They say a true friend is one who sticks with you during the good times and the bad times. True friends stick with you through thick and thin. They see you at your best and also at your worst. They are the ones who love you no matter what.
The test of a true friend is when you have failed or fallen on hard times, because they are the ones still there by your side giving you a big hug and encouraging you not to give up and try again. They don’t judge or condemn you. They do just the opposite. They lift you up and make you feel good.
I’ve just lost a friend like that to cancer, and his name is Joe Carver. It seems like I have known Joe my entire life, certainly my entire racing career. I first met Joe at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn., back in the 1960s when he was working there.
Joe was an upstart public relations guy. I was an upstart race car driver who was trying to make a name for myself. When I started racing there at Fairgrounds, it just seemed like Joe and I bonded.
Joe was a charming and engaging person. He was the classic example of a “people person.” Joe was one of those guys you hear people say, “He never met a stranger.”
Joe loved to promote. I mean, let’s face it, that was his job. I loved to promote because I was trying to get noticed. We did a lot of really cool things together back then. Joe had a local television show called “Pit Stop,” and I was a frequent guest. That really was the start of my training in television. Joe and I and our friend Hope Hines would do that show locally on Saturdays. Joe worked with me and got me comfortable in front of a camera. That opened doors for me to meet Ralph Emery. Ralph, of course, was a legendary television host and I learned a lot from him, but if it hadn’t been for Joe, I never would have gotten the opportunity.
In 1975, I got my first NASCAR Cup win and, yes, it was at the Fairgrounds of all places and Joe was there. Any good race promoter likes to stir the pot. Joe was an absolute master at it. He liked controversy, and you know why? Controversy sold tickets. I loved controversy because it got my name in the paper and got people’s attention.
Joe and I worked together like that for years. Away from the racetrack, Joe and his wife Diana and Stevie and I spent a lot of time together. The four of us were always going out together. Even though we were married, we nicknamed it “double dating.” There was a period where the four of us were all but inseparable.
As time went on, Joe wanted to take his career to the next level and they moved to Hampton, Va., where Joe became general manager of Langley Field Speedway. He took little Langley to new heights and helped mold it into one of the most successful short tracks in the United States. He was just a natural at it.
Back in those early years, Joe was right there by my side with all things I was involved with. Some people called him my business manager. Some called him my public relations guy. You know what I called Joe? I called him my mentor and, more important, my friend.
Joe’s life experiences were invaluable to me. This was a guy who had served his country in the Navy during the Korean War and had been all over the globe. Whatever my goals were, Joe was always there trying to help me reach them.
In 1991, when I had left Hendrick Motorsports to start my own team, he worked night and day to help us build it up. Jeff Hammond handled the racing side and Joe handled the business side of things. He worked with the sponsors and was always promoting our team.
The guys on the race team loved Joe. He was a “guy’s guy.” He was so good at encouraging and motivating the guys. A simple pat on the back and a “you are doing a great job” from Joe went a long way in that race shop.
When I sold the race team in early 1998, Joe went to work for Travis Carter and, ironically, I joined him in 1999 and 2000 as I finished out my racing career. Joe went on to become show car director for JKS Incorporated, based in Welcome, NC.
It meant a lot to me that Joe accepted my invitation for him and Diana to join Stevie and me one year ago for my induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It just seemed fitting and appropriate for him to be there — full circle, as they say. I hadn’t seen Joe for a while, so when we hugged, well we hugged for a while. It was a moment frozen in time for me because it took me back to the very first time I had met him and how far we had come. It meant the world to me that Joe was so proud of me that night of the induction and what I had accomplished in my career. He knew what I knew: that he played a huge role in it.
Sadly, this past year Joe began battling pancreatic cancer. He fought a long, hard battle, but last Saturday the Lord called him home. Not only have I lost a great friend, but the racing community lost one heck of an ambassador. Joe Carver loved racing, and he especially loved NASCAR.
Joe leaves behind a beautiful family. In addition to his kids, Joe also had 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren who loved him as much as we all did.
We are gathering Friday to say our goodbyes to Joe in North Carolina. While there obviously will be a lot of sadness, there also will be a lot of joy. We are going to miss him terribly, but we are going to spend our fellowship together celebrating Joe and all that he accomplished.
Being the Christian that he was, I just have this picture of Joe with the Lord and the Lord is reaching out to Joe saying, “Welcome my good and faithful servant — your pain is now gone.” That’s where we all want to be, and that’s what we all want to hear. That’s where my friend Joe Carver is today.