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Raceway giant John Cardinale departs all too soon

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 11:33 p.m.

The news came Friday morning and, as what happens to people when it's news like this, I froze and everything around me froze. The wall clock stopped ticking. My son went mute. My coffee cup, halfway to my lips, remained there, suspended in mid-air. I was no longer in my kitchen. I was no longer anywhere. All I saw was John Cardinale and he was smiling.

John had died sometime either late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway's general manager, wasn't sure. Steve didn't say much. Neither did I. Wasn't necessary. When life is unfair, it robs you of a target to attack, to accuse, to demand a change. Damn it, you pound your fist, looking into the void and the void ignores you.

John, media relations manager for the raceway, was my friend. If you had met him, he would have been your friend, too.

I work in an industry in which ego dots the landscape like so many grapes in a vineyard. It's everywhere, from the pros all the way down to the youngest of youth sports. At some level, it's healthy, necessary. At other levels, ego consumes all in its path and turns admirers into cynics. John didn't get the memo that it had to be about him.

For John, it was about others. It was always about others. You wouldn't have known his name was golden all across America at every racetrack big enough to have indoor plumbing. “So, you know, John?” someone asked me once at Texas Speedway. Just like that. Didn't even use John's last name. Yes, I knew John and, presto, I was more than a meat sack carrying a notebook.

“I'm a simple man,” John would tell me now and then and I would grin the grin of ridiculousness. He was trying to make himself ordinary, common. But, John, this is where you messed up: People do not remember, love, cherish ordinary men. People do not grieve for ordinary men as they now are grieving over you. People do not curse the void when an ordinary man leaves at 47.

To leave a mark, to have an impact, is one of the most basic human desires. All of us want to be noticed, valued, before our time ends. All of us want to know that for as long as we trod terra firma, we did more than just occupy space and burn calories and gasoline. We want to matter.

Emma and Lauren, you should know now and forever your dad mattered. You should know he will never disappear into the ether. You should know his courage in fighting stomach cancer for 25 months is a template for anyone trying to handle the disease. He told me that from the time he was first diagnosed he spent almost every moment of everyday thinking of the disease. Yet, remarkably, John never burdened people with it.

He had a job to do. He had kids to raise. He had a wife to love. He had a life to live. Even on that day after a particularly debilitating treatment, when he had to take one step at a time going up the stairs at his home in Martinez, clinging to the handrail, John never let go of life. He never stopped believing in the possibilities before him.

Girls, that tenacity, isn't that something! That love of life, isn't that terrific! OK, sure, there were moments his voice would break. He would stare straight at me. He'd go quiet and then he'd clench fists and then, paraphrasing now, John would say something like he'd be damned if he was going to back down. So what if the odds were against him?

“I am not a number,” he said. “I am a person.”

That person made a pledge to himself when he was 8 years old. His father was an alcoholic. Life many times in San Francisco was dysfunctional, unpredictable. Having to sleep on a sofa for five years reminded him of that everyday.

“This isn't going to happen to me when I grow up,” young Cardinale said to himself. “I'm going to work hard. I'm going to make a better life for myself. I'm going to have a family. I'm going to have kids. I will be there for them every day. Every day.”

John, you were. You kept your promise. Life cheated you but you didn't cheat life. You gave your kids what you never had, a solid base, a firm grasp on right and wrong. Like so many others, I feel lucky to have known you, the most decent man I have ever met.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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