what we were doing,” continued Gerhart. “It’s got a Hendricks motor in it. There’s not a scrap piece in it. It wasn’t a big thing to do, especially to celebrate someone’s life. To be able to take a moment of time, it’s not a big deal. I know he had a nice drive.”
A fierce competitor, the 57-year-old Gerhart can sometimes be gruff, distant and guarded to those outside of his inner circle. But cancer – a disease that claimed both his father and mother – is a cause that is both near and dear to his heart.
“My first reaction was: ‘There’s no way we’re just going to have a meeting at my shop’,” said Gerhart. “I can’t control how other people judge me. Call it a curse or call it a blessing, but my father (Bobby Gerhart Sr.) has my name. I’m very proud to be his son.”
“I’ve been off chemo for four weeks now,” said Nicarry. “You learn life is short. You’ve got to make the best of it. If you think you’re miserable you’re going to be miserable.”
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