Some measure a man’s character by his passion.
Some measure a man’s character by the selfless deeds he performs when few are staring.
In these “selfie” days that tug on pop culture, finding folks that grasp true sacrifice is a hard task.
Until you encounter Sherman Chunn. The 63 year old from Franklin, Tenn., remains that anomaly today.
Describing Chunn is an easy task. Fan. Car owner. Fabricator. And, most importantly, a helping hand for any team in the pits.
Simply put, he’s a racing lifer.
“We used to not have 20 people per car like they do today,” said short-track legend Mike Alexander, a longtime pal of Chunn’s. “Sherman liked doing the fabricating, the duct work, the wiring — mostly, all of it. He was very good at fabricating.”
From his close-knit friendship with Alexander — born when the pair was teenagers working at a car dealership owned by Alexander’s father — to being an integral part in the early days of future NASCAR legend and current Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip to all-night cookouts at the Snowball Derby, Jerry “Sherman” Chunn comes alive at a racetrack.
Longtime Five Flags Speedway fans remember Sherman Chunn guiding his son, Cecil Chunn, as he chased his Super Late Model dreams throughout the 2000s.
“If we said, ‘Sherman, pick up the parts,’ he’d pick up the parts,” said Waltrip, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion who met Sherman Chunn after moving to Tennessee in the late-1970s, early-80s. “He’d paint the car all night. Whatever needed to be done, Sherman never said, ‘I can’t do that.’ ”
And never once whined about menial tasks. Why complain when you’re doing something you so desperately love?
And when his teams fell short, Chunn never was one to hang his head, fuss at an official or cast blame at ambitious drivers.
“His attitude always was, ‘Shucks, we had a bad night’ or ‘Doggone it, we got tangled up,’ ” said Dan VanderLey, who took a quick liking to Chunn during the NASCAR All Pro Series days of the 1990s. “But they always fixed it and came back. And if there was anything else he could do for someone else, he was there.”
Now that spirit has suffered a cruel twist of irony.
The man who often eschewed help from others now needs help from his friends.
After nearly a year full of mystery where doctors poked and prodded and examined and ran tests and then ran some more tests, it was discovered earlier this month that Chunn has a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) known as progressive bulbar palsy.
Like ALS, progressive bulbar palsy is a disease that attacks the central nervous system. And like ALS, it comes with symptoms you don’t even want to read about.
It has already attacked Chunn’s tongue, his ability to both speak and swallow.
“Everybody you talk to, to a person,” VanderLey said, “when you tell them Sherman has ALS, the first words outta everybody’s mouth after the initial shock is, ‘What a great guy.’ ”
‘Backbone of this Sport’
The disorder first reared its vile head at last year’s Snowball in Pensacola, the Chunns home away from home and site of so many good memories.
Sherman and Jan Chunn, husband and wife for 29 years, hadn’t had a car in the Snowball since 2011.
That was the final year Cecil Chunn donned the Rocky Top orange fire suit and jumped in the Rocky Top orange No. 48 Super Late Model, a car that ran Blizzard Series races routinely from 2006 to that final Snowball three years ago.
“Nine times out of 10, we always found a way to get there,” Cecil Chunn said. “(Sherman) didn’t blow all of our money on the racecar, but he bought the best stuff his money could buy. He knew how to do a lot of the work himself. He taught me all that.”
For a family that dedicated their lives to the sport, the ending came quick in 2011.
When Cecil Chunn failed to snatch one of the final starting spots in the last-chance race, part of an era ended.
“They were a ‘ma-n-pa’ team,” VanderLey said. “To me, they’re the backbone of this sport. They’re really what grassroots racing is all about. People that have done it all their life and do it because they love it. That was Jan and Sherman and Cecil.”
It was a bittersweet decision, certainly, but one the entire family supported now that the younger Chunn had two younger Chunn boys of his own.
“The first time we quit, Sherman’s mother passed right after, so he had to have something to hang onto,” Jan Chunn said. “A few years later, though, in 2011, it was our full intention that the last race we’d run would be the Snowball and we all knew that.”
But just because the racing part was over, that didn’t mean Sherman Chunn was going to stop helping or being a part of the races.
Or being a part of the Snowball, the site of the happy couple’s first meeting in 1984.
“I didn’t even remember him,” Jan Chunn said of her initial encounter with Sherman. “He was in Davey Allison’s tow truck and me and a girlfriend were in a hurry to get something to eat.”
Seven months later, when Chunn helped Alexander test a Sims Brothers car in Talladega, Sherman and Jan crossed paths again.
This time, there would be no forgetting.
A Long Wait to Diagnose the Problem
Last December, the two lovenuts made their annual Pensacola pilgrimage to see old friends and the finest short-track racing known to man.
During the week, the first signs of trouble surfaced. There was a noticeable slur in Sherman’s speech.
“Everybody assumed, because you know how the Snowball is, that Sherman had been drinking,” Jan Chunn said. “But he was getting progressively worse.”
ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has been in the public eye recently thanks to a wave of support and charitable donations because of the ice-bucket challenge viral videos. Progressive bulbar palsy, while not as commonly known, is equally as aggressive and untamed. It cripples the spinal cord, brain stem and cerebral cortex in its victims.
It’s a despicable disease. Sickening. Vile. And frustrating because the search for a cure is a long and circuitous road.
Doctors conducted tests on Sherman Chunn for the better part of a year.
An MRI said it wasn’t a stroke. A light shone down his throat ruled out cancer. Chunn was even tested for myasthenia gravis, another neuromuscular disorder.
The team of physicians were left scratching their heads, frustrating those closest to Sherman Chunn to no end.
“I feel like (the doctors) were dragging their feet, not being aggressive enough with their testing,” Cecil Chunn said. “There are a lot of doctors that won’t test for ALS even though the symptoms are there.”
Finally, two weeks ago, after many months of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing, another doctor finally coaxed Sherman Chunn into one more round of tests. This time they were specifically for ALS.
A series of painful and horrific electrical shocks were sent through his involuntary muscles. A diagnosis of progressive bulbar palsy came back.
“This hit us hard,” Jan Chunn said. “We’ve been a family that has been blessed with good health.”
There is a bit of good news. Sherman Chunn’s doctors believe because the disease hasn’t spread to his legs or other limbs in a year, his body beyond his tongue should not be greatly affected.
Still, the constant struggle to be heard and the annoying inabilities to ingest food makes it hard on those closest to him to keep spirits high.
“He was never much one for talking,” Jan Chunn said, “but when he had something to say, he’d say it and people would listen.”
Alexander knows his dear friend is self-conscious about his handicap. Yet it matters little to Alexander, who received tremendous support from Sherman Chunn when Alexander had his frightening crash at the 1988 Snowball that derailed a potential promising NASCAR career.
“I’d listen as long as he wants me to,” Alexander said. “I want him to be comfortable with me. We’ve been through a lot of stuff. I have as much patience as he needs.”
A Time for Friends and Prayer
One problem, and it’s an encouraging one to have, is Chunn can’t sit still.
Because the disease has only attacked his tongue, he remains involved in his family-owned body shop there in Franklin.
He has six acres of grass to cut.
He’s getting two, mid-1980 Buick Grand Nationals fixed up for his grandsons, 10 and 12, once they’re of age to get licenses.
Maybe it’s Chunn’s way to keep the barbarians at the gate. To ward off any glimmer of fear he has that the disease will spread.
Chunn was always a reliable, versatile hand in the shop or in the pits. A Swiss Army knife that could accomplish anything or, at the very least, figure out a new trick on the fly.
“He has always been there for me,” Alexander said. “Sherman and I don’t have any bad memories. We grew up working at my dad’s car dealership and he’s always been family to me. In some ways, I’ve spent more time with Sherman than I did my own brother.
“You can count your true friends on one, possibly two hands. Sherman’s is one of those for me.
I’d do anything to make him feel better.”
In other sports, Sherman Chunn would be dubbed a “glue guy.” Individuals you surround yourself with because their talent is undeniable, their passion contagious and their character inspiring.
“Guys like that, who are so active, so involved, it breaks your heart,” said Waltrip, the 1976 Snowball king and three-time Sprint Cup Series champion (1981, 1982, 1985). “Sherman Chunn is a hard worker and a really good guy.
“You need friends and a lotta prayer in times like these. It’s the only way to get through.”
That’s certainly what Jan Chunn’s relying on these days.
“I’m maintaining my faith in the Lord,” she said. “Sherman’s mostly relying on Mike’s friendship since he’s close-by, but all of our friends from Dan VanderLey to Eddie Barton to Scott Carlson, just to name a few, all of them have really blessed us. People have been really understanding.”
It’s the disease that Cecil Chunn doesn’t understand. The 42 year old is gradually coming to grips with his dad’s daily brawl.
Acceptance has been slow.
“I can’t do anything to help him,” Cecil Chunn said. “It’s hard when you’ve got somebody that’s supported you all your life. Through his years of time, effort and financial backing, I got to do what I wanted to do with racing.
“I would give just about anything for him to be able to see me race again. I think that would make him happy and boost his spirits.”
Whether Cecil Chunn can fulfill his dreams to race once again and put one of those giant, Sherman Chunn’s smiles on the old man’s face remains to be seen.
Ultimately, son hopes to embody father’s selfless spirit and be an anomaly that puts other’s needs before his own.
“If I can be half the man he is, I’ll consider myself lucky,” Cecil Chunn sad. “He’s helped people even after we quit racing. He didn’t have to do anything. He just loved the sport. He tried to give back as much as he can.”
Now, it’s time the racing community measured its character and gave back to Sherman Chunn.
-By Chuck Corder, Special to Speed51.com – Photo Credit: Dave Padlock, Five Flags Speedway