Terminal NASCAR fan fulfills dream of going to the Daytona 500, then passes away in infield

Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – 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.

"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."

On the wall of his home back in Pennsylvania, Mitch had hung a beloved birthday present from Tammy: a clock emblazoned with Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s car. And every hour on the hour, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" would sound. Every hour.

"It was his favorite thing," Tammy said, shaking her head at the thought of that relentless clock. And it was one of so many souvenirs of Earnhardt, Mitch's favorite driver.

T-shirts, coats, hats, playing cards. A water bottle signed by the crew. He had everything.

"When we moved in together, he said, 'This living room's going to be an Earnhardt living room,' " Tammy said. "I said 'Oh, no it's not.' "

In a bit of synchronicity, Mitch's son Mitchell shares a birthday with Earnhardt. When Mitchell was an infant, Mitch took him to Pocono and sat him right in Earnhardt's car.

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"You could do that back then, walk right up to the cars," Tammy said. "Bad things happened. They have fences now. You can get close, but not that close."

Earnhardt died in a crash in Daytona International Speedway's Turn 4 in 2001.

Twelve years later almost to the day, within sight of that same turn, Mitch Zannette also passed away.

"There's no doubt he's up in heaven with Dale," Tammy said, "talking racing, drinking a Budweiser and looking down on us watching this race."

"I tell you, there's no fan like a NASCAR fan," said driver David Gilliland. "And getting to one of these big races, like the Daytona 500, is a lifelong dream for some of them."

"For a lot of these fans, NASCAR isn't just what they watch on TV on Sunday," said David Ragan, who will start 22nd in Sunday's Daytona 500. "It's what they eat, sleep and breathe. … I'm glad to hear that gentleman got here and got to enjoy the moment."

"NASCAR fans are amazing," Tammy said. "They're one big family. When they find out something's happened, they're there for you."

On Wednesday night, when Mitch took ill and finally succumbed, fans stayed with the family until they went to a local hospital, then gathered to comfort the family when they returned.

Mitch had a bucket list. He wanted to hunt caribou in Saskatchewan. He wanted to go on a cruise. But more than anything, he wanted to go to Daytona.

With that almost accomplished, Mitch was already looking forward to the next stop on the schedule.

"He didn't want to go home," Tammy said laughing. "Everybody was texting us while we were down here, asking when we were coming back. He said, 'Oh, we're not coming home. We're following NASCAR!' "

Mitchell smiled at the idea. After all, NASCAR goes from Daytona to Phoenix and then Las Vegas. That's a lot of miles to cover in a rented RV. "Maybe we would've just done the Eastern Seaboard," he said.

The RV is quiet now. The usual detritus of a NASCAR weekend – beer cases, random boxes of food, paper towel rolls, folding chairs – is scattered around the spot in the speedway's Geico Red lot.

Yes, they're staying. They'll be watching Sunday's race, not necessarily because they want to – "This wasn't our bucket list!" Joe said in mock outrage – but because they know it's exactly what he would have wanted.

"It's one thing to stay," Joe said, "but it's another to enjoy. He'd be really bummed if we were down here and we weren't having fun."

After the race ends, Mitch's family will pack up and head back north. They'll have hundreds of people waiting for them; a Facebook group tracking Mitch's journeys has become a de facto grief counseling session. Mitch's funeral is scheduled for March 2, and between now and then there will be plenty of time to reflect on his works and days.

"He didn't have a driver's license for most of his life," Tammy said. "But if he wanted to go somewhere, he got there."

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