I’ve been fortunate most of my life. I’m a crew chief on one of the very top and famous Top Fuel Dragster teams in the country, Kalitta Motorsports, and I was married for 20 years to my wife Tammy. It was May of 2012 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.
Unfortunately, I looked at her situation and I thought to myself that I could fix it. As a crew chief, I’m around high-powered race cars all the time. I knew that if there were problems with these cars, we could fix them.
What I realized is that I couldn’t fix Tammy and make the cancer go away. I didn’t understand what she was going through. It took me five months to really understand what was going on with her and the battles that she was facing. Finally, towards the end of 2012, I realized that Tammy was dying in front of my eyes.
At that time, I changed my priorities and she was No. 1 to me. The last six months of her life were as amazing as they were hard, as we went to hospitals, clinics and other places. Though there was much sadness at this time, I learned through the pain—what her loss would mean to my daughter Ashley and me and her dying in front of me—what happiness truly meant.
Tammy went through chemotherapy and radiation and taking pain medication and even had a pain pump implanted in her. None of these things helped make her better. One thing, a very simple item, brought a smile to her face. We went on a last-minute trip to Niagara Falls and it was a difficult time for our family. Tammy was in a wheelchair and I didn’t know how much time on earth she had with us. During the trip, I took her to a Häagen-Dazs® store and got her a scoop of ice cream. For that 15 minutes she was eating ice cream, she was happy and pain-free. I thought to myself, “You gotta be kidding me. I missed what real happiness was all along.”
One of Tammy’s goals before she died was to see Ashley graduate from high school and she was able to do that. I was happy and grateful that Tammy saw Ashley reach that milestone and I knew it would be something she would never forget. It was the last joyful event where we were all together as one family. Then, God called Tammy home in June 2013.
I’ll never forget what an amazing woman Tammy was and I learned so much from her that changed my life. I wanted to share with people and NHRA fans about my work and her life so I wrote a book called “Top Fuel for Life.” One of the things I tell people is that in order to be successful, the first thing you have to do is be happy. When I learned how to be happy first, all of a sudden the performances of our race cars picked up, our team did better and we won a lot of races. I owe everything that’s going on now in my life to Tammy.
The thing that Tammy’s cancer could never do was to erase my enduring love for her. I wrote in my book that cancer “may be the big bully on the block but the day will come when your butt will be kicked.” I, for one, will be celebrating on that day.