For Ipad users:
Veteran Army Spc. Ray Goss and his family were told to stop by the New Lenox Jewel Osco store Friday morning to pick up free tickets to the races at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. But they drove off totally “wowed” by their trip to the grocery store.
Eckrich, which makes sausages, lunch meat and more, was celebrating its 120th race with 120 military families, selected by Operation Homefront, a nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to families of service members and wounded warriors.
The Goss family, of Michigan City, Indiana, had no idea what was in store for them when they pulled into the parking lot off Nelson Road and U.S. 30, where Eckrich, Operation Homefront, Jewel Osco and NASCAR planned a series of surprises.
After they were handed their tickets, a replica of the No. 43 Eckrich Ford, to be driven by Aric Aimirola in this weekend’s NASCAR race, pulled up in the front of the store, and Steven France, of Eckrich, told the family they were not only going to the race Sunday but would be honorary crew members for race car No. 43.
“Oh, wow. Wow,” was all Jennifer Goss could say, as she showed the car to her 4-year-old son, Max, who was already dressed in racing gear.
France also gave them authentic racing team shirts and hats, which they promptly tried on.
The next surprise was presented by Anthony Suggs, of Jewel — free groceries for one year.
“Wow. Oh, my gosh. Wow. Thank you,” Jennifer said again. Her husband was speechless.
But the surprises kept coming as a special guest drove up. “The King” — Richard Petty — stepped out of a white Ford Fusion and shook hands with Ray and Jennifer.
“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” Ray Goss said. And, turning to his son Max, he told him, “He’s the best race car driver that ever lived.”
“We appreciate all you have done. So, the deal is, here’s the key to your new car,” Petty told the veteran, as he handed him the keys to the Ford — the same car as No. 43.
“Wow. Seriously?” Ray Goss said.
“Seriously,” Petty said with a wide grin. “There it is. You have the key.”
“You are going to drive a car that he drove,” Jennifer told her husband.
“I’ll even sign it for you,” The King said.
Again, the veteran was speechless.
“I’m a little blown away,” he said a few minutes later. “It reminds you that what you went through was all worth it. This is an amazing reminder that we are not forgotten, that people appreciate what we’re doing.
“We hear so many negative comments. You put your life on the line. You give up a lot physically and mentally,” he said, getting a bit choked up. “This makes the day easier.”
Goss, who always had a love of racing and restoring old cars, joined the Army in 2007, and while deployed in Iraq, he saw another soldier mentally break down and take the lives of two fellow soldiers, according to information provided by his wife. That date was Sept. 14 — which has always a tough day for him, she wrote, adding that it was ironic that they would be attending the NASCAR race on Sept. 14.
After Iraq, Ray Goss re-enlisted in aviation repair and manufacturing and was sent to Afghanistan. He now is in his first year of teaching welding to high school students.
Jennifer said they both work at the same school and she told her boss they would both need to take off Friday.
“I have quite a bit to fill her in on,” she said afterward.
“We are really overwhelmed with gratitude. There are so many deserving families. It’s an honor that we were named,” she said.
The new Ford Fusion will likely replace the old Jeep without heat that Ray now drives.
“I didn’t realize all the problems it had when I got it,” he said. Of his new car, all he could say was, “Richard Petty drove it. I don’t know of anyone who can say that. I’m going to brag to my students about that.
“Meeting ‘The King’ one-on-one was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
“They really needed a car. They have two kids,” Petty said. “We like to help people who are trying to help themselves. It is phenomenal to be involved with people who want to give back.”
“We do this as often as possible,” Darcy Clardey, of Operation Homefront, said. “We work with families on a daily basis. We could not do it without sponsors like Eckrich.”
Eckrich has given away two other cars and donated $250,000 to Operation Homefront, Eckrich spokeswoman Elizabeth DiJohn said.
Suggs, Jewel’s deli sales manager, said this was “definitely the biggest event we’ve participated in. We’re very proud to be part of it.”