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A hero's welcome ... and a special surprise

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM

Waterford - It was on this very piece of real estate, the front stretch of Waterford Speedbowl, where Steve Barrett of Preston decided to re-enlist in the Army three years ago, an opening ceremony that incorporated the passions of Barrett's life: the military and auto racing.

And then in another illustration of how all the times and moments in your life eventually come around again, perhaps to form a balance, perhaps to illustrate that life imparts answers at its own pace, Steve Barrett was back again Saturday night, back from Afghanistan, the unwitting star of an opening ceremony that left not a dry eye.

Barrett thought he was there to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance and perhaps receive a welcome back and a thank you for his service.

What Steve Barrett learned was that very best of humanity can manifest itself in a chassis, engine, transmission, tires and rear end.

Barrett wrecked his car beyond repair during an accident at the Speedbowl in late April of 2012. He didn't compete again before his unit, National Guard's 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group from Groton, was called to active duty in June and deployed to Afghanistan in July.

All that time overseas as a technical inspector for helicopter blades and sheet metal at Bagram Air Base, Barrett thought his car was in the same condition. He said he even bought a remote control car over there just to, you know, keep hope alive.

Barrett believed his car was still wrecked Saturday night.

Until he saw it.

His friend Jeff Winsor was driving it.

It emerged from the shadows and suddenly - beautifully, magically - appeared right there on the front stretch, this now mythical piece of pavement in his life.

The car was brand new.

Just completed earlier this week.

Steve Barrett, hero, man of few words, mouthed an "oh sh--" before he wept.

And so did everyone else.

It was called "Racers for a Soldier," the brainchild of a small group of the Speedbowl family, dedicated to rebuilding Barrett's car in appreciation for his commitment to protect our freedom. Fifteen hundred man hours later, numerous raffles, fundraisers and spaghetti dinners later, a nickel here, a dime there, people giving what they could in the everlasting spirit of community, a hero was rewarded.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," Winsor said. "Steve's a good guy. I'm a former military person myself. Plus, I know what it takes to build one of these things."

Winsor, who owns a lettering shop in Moosup and is an auto body technician by trade, joined four other men - The Fab Five, they were called Saturday - who worked every Thursday and Sunday rebuilding the car from a bare, straight frame. The Fab Five: Winsor, Pete Pollard of Old Lyme, Bob Desrochers of Plainfield, Jim Phillips of Plainfield and Steve McKee of Norwich.

They made the simple concept of "thank you for your service" into something practical and enduring.

"Jeff approached me about the idea and I said 'let me think about it,'" Teresa Barrett, Steve's wife and a track steward, said Saturday night, her face still aglow. "I wasn't sure we could pull it off. I went back an hour later and said, 'why not try?'"

And to think that maybe the hardest part wasn't even reconstructing the car. It was keeping the secret. They had to block Barrett from the "Racers For a Soldier" Facebook page. Barrett did notice, however, that his motor and transmission went missing.

"I said, in trying to be really good wife, that I sent it to our motor builder to be refreshed so it would be ready when he rebuilt his car," Teresa Barrett said. "He bought it. I can't believe it."

Steve Barrett was never really sure what to say. He was still shaking as he posed for pictures with the scores of people who made it possible.

But when it came time to jump into the car …

Steve Barrett, home again, was really home again.

"I'm literally blown away by it all," Teresa Barrett said. "I've always said the racing community is a family. To me, this absolutely proves it."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

Town News

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