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In The Race
When real life gets real hard – on and off the track
By Kate Morgan

Photo: CIA Stock Photography, Inc.

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, and fans at Dover International Speedway in Delaware are chanting Martin Truex Jr.’s name. Decked out in Truex’s NASCAR team merchandise, many of them have come from South Jersey to cheer their hometown hero to victory.

Truex finished in fourth place at Dover, but he ended the weekend still ahead in the points race and the favorite to win this year’s NASCAR Cup Championship, which will be decided this month in Homestead, Florida.

He’s had a phenomenal year on the track, leading more than 20 percent of the laps raced this season. Heading into Dover, his No. 78 Toyota had already clinched the checkered flag in five races. In short: He’s in it to win it.

The sports media has been enamored with the young driver’s blue-collar story. Born and raised in Mayetta, a tiny Ocean County community, the 37-year-old began rac­ing go-karts as a kid at Jersey’s New Egypt Speedway. He followed in his racer father’s footsteps, making his first Busch Series start in his dad’s Chevy at Dover in 2001.

Things have been fast and furious since then, with more and more wins for Truex. The growing spotlight on his career is a rosy one; Truex is reserved and humble, with none of the attitude often associated with celebrity athletes. He’s constantly expressing gratitude to his fans, his race team and to the people in South Jersey and across the country who are helping him help others.

In 2007, Truex and his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex started the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation to support children with pediatric cancer. The pair went on countless hospital visits, distributing toys, playing games and dressing up like superheroes alongside young patients.

Sherry Pollex; Photo by Glenn Roberson

In 2014, they got a firsthand glimpse into the lives of the cancer patients they’d pledged to support when Pollex was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer.

“It’s crazy,” Truex says. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s crazy. God works in mysterious ways, right? So I think in a lot of ways he was maybe preparing us for what lay ahead, making us stronger, making us understand what it was going to be like and helping us to understand what those kids are really going through so we can try to make a bigger difference or maybe be more passionate about it.”

The foundation added women with ovarian cancer to its mission of support, and on her website, SherryStrong.org, Sherry began blogging about her journey through surgery and chemotherapy. When her cancer recurred this year, she underwent more surgery and more rounds of chemo. She and Truex responded by throwing themselves even more into the cause.

“I was one of the lucky ones who was able to have my tumors removed surgically,” Pollex wrote.

“People ask me all the time how I always have a smile on my face and stay positive when it comes to my disease. The answer is simple: It could always be worse. I don’t look at my disease as a death sentence. Just the opposite, actually. I look at it as the opportunity to live like you are dying. To experience and know a type of joy that most people will never feel.”

Truex says the work of the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation and SherryStrong has taken on a whole new meaning.

“It’s one thing to see the kids you’re helping – you see them, but they’re not completely a part of your life – you’re not seeing them every day, and their struggle isn’t changing the way you go about your day-to-day life,” Truex says.

“So when you get that fresh perspective, up close and personal, it changes who you are and the way you think about things. I think her connection to those kids and what we’ve done over the years has changed her – the way she thinks about life and the way she goes about her days.”

“It certainly has changed a lot about both of us in a positive way,” he continues.

“Hopefully she’ll get through her battle, put it behind her and go on to inspire and help others go through theirs. I think it’s just who we are now. This is the hand we’ve been dealt. We’ve been through hard times and understand that the success we have now is something to cherish and try to be present for and enjoy. We know there are no guarantees that tomorrow is even going to come.”

Martin Truex and his girlfriend Sherry Pollex started a foundation in 2007 to support pediatric cancer patients; Photo by Glenn Roberson

The night before Truex was due in Dover, he greeted family, friends and supporters at the 10th anniversary celebration of his foundation in Little Egg Harbor.

“This is where it all started for us,” Truex says. “This is where I’m from. This is where I became a racer and where my first race fans ever were. When we first started the foundation, our first event was right here, so we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else to celebrate 10 years.”

The Martin Truex Jr. Foundation raised hundreds of thousands this year for pediatric and ovarian cancer research initiatives. At the anniversary celebration, Truex presented a check for $15,000 to Ocean of Love, a Toms River nonprofit that provides financial support to the families of kids with cancer.

After the event, Truex’s neighbors and oldest fans milled around the country club’s ballroom, discussing their travel plans; many of them will be road-tripping to Florida this month to celebrate Truex’s championship – which they consider a sure thing. Truex was at ease as he signed autographs and smiled in selfies.

“There’s a chance that a couple years ago I could have lost my job and not had the chance to race ever again. These people supported me then, and they support me now,” Truex says. “And now here I am winning the most races and being the guy dominating the sport. I’m just thankful for how things have gone.”

When asked about his goals beyond this season – both behind the wheel and at the helm of his growing foundation – Truex becomes introspective.

“There’s a lot more I want to accomplish in my life,” he says. “I hope I’m nowhere near the end of my racing, but I’m just thankful for where I’m at and how things have gone. I hope people will think of me as just a regular guy who’s doing really big things and helping people.”

November 2017
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