Terminal NASCAR fan fulfills dream of going to the Daytona 500, then passes away
Three days, maybe a week. Three weeks ago, that's how much time doctors gave Mitch Zannette to live.
Three days, maybe a week. What can you do in that time? How do you say goodbye to everyone and everything you've ever known? How do you close off a lifetime?
Three days, maybe a week. If you know what you want out of life, it's enough time to write your own last chapter.
So last week, Mitch Zannette checked himself out of hospice and headed to Florida to see the Daytona 500. He made it to the track. Went to the beach. Met Miss Sprint Cup. Drank some beers. And on Thursday, three days before the race, he died in the infield at Daytona International Speedway. He was 50.
Mitch Zannette was a firefighter, a mason, a pool player, a father and a friend. He lived in the tiny borough of Pen Argyl, Penn., population 3,600. His favorite foods were broiled seafood and cream cheese cupcakes. He loved hunting and drinking Budweiser, and both led him to tell some amazing stories. He was a NASCAR fan for most of his 50 years, and rarely missed a race at Pocono, his local track.
In all this, he was not unlike so many other hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans. But for the last 16 months, Mitch had been suffering from lymphoma and bone cancer. His body was withering, even if his mind and spirit weren't. He'd lost so much weight since the days he was the first one onto the fire truck. In October, he'd dislocated his shoulder dragging a buck, the spoils of a hunt, through the Pennsylvania woods.
And then, in early February, the final sentence. An examination prior to chemo revealed that he was dehydrated, and in the hospital he suffered an obstructed bowel. Surgery was deemed too dangerous, but left untreated, the obstruction would be fatal as well. He spent a couple of days in the hospice, then decided enough was enough.
His world had narrowed to a matter of hours. And he knew exactly how he wanted to spend them.
He couldn't fly to Daytona, so he drove.
Zannette left Pen Argyl at 6:00 in the evening of Valentine's Day, accompanied by his longtime companion Tammy Bloodworth, their son Mitchell Anthony, and Zannette's brother Joe. They drove their rented RV down Interstate 95 for 14 hours, arriving midmorning on Friday.
"The hospice nurse gave us a week's worth of [pain] pills, so I asked her if we could do this," Joe said. "She said yeah. The next day, we called for reservations, a motor home, and tickets. We were off to the races. We were gone!"
Once in town, Mitch plunged into the Daytona experience. He watched Danica Patrick make NASCAR history by becoming the first woman to win a pole at a Sprint Cup race. He looked over the garages, watching teams tinker and fiddle with their cars. He walked on the beach one last time. Oh, and he managed to get a photo with one of the lovely Sprint Cup girls.
"He likes the girls," Joe said, lapsing briefly into present tense, "and the girls like him."
And even in his weakened state, he still knew how to have a good time. On Tuesday night, while the short-track races were running on Daytona's back stretch, Joe suddenly realized that Mitch had disappeared.
Zannette fami …"He called my son, and we couldn't hear him because the race was going on," Tammy said. "Mitchell said, 'I couldn't hear what he was saying, he just said something about being at the track.' "
The search party fanned out, and sure enough, they found Mitch trackside. He'd talked his way past the guards and was comfortably sipping soda and hot chocolate as the cars rolled by.
"Everywhere he went he found someone he could talk to, whether it was racing or hunting," Tammy said. "Wherever he went, he made friends."
Joe put it slightly differently: "He could leave with a six-pack and come back with a case." More at Yahoo Sports