By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
Much like the real-life stars of NASCAR, the drivers competing in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series go through similar scenarios at home. Some are also real-life racers, they have jobs, are husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Like their real-life counterparts, the eNASCAR community rallies when one is in need. JR Motorsports (JRM) driver Michael Conti has experienced just that.
On occasion, racers, real and virtual, face a health crisis. Conti faced that in 2019, when he lost his mother, Gina, to pancreatic cancer. The 2014 eNASCAR champion was in another fight to make the playoffs. The last thing on his mind during her health battle was to run a special paint scheme.
Nick Ottinger, one of Conti’s friends and fellow competitor, and alliance teammate, surprised him with a tribute logo to honor Gina. At the same time, the Dale Earnhardt Jr. owned team surprised their driver with a tribute scheme of their own.
Starting at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2019, Conti drove a blue and pink No. 8 FilterTime ‘Gina Strong’ Chevrolet Camaro. In his final season as an eNASCAR driver, he honored Gina at Michigan Int’l Speedway. The race was on the four-year anniversary of her passing.
“It was extremely special,” Conti told Kickin’ the Tires. “During that time, life was chaotic, and I was being hit with a whirlwind of different emotions, so thinking about running a special paint scheme wasn’t at the front of my mind. But thanks to the people at JRM and Nick Ottinger (who made the tribute logo), I was surprised with a beautiful car to finish the year out with.
“I was in shock at the time and was just going through the motions, but reflecting on it four years later, it was just such a nice gesture by everyone involved.”
Mirroring the real-life NASCAR community, the eNASCAR community is a bit of a dysfunctional family. As competitors on track, the drivers refuse to give an inch when racing, and the rivalries can run deep. However, when a fellow driver or a media member is in need, they rally around to support them. Conti is not the only one that has experienced this.
The Legends of the Future Series supported J.D. Willis earlier this year following the passing of his mother. Both FTF and Monday Night Racing rallied around Josh Mendoza following the tragic death of his brother Joey Mendoza.
“It’s amazing what this community does for its own in times of need,” Conti explained. “We may be competitors and adversaries at times, but when someone is really going through something, there is no shortage of love to be shared. Not only did I feel the support, but it was great to share the response with Mom too while she was still with us. I know she appreciated it.”
In 2019, Conti traveled back and forth from his native New Jersey and his home in Charlotte, N.C. The constant commuting and his mother’s health battle, Conti was stretched to his limit. Trying to plan around the races showed his dedication, and showed his mom that he wasn’t giving up.
“It was challenging, to say the least,” Conti admitted. “Besides the fact that I was commuting back and forth between NJ and had to plan that around our races, my mind was going a million miles per hour. Trying to process what was happening with mom, what was eventually going to happen … it made it nearly impossible to sit in the rig and be productive in testing or even in the races.
“For the Bristol race the Tuesday after Mom passed, I flew from NJ to CLT, ran the race that night, and then flew back to NJ the next morning to continue to plan Mom’s arrangements and tie up other loose ends. It was a crazy time.”
Conti made the decision to retire prior to the start of the 2023 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season. A part of his planning included throwing back to iconic and successful paint schemes that he had run over the years. When the 2023 schedule was announced, it was obvious that he had to honor his mom one more time, on the anniversary of her death.
While it was an easy decision to run a ‘Gina Strong’ version of the No. 8 WR1 Sim Chassis Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at Michigan, it was still an emotional experience. The emotions ran high in testing as Conti, like other eNASCAR competitors, ran over 1,000 laps to prepare for the event.
“From the moment the schedule came out and I saw that we were racing on the anniversary, I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Conti recalled. “It was tough emotionally at times during testing, but I also felt a sense of closeness with mom as well.
“Mom was my biggest fan, so honoring her one more time on the track was satisfying. (It was the) easiest decision of the year. At one point, this was going to be the only tribute scheme I ran all year. It was non-negotiable.”
Seeing the virtual No. 8 Chevrolet in the ‘Gina Strong’ colors brought back memories for Conti. It reminded him of how his mother was his biggest fan, always there to congratulate him after he won, or to offer words of wisdom after nights that left him with a defeated feeling.
“Simply put, it made me miss my mom,” Conti admitted. “Mom always loved watching me race. Whether it was real or virtual, her passion was one and the same. When I’d have a great race, she was there to be my cheerleader. When I’d have a race like I had tonight, she was there to console and comfort me. I hate that I haven’t been able to share all of our success with her this year just as much as I miss her not being around after nights like I had at Michigan.”
In the race itself, Conti ran up front throughout the first half. A difference in tire strategy dropped him out of the top-10. The luck of the draw saw the Conti get swept up in a late-race accident. Ultimately, he finished outside the top-30, the worst of the eNASCAR Playoff drivers.
However, the result didn’t matter to Conti. Being able to run the ‘Gina Strong’ colors and seeing the reception it got from those inside the eNASCAR, and by extension NASCAR, communities and the support from those communities is what mattered to Conti during his #ItsBeenGr8 Tour.
“Very appreciative – the result truly didn’t matter when it came to how I felt about running the car,” Conti stated. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy with how the race turned out, but that didn’t take anything away from being able to run that car again.
“The way the scheme looked and the response it got was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. I’d like to thank everyone who offered their support in the lead-up to the race and am appreciative of everything this series has done for my family and me over the last 12 seasons.”
4 years later, I take Mom’s car for a spin one more time.
Tomorrow is for Mom. 💜 pic.twitter.com/8H2j9Wqwn7
— Michael Conti (@MikeConti5) August 14, 2023
Gina Conti was born on October 3, 1960. She passed away on August 15, 2019, from pancreatic cancer. Gina Conti was 58 years old. May her memory be a blessing for those that knew her.