BROOKLYN, Mich. - They will hold a race at Michigan International Speedway today - the first August event this place has ever seen without Dan Mohr.
Mohr has always been there, wrapped in his fire suit and seated in his track crew truck, tucked away inside turn three, waiting for an accident he hoped would never come.
Mohr was just a stagehand in these monstrous productions called NASCAR races - a guy in the background with a name nobody knew, a job most people don't understand, and a dedication few could duplicate.
Today, about six miles away from the track and down a dusty gravel road, Dan Mohr, 72, sits in a simple house trailer with wide flower beds outside and a decent view of Silver Lake from the picture window. He is essentially powerless as an insidious disease tears away at his nervous system, methodically strangling the life out of him.
The medical folks call it Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), but for the tight-knit MIS family, the fatal affliction commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease is now much more personal, much more real.
For them, it is now Dan Mohr's disease.
Gehrig, the Hall of Fame baseball player, first brought national attention to the disease in 1939 when he made an emotionally charged announcement at Yankee Stadium that his career was over, due to ALS. Gehrig carried himself with dignity and class, refusing to lament his plight, and instead calling himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth for the experiences life had served up.
"Dan Mohr is so much like Lou Gehrig in that respect," longtime friend and MIS director of facilities Dan Salenbien said. "He has never complained about this thing that has captured him and stolen his life. Instead, he's been grateful for what he has, and the things he's been able to enjoy. And he's remained dedicated to this place he's loved for so long."
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Dan Mohr was here before there was any here. He was part of MIS when this 1,400 acres of the Irish Hills was being transformed from a swampy bunch of nothing into a racing venue with a very big future - a track that will host some 150,000 fans for today's 3M Performance 400 Nextel Cup race.
When the track was under construction in 1967, Mohr was here. When it opened in 1968 with a 12,000-seat grandstand, Dan Mohr was part of the original track crew - the guys charged with responding to any crash and cleaning up the mess. They put the track back in racing condition - in minutes if not seconds.
"We're just people who love racing and found a way to be around it," said Joe Baker, a member of Mohr's crew for 35 years and the individual who has had to take the lead following Mohr's departure.
"We were a team, and every team needs a leader, and for us that leader was Dan Mohr."
Since that humble beginning, MIS has expanded its fan seating numerous times, the track has undergone changes in ownership, and the old metal guardrails and battery-powered lights that surrounded the track have long since been updated and replaced. Mohr has always been a part of the evolution.
"When it got more popular and crowded, we used to stay in the camper in the infield, but you couldn't get any sleep," Mohr's wife, Eloise, said. "There was country music played real loud over here, a bunch of hippies over there, and another crowd of people just yelling and screaming. They were having a good time, I guess."
The track crew made a go of it with what now seems like primitive equipment. They used prybars, push brooms, and big drums filled with drying agent used to clean up spills.
"I would be strapped on the tailgate of the truck, and we spread it around by hand," Baker said. "It was dangerous, but Dan always made sure his guys were safe. He had their safety first in his mind."
Mohr's close friends say it was the length of his relationship with MIS that has made his forced separation from the facility so difficult.
"He was right there from the beginning, and he watched it grow, and he helped it grow," Baker said. "Places like MIS don't exist without guys like Dan Mohr there making it all work. He's part of the foundation of that place."
ALS is steadily taking away everything that Dan Mohr loves. He now has to be fed through a tube that is threaded through his abdomen. His left arm is no longer useful, and he is starting to drag his left foot. His speech was stolen some time ago.
"The doctors at the Mayo Clinic told us in March of 2006 that he had maybe three years to live, or as much as seven," Eloise said. "But when we went back there last November, they said the disease is moving a lot faster than they expected."
ALS attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, short-circuiting them and producing muscle weakness and then atrophy.
You could make the case that Mohr's speech is not one of the most critical losses - Mohr didn't waste words when he had them to spend.
"Before he got this bad, they wanted Dan to do a spot for the Jerry Lewis Telethon," Elosie said, "but you could never get him to talk about himself. That's just not his nature."
Mohr breaks down now - not out of self-pity, but out of frustration over the handcuffs the disease has shackled him with and because erratic swings of emotion are yet another curse of this awful malady.
He scribbles on a note pad to make his point, then anxiously hopes his message got across. His eyes tell you what is in his heart.
"It's his sheer dedication to the sport and the place he loved that makes Dan Mohr such a unique man," Salenbien said. "I'm sure that just not being here is eating him up more than that disease that is his demise. When Dan was here, the safety crew was something I never had to worry about. He did it, and it was done."
The Mohrs have been married for 53 years, and they spend time now looking through family pictures and reliving the rich deposits in their memory banks. They have stubbornly conspired to prevent ALS from ruining their final days together.
Mohr worked 43 years for Tecumseh Products Co., built two homes in Michigan, a cabin in the woods, and owned and operated a car wash in Onsted. He and his wife have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in the fold.
When Eloise talks about her husband, the past tense continually creeps into her dialogue. She has accepted the inevitability of his fate. She fights through the next hour, while celebrating other days, other years, other decades.
"We've had more than most couples have had," she said. "We've traveled and enjoyed our family and a lot of adventures. We started with boats, and we've gone through everything - motorcycles, dune buggies, snowmobiles - and now we're back to boats. What we've shared no disease can rob from us."
The illness is racing through his body, doing irreparable damage everywhere it touches. Mohr understands that what he loses, he won't get back.
"I've learned a lot from him, and I guess the way he is handling all of this is just one more thing for me to learn," Baker said. "He always mentored everyone who came on board, and he made sure the guys were all safe and learned to do the job right. Dan did that up until the day he left."
The files in his mind are still sharp, and Mohr has them stuffed with MIS memories. He recalls with fondness many of the drivers and is still troubled by the terrible pit fire during an Indy car race in the 1980s and the horrific accident that essentially was the beginning of the end of Ernie Irvan's career.
"He's been here for it all," MIS fire protection director Garth Hyliard said. "Dan and his crew were the stage hands that stayed behind the scenes and then put this place back together when something happened. There wasn't a more committed individual you could ever meet in your life. If there was a job to do, he did it."
"Dan always told us the show was for the race car drivers and the fans - it was not for us," longtime crew member Baker said. "He was a wonderfully humble man who always gave 100 percent. He really loved being at the track."
Dan Mohr won't be back at Michigan Speedway. ALS has seen to it that his racing career has hit the wall and come to an abrupt end. The wheel chair ramp has been installed outside the trailer, and he will likely be in the chair before the snow flies. The demon that is ALS will determine if he rides in the pontoon boat or watches many more MIS races from the sunny living room, surrounded by memorabilia from his racing days.
MIS is a different place without Dan Mohr. Not better, not worse - just different. The races will go on, and the track crew he trained so well will continue to stage itself just out of sight and lurch into action when an accident occurs. But MIS is definitely different -one of its original guardian angels has cleared Turn 4 and is headed for home.
Contact Matt Markey at:
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