As has been the case many a time in Texas, it all started during a Pat Green song.
While the singer regaled the crowd with his casual, country-fried twang in the infield at Texas Motor Speedway on the night of November 2, 2005, one of his biggest fans was freaking out. The man who built TMS from the ground up and established a reputation as one of the most successful promoters in NASCAR history had a problem. Oh, tickets were selling, sponsors were spending, drivers were smiling, and customers were swaying and singing.
But Eddie Gossage couldn't feel his feet.
"It felt like I was standing on ice," Gossage says. "I was basically numb. If you would have cut off my toes I would have never known it. The only sensation I had was like tiny pins and needles in my feet. And I felt sick to my stomach."
It was neuropathy, a condition in the nervous system that is often a precursor to cancer. "I was diagnosed with that way before any treatment plan, way before I knew I had cancer," Gossage says. "But we know now that was it. The cancer was manifesting itself."
As he sits in the lobby of the Residence Inn hotel just beyond Turn 3 of the Daytona International Speedway two days before NASCAR's season-opening super bowl in mid-February, the president, general manager and founding father of TMS seems uncomfortable with the conversation. He admits that his father died of lung cancer—"He smoked two packs of cigarettes every day starting as a teenager," he says—but refuses to identify the type of cancer that almost killed him in 2009. For once, the P.T. Barnum who brought NASCAR to Texas is short of words.
"Let's talk about something else, something positive," he says. "The Daytona 500 is going to be awesome, and we've got a night race this year at the Great American Speedway. Isn't that more interesting?"
Eventually he relents and says a few things. Gossage, 52, is NASCAR's master marketer, pushing envelopes and putting up obnoxious billboards and anything else it takes to get sports fans to visit his 1,500-acre playground along Interstate 35 in the northern limits of Fort Worth. He expects more than 300,000 fans to attend some or all of this weekend's Samsung Mobile 500. He's kicked cancer's ass. And now, he's back to selling bundles of tickets.
Yep, the man who survived cancer is exactly who you want in charge of resuscitating NASCAR in North Texas.
"Eddie is one of those special people who just got shot out of the womb knowing how to sell, how to promote," says billionaire racing mogul Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns nine tracks, including TMS. "Whatever he does, he injects Eddie into it."
Within a month of getting cold feet at Green's concert, Gossage visited a neurologist. And eventually an oncologist. Three years later he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer. "Every thought goes through your mind," he says. "But we also caught it very early. Cancer will kill you 100 percent of the time if left untreated. So I'm very fortunate."
While competitor and fellow publicity aficionado Jerry Jones was dominating local headlines with the opening of his Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Gossage was hoping merely to survive. There was a stretch in 2009 where for 48 consecutive days he and wife Melinda trekked 90 miles round-trip from his home on Eagle Mountain Lake in Saginaw to Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas.
"I got a little sick from the chemo, but the worst part of the whole deal was the traffic," he says, smiling.
Truth is, Gossage was as scared as he was annoyed. In 2008, a friend of his died from the same type of cancer. There were sleepless nights and difficult days. "There were a lot of mornings where I'd wake up and get out of bed and really question whether I could make it back to bed that night," Gossage says.
Along with daily chauffeuring duties, Melinda had to monitor everything Gossage ate and drank. She made him swish his medicine in his mouth when he desperately wanted to spit it out. She pushed him—doctors' orders—to brush his teeth seven times a day, each time with a new toothbrush. She took Eddie, the man who never slows down, the man in charge of NASCAR's 200-mph stock cars, on long, slow, leisurely walks.
"God has an amazing ability to let you block out the bad things," Gossage says. "I barely remember the times when I was throwing up and telling Melinda that I couldn't do this any longer. What I do remember is the little things that helped me hang on. Every day I was fascinated at how Hoss and Little Joe were going to get out of their predicament on Bonanza. And going on walks. How nice it was to feel the heat on my body. On my feet. Just spending time with her. I'd never gone on walks before, but now it's one of my favorite things in life."