When Matt Van Hoecke learned he had prostate cancer, he tried to beat it like a stock car driver fighting for the lead on the way to the finish line.
There was a race every day of Matt’s life for nine years. Matt won all of them – until one day in January this year, when the odds turned on him. The former Sun-Star mail room worker was just 60 years old by a few days when cancer grabbed the checkered flag.
Tonight, his friends and family at Merced Speedway will remember Van Hoecke. The racing community will be racing against cancer, just like Van Hoecke did.
Funds will be raised for “Relay for Life.”
“Racing kept him going – it was remarkable,” his wife, Debbie (Humbert) Van Hoecke said Tuesday. “He lived nine more years because of his love for racing. Helping drivers out was all he wanted to do. He was at the speedway for all the races – in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and right up to this year.”
Van Hoecke moved to Merced from Sacramento to work at J.C. Penney Co. Soon, he applied for a job and was hired at the Sun-Star. He sold ads and settled into the mail room, where he worked to get the paper out for 19 years.
After his career at the Sun-Star, he opened a small shop on Childs Avenue called Matt & Glass, where he worked on boats and race cars.
“He became paralyzed from the cancer, but he wouldn’t stop working. He sold parts at the speedway,” Debbie Van Hoecke explained. “His friends in racing – he had so many of them – kept him involved for those nine years, despite his condition.”
Ramie Stone, one of those close friends, is the current point leader for the 2014 International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) SportMod division.
Remarkably, Stone is still driving the car that was bought with Matt’s sponsorship a decade ago.
“There were times I couldn’t afford parts and Matt bought them for me,” said Stone, the track’s multiple-time champion. “He not only helped me, he helped hundreds of drivers.”
Matt helped Stone and local racer Hank Silva convert a pavement car to race on the dirt of Merced Speedway. Stone came out of retirement, along with the famous car, to race in the SportMod division. Like Van Hoecke, the car is a winner – Stone driving it to victory and top finishes over many of the newer cars.
“Matt liked hard racing, but not aggressive racing. He liked the drivers he helped to be humble – ‘beat ’em the right way’ is what he would say,” Stone recalled. “I told him I would kill the competition with kindness.”
This weekend’s event has already filled Debbie Van Hoecke with emotion.
“I haven’t seen many of his racing friends since the funeral,” she said. “I’m already nervous. Matt would be so amazed, and thankful that the speedway would help fight cancer in his memory.”
Special event tonight
Merced Speedway will honor Van Hoecke with extra distance races for four divisions of stock cars. Fans and racers will be asked to donate to “Relay for Life.” Special T-shirts and a 50/50 raffle will help raise funds for the organization.
There will be extra purse money for all divisions. The IMCA Modifieds, IMCA SportMods, and Hobby Stocks will race in 40-lap features. The Mini Stock feature event will be 20 laps.
Merced Speedway is located at the Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Merced. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for children 6-12. A family four-pack of tickets admits two children and two adults for $30.
Racing begins at 7 p.m. The grandstand opens at 5.