In recognition of the beginning of another NASCAR® racing season and in memory of Cayden Arnold, we share this special story of HoPE from 2008.
Through tragedy, crew member works to put
Earnhardt in victory lane
By Chris Jenkins
February 12, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A blind child who could see. A deaf child who could hear. A miracle is a miracle, no matter how short it lasts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s big victory in his debut with his new team was a speed bump compared to one crew member’s struggle to help his family with life and death — all while continuing his work to put Earnhardt in victory lane.
That’s why Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports crew dedicated their win in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout exhibition race to teammate Joey Arnold, whose 4-year-old son, Cayden, had died eight days earlier.
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. choked up with emotion during the postrace news conference, saying how stunned he was to return to the team’s shop in Charlotte from a recent test session and find Arnold already back at work and talking about, of all things, winning the Daytona 500.
“I said ‘Joey, what are you doing here?’ His kid had died the day before,” Eury said. “He said, ‘This is my best chance to win the Daytona 500 and I want to be a part of it.’ ”
Arnold was stunned by the gesture from Eury, who came to the Hendrick team with Earnhardt in the offseason and doesn’t know Arnold well.
“It shows that he’s a class act, and that he has the perspective that there’s bigger things in life than race cars,” Arnold said in a telephone interview from the team’s shop.
But Arnold and his wife still are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their son, who had been battling a birth defect that severely hindered his brain development and confined him to a wheelchair.
By speaking out, Arnold hopes to raise awareness of his son’s condition.
“He was full of life,” Arnold said, pausing as his voice cracked. “His body restricted him, but his mind, his heart was still full of little boy.”
In many ways, it was a miracle that Cayden even was born.
Doctors diagnosed Cayden with holoprosencephaly, a disorder that prevents complete development of the brain, in the womb and told Arnold and his wife, Shira, that he would likely die before being born.
Cayden proved them wrong — and then some.
“We prayed to have 10 minutes with Cayden so we could hold him and love him,” Arnold said. “And God gave us 4½ years.”
Still, the Arnolds were told to lower their expectations. Cayden was born blind and deaf, and wasn’t likely to develop mentally.
“We were told that he would not know love, he would not know who his parents were — basically, that he would most likely be a vegetable,” Arnold said. “And he certainly proved that theory to be wrong.”
With an implant, he could hear. His vision developed. He could recognize colors and objects.
And he certainly knew who his parents were.
“You just knew by his gaze at you, his smile,” Arnold said. “He would move his arms the best that he could with a sense of excitement when he saw you come into a room or spoke to him or touched him. He certainly was aware of people around him, and absolutely knew his family.”
In recent weeks, Cayden started taking bigger steps — literally.
He was beginning treadmill therapy to learn how to walk. He was beginning to learn how to use a computer to speak.
Then one day he was able to eat solid food, not pureed food, at three meals for the first time ever. That night, he surprised his parents by figuring out how to drive his motorized wheelchair to the end of the driveway and back without help.
Then he went to bed and never woke up.
How did the Arnolds explain that to Cayden’s 2-year-old sister, Skylar?
“We told her that Cayden had died and he had gone to heaven and we would be reunited with him some day,” Arnold said. “Her response was, ‘He’s with Jesus and he’s happy.’ ”
Cayden died Feb. 1, a Friday. Arnold went back to the Hendrick shop that Sunday, and told a co-worker that he’d be back into work on Monday.
Arnold used to travel with the team to races, but took a job that didn’t require him to travel after Cayden was born. He’s now Earnhardt’s car setup specialist, meticulously checking and adjusting parts and pieces before each race car leaves the shop.
He finds comfort in the family atmosphere at Hendrick, and a purpose: Winning Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I really felt that we had a legitimate shot and I wanted to be involved,” Arnold said. “And I also feel like watching Mr. Hendrick go through, and the way that he handled himself during his tragedies, being at Hendrick Motorsports was a comforting place to be.”
Hendrick lost his son, Ricky, his brother, John, two nieces and several key team members when a team plane crashed in 2004. Hendrick called Arnold when he heard about Cayden, and was shocked to hear that he was at the race shop when he answered his cell phone.
“I think he needed to put his energy somewhere, but I don’t know that I could have done that,” Hendrick said.
Arnold isn’t finding it hard to concentrate on his job — not any harder than any other day of his life, anyway.
“Cayden was always in the back of my mind,” Arnold said. “And none of us ever know when our last day is, but due to our situation, it was always back there. I always thought of it. I don’t really find today any harder than two weeks ago.”
The Arnolds laid Cayden to rest last Wednesday. At the funeral, he spoke of salvation. His wife talked about Cayden’s ability to beat the odds.
“She had a blind child that could see, a deaf child that could hear,” Arnold said. “Now we know that he’s in heaven running.”
Used with permission of The Associated Press © 2008 All Rights Reserved.