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Hero From Afar Becomes Real

Source: Paul Levy, Star Tribune  

February 17, 2009

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

The first time she saw NASCAR driver Ryan Newman out from behind the wheel, Christine Deuker was mesmerized. The smile, Newman's analytical nature, even his hand gestures ... She'd seen it all before.

"It's Joe," she thought to herself, envisioning her 18-year-old son, Joseph Held, who died suddenly from illness in 2001.

She'd watched Newman, then a fresh face on the 2001 racing circuit, interviewed on TV and was startled by the young driver's "calm, humble, positive attitude, the way his serious face exploded into smile, like Joe's."

The next day Deuker's phone rang. It was her brother. "Did you see that new driver?" he asked. "Doesn't he look like Joe?"

Deuker's husband, Steve, noticed, too, how Newman would look down and go deep into thought before he spoke -- like his stepson, Joe.

Christine and Steve Deuker, racing fans who spent their honeymoon in Daytona, Fla., wanted Newman to know how he'd become a hero to them -- and not because of his dramatic win at the Daytona 500 last year or for his nearly three dozen NASCAR victories.

Souls alike

After learning of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's Commemorative Brick Program, they purchased a brick for the Hall's Ceremonial Plaza, slated to open next year in Charlotte, N.C., with this inscription:

"To Ryan Newman: Your demeanor reflects a soul U never met. In you we see our son, Joseph Held."

When NASCAR officials shared the Deukers' story with Newman, he was so touched that he offered to host the couple at last Sunday's Daytona 500, meeting with them Friday, on the eve of the big race. They also were to be Newman's guest on Saturday's race day.

"When I found out about the brick and the Deukers' story, I was really touched," Newman said.

"As drivers, I don't think that we truly realize the impact that we have on our fans. When you hear these personal stories from fans, you can't help but be moved.

"I'm excited that the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Daytona International Speedway were able to bring the Deukers to the track for the weekend. I'm lucky to have such incredible fans."

Their first close-up

Christine Dueker, a Blaine High School teacher who learned to appreciate racing while growing up in Milwaukee, and Steve Deuker, a wheel-chair technician who became infatuated with racing as a teenager in Arizona, made eye contact with Newman once before -- in 2003, at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. When they arrived, Newman was making a promotional appearance. The line of autograph-seekers seemed to go on forever.

The Deukers waited patiently, but they weren't seeking an autograph.

"I just wanted to see him," Christine said. "He was 5 feet away. He moved his hands -- just like my son's. It was too much for me.

"I cried. How do you explain this? When there's somebody you think you'll never see again on the face of the Earth ..."

The Bristol security folks couldn't help but notice the Duekers awash in tears.

"One of them said, 'If you go around back, that's where he'll be,'" Christine recalled.

Christine Dueker yelled to Newman, who looked up and smiled.

A quick response

They met again in 2006, this time at an event in Michigan. Christine shook Newman's hand.

"Every time I saw him, I wanted to tell him ..." Christine said, choking with emotion in mid-sentence. "But how do you do that?"

In September, she learned she had thyroid cancer. Within a week, a get-well card arrived in the mail -- signed by Ryan Newman. A colleague at Blaine High School had contacted Newman's fan club, explaining the adulation Christine had for Newman.

"When the card arrived, we assumed it was from one of the teachers," Steve Deuker said. "We were shocked. And we couldn't believe how quickly Ryan responded."

Christine, who was treated for her cancer and told that she should have a full recovery, looked through a collection of photographs of Joe last week, trying to decide which pictures to show Newman.

"I thanked him for the get-well card he sent and there have been a couple of short hi-how-are-you's through the years," she said. "But now it's finally happening. We actually get to really meet this All-American good Midwestern guy who reminds us of our son."