Friday 5: Family’s inspiration provides drive for NASCAR tire carrier

As 5-year-old Brett Sanchelli recovered from his internal injuries, he’d sit at the end of his sister’s bed in the hospital room they shared.

He always wanted to help her. If there wasn’t anything to do, Brett just wanted to be with his 4-year-old sister. Maybe they would play a game. If they did, he’d move all the pieces. Courtney couldn’t. The accident left her a quadriplegic. 

While Brett helped as caretaker when Courtney returned to their home in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, he was always her big brother. He’d feed her, push her wheelchair on strolls and do whatever he could to make her smile. 

Courtney’s resiliency inspired him. As did his mother and father, whose selflessness kept the family together during many difficult days.  

After Brett turned 18, he honored his sister and parents with a tattoo. The image is covered by the firesuit he wears as a tire carrier for Michael McDowell’s pit crew. But if Sanchelli peeled his uniform and the shirt underneath off, one would see, above his heart, a shield similar to Superman’s. Instead of an S in the emblem, there is the letter H for heart.

“We were always about heart,” Brett said, sitting next to Courtney on the deck of their parents’ home along High Rock Lake near Lexington, North Carolina. 

“We never gave up. We always fought through any adversity that life threw at us.”

No day was worse than Aug. 30, 2000, for the family.

Debbie Sanchelli had Brett and Courtney with her when their vehicle veered off the road about a mile-and-a-half from their home and smashed into a tree. 

A family friend who was an EMT was in traffic behind Debbie. The friend and a police officer, who was nearby, quickly arrived and began to perform CPR on Courtney. A paramedic on a training run heard the call and was the first ambulance on site by four minutes. 

Brett’s pre-kindergarten teacher saw the family’s car and stopped. Debbie, who suffered a broken hip, leg and ankle, told the teacher to get her husband. When Michael was informed of the crash, he rushed out of the house without shoes.

<em>Brett Sanchelli laughs with his sister Courtney while spinning her wheelchair on the deck of their family’s home in Lexington, NC (Photo: Dustin Long)</em>
Brett Sanchelli laughs with his sister Courtney while spinning her wheelchair on the deck of their family’s home in Lexington, NC (Photo: Dustin Long)

At the hospital, a doctor told Michael that Courtney might not live through the night. Courtney’s heart stopped multiple times over the next week. At one point, Michael was asked about signing a do-not-resuscitate order for his daughter. He needed to talk to Debbie, but she was two floors above her children’s hospital room under medication for her injuries. 

It has taken years, but Debbie says the day of the accident is “a day we’ve come to almost celebrate. I know it’s hard for people, when they look at Courtney, to understand that it could have been worse. She’s fully cognizant. So, like any child growing up, she can tell me she loves me. … But it could have been so much worse. We’re grateful to all be here.” 

Debbie wipes a tear.

“We don’t talk about it a lot,” Michael said. “It’s there. It’s never going to leave. That day … your worst nightmare.”

Courtney looks at that day and doesn’t lament her fate. Instead, she looks at what she has. 

“I could have lost everything,” she said. “I could have lost my brother. I could have lost my mom. He means the world to me, as much as I’m sure I mean to him. Without him, I don’t know where I would be in life, where I would be spiritually, mentally and physically.”

<em>Brett Sanchelli looks at the graphic design work Courtney has done on her computer. (Photo: Dustin Long)</em>
Brett Sanchelli looks at the graphic design work Courtney has done on her computer. (Photo: Dustin Long)

With Courtney facing major surgery in early 2012 that had her anxious, Brett sought to find a way to make her feel better. He and a friend hatched a campaign to get her nominated for homecoming queen in fall 2011. 

The day the nominees were announced, Brett was excused from school to get his driver’s license. Debbie drove him to school just so he could hear the announcements and if Courtney, then a sophomore, would be nominated before he went to get his license. 

The day that the homecoming queen would be announced at the school’s football game, it rained. Trying to get Courtney to the middle of the field in her wheelchair would be a chore, but members of the community collected plywood. They placed the pieces on the field so she could be pushed to midfield by Brett.

They were together when Courtney was selected as homecoming queen.

“That was the best feeling ever to get to see that smile on your face when we won,” Brett tells Courtney on their family’s deck.

“That was pretty good,” Courtney says, who keeps the tiara from that night in a case among other prized possessions. 

Debbie dabs her eye as she thinks about that night and what Brett did for Courtney.

“It was probably one of the proudest moments, knowing that I raised a son who was so selfless and wanted to do that for his sister,” she said. “And great joy on her behalf, knowing that there was a lot she wouldn’t be able to do, and that the community and students got together to support her and to give her that nod.”

<em>The tattoo Brett Sanchelli had put over his heart in honor of his sister Courtney and their parents. (Photo: Dustin Long)</em>
The tattoo Brett Sanchelli had put over his heart in honor of his sister Courtney and their parents. (Photo: Dustin Long)

After Brett graduated from high school, he faced one of his most difficult challenges. He wanted to be a pit crew member after seeing the crews in action in a race at Dover International Speedway, but to do so meant moving from New Jersey to North Carolina and leaving his sister and parents behind. 

“It was definitely difficult,” said Brett, who left home a couple of months after graduating high school. “I visited about a month after I left and every time I visited it was harder to leave.”

On those occasions he made it back home, one night was set aside for Courtney. It was popcorn-and-movie night.

“She got to pick the movie,” Debbie said, “and he would just sit at her bedside or crawl into the bed and snuggle with her and they’d watch their movie.”

These days, Courtney takes college classes online. Her dream is to be a graphic designer. 

To Brett, she is so much more. She is inspirational.

“Everybody has God-given abilities to do everyday things that she cannot do,” he said. “I never take that for granted. I told myself that I would rather use up every ounce of my God-given ability than ever waste an ounce of it.”

That pushes him each day he trains at RFK Racing as a member of McDowell’s pit crew for Front Row Motorsports.

“You got to work hard every single day,” he said. “You have to be driven. Some people wake up and they think, ‘Oh, today is an off day.’ I don’t ever think I’m going to have an off day.”

Each day he removes his shirt is a reminder of what his family has endured and how they’ve overcome challenges. 

“I’m always thinking about them,” Brett said. “They are the reason why I go out there on Sundays. Everybody has to have a why. Otherwise you’re just doing just based off willpower, and willpower eventually wears out. 

“You’ve got to have a why. The reasons why you get up every single day, why you do the things that you do and things that you love. They are. Every single day.”

2. Comparing Kevin Harvick to other greats

Kevin Harvick’s victory at Richmond at the age of 46 years, 8 months and 6 days does not make him the oldest driver to win a Cup race, but what Harvick has done puts him in elite company when looking at age-related achievements in other sports.

The oldest NBA player to score at least 40 points in a game is 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan. He was 40 years and 4 days when he scored 43 points against what was then the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 21, 2003.

The oldest NFL quarterback to throw five touchdowns in a game is Tom Brady. He was 44 years, 2 months, 7 days when he did it Oct. 10, 2021, vs. the Miami Dolphins. 

The oldest Major League Baseball pitcher to throw a no-hitter was Nolan Ryan. He was 44 years, 3 months and 1 day when he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on May 1, 1991. 

But Harvick still has a ways to go to catch some marks.

The oldest driver to win a Cup race is Harry Gant, who was 52 years, 7 months and 6 days when he won at Michigan on Aug. 16, 1992.

The oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby is Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 years, 8 months and 15 days when he won the 1986 Kentucky Derby aboard Ferdinand.

3. Staying positive

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson is winless in his last 22 Cup races and has four top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts, but he’s kept a positive outlook on what has been a challenging year.

A year ago, Larson had one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history. He won the Cup championship, the All-Star Race and 10 points races. His five playoff wins matched Tony Stewart’s record in 2011 for most during the postseason.

In 2021, Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals, the most prestigious midget car race in the country. He won the Knoxville Nationals, the premier sprint car race in the country and also won the Kings Royal, another elite event. He won the Prairie Dirt Classic dirt late model race, among the country’s top events for that series.

The wins, though, haven’t come as often this year in any form of racing for Larson.

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400
Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson’s only Cup win this year came in February at Auto Club Speedway, but he feels his team is pointed in the right direction to make a deep playoff run. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I don’t let it get to me,” he said. “I’d probably be in a better mood if I was winning all the time, but I still feel like I’ve done a good job of staying positive though not winning as much. I have a pretty realistic mindset. … I won 46 races in 2020 and 33 last year. 

“That’s a lot of to win. Not often you see someone win that much. I realistically know that you’re going to have bumps in the road. Kind of everything went right for me the last couple of years. It seems like this year not much has gone right.”

But with the playoffs near, Larson feels confident about what’s ahead.

“I feel like we’re getting some momentum to the tail end of our regular season,” he said. “We’ve had good cars every week, so that’s the most important piece, I feel like, to contend for the championship. 

“It’s about limiting our mistakes as a whole, and I think we can make a good run at it. Everybody’s season has really been inconsistent, maybe aside from Chase (Elliot) there for a month and a half or two months. If you can find consistency, I think you can make a deep run in the playoffs.”

4. Next Gen will make Glen a different experience 

This weekend marks the first time the Next Gen car has competed at Watkins Glen. The only time the Next Gen car has been at Watkins Glen was for a May 24-25 tire test with Chris Buescher, William Byron and Martin Truex Jr.

Christopher Bell said the Next Gen car should change things based on what he experienced in the simulator this week.

“It is a lot different,” Bell said. “The run-off area we have outside the carousel, we would use that all the time with the old car, but with the Next Gen car it just becomes very sketchy whenever you  jump over the rumble strips,” he said, noting the Next Gen’s underside and how it impacts aerodynamics. “The really rough racetrack on the outside there, makes the car very unsettled. I would expect that to be completely different.

“The bus stop, the way you jump off the curbs and land really abruptly, I think that will be really different too. … Certain parts of the racetrack are going to be vastly different.”

Kyle Larson hasn’t been on the track but he’s studied data and an on-board camera from Byron’s car from the test. 

“It’s a much faster pace,” Larson said of his observations. “I just feel like you don’t have as much time to relax. I feel like we’ll be running qualifying laps the whole time. I don’t think you’re going to be able to pass very well. Restarts and stuff, you may be able to get people, but as soon as things get strung out, it will be very, very difficult to pass just because the braking zones are way shorter than the previous car (with the better brakes on the Next Gen car).”

Larson noted that there’s a chance of rain for Sunday’s race. 

“I honestly hope it rains because I think that will make the racing a lot better,” he said. 

5. Number crunching

Chase Elliott will clinch the regular season title with a 61-point lead over second place after Watkins Glen. He currently holds a 116-point lead on second heading into Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Ryan Blaney holds the final playoff spot. He leads Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points. Blaney has outscored Truex by 53 points in the four previous road course races this season.

Seven of the 16 drivers who won races last season have yet to win this year. They are AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Blaney and Truex.

Fifteen different winners through 24 races ties for the most through 24 races.

Chevrolet has won all four road course races this year. Trackhouse Racing and Richard Childress Racing have two wins each. Ross Chastain won at Circuit of the Americas and Daniel Suarez won at Sonoma for Trackhouse Racing. Tyler Reddick won at Road America and Indianapolis for RCR.

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Friday 5: Family’s inspiration provides drive for NASCAR tire carrier originally appeared on NBCSports.com