This is an extended version of a story that appeared in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!
Chase Kowalski's bedroom is exactly how he left it. Every wall is occupied by sports stuff, like pictures of Chase in his Little League uniform, a Yankees bat. The dresser tops and windowsills spill over with die-cast race cars. A Dale Earnhardt, Jr. figurine keeps watch. Just inside the door, a cap autographed by Jimmie Johnson rests in front of a pair of Matchbox-size No. 48 cars. And towering above everything is a large poster on the wall to the right. Chase colored it himself with blue gel stick pens. He made sure to leave space for the word “Lowe’s” in white and the number “48” in yellow.
On his bed rests a note, written on white computer paper with a crinkle-cut edge, its letters penned carefully in green marker and bordered by red duct tape with black and white stripes -- Chase loved duct tape. The letter offers love and gratitude to Santa Claus for his Christmas gifts, from the hand and heart of this 7-year-old boy. Chase wrote the letter on Dec. 1. He hadn’t even composed his wish list yet; he was the kind of kid who expressed thanks before he opened a gift. Just 13 days later he was among the 20 children who died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Chase sat in the back corner, near the class’ bathroom.
Chase was a motor head and an incredible athlete. About this time of year, he and his dad, Steve, would have been gearing up for a NASCAR season full of Sundays in front of the TV, watching Chase’s favorite driver race for his sixth Sprint Cup title. “The role model Chase picked is a good one,” Steve says of Jimmie Johnson. “NASCAR is a good example of a fraternity of people who care. In NASCAR, when something happens, they come together as a community.”
Steve is the only other racer to hold Chase’s heart the way JJ did. The elder Kowalski had been a go-kart racer who in 1989 finished second to future NASCAR driver Anthony Lazzaro in the World Karting Association rankings. He eventually gave up his racing career once he and his wife, Rebecca, started a family, but his love for motorsports was passed down. Father and son lived on four-wheelers and go-karts in the backyard. Steve didn’t let Chase win, lighting a fiery spirit not seen in many youngsters. He was the only player on his team who could sling a baseball all the way across the diamond, and last summer he won a youth triathlon. He learned to swim without lessons; he just watched Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the Olympics and tried to duplicate their freestyle form. “There was nothing he couldn’t do,” Rebecca says. “He lived with the need for speed.”
Two weeks before he died, Chase was launching four-wheelers five feet in the air from a berm in the back yard, and cutting laps on the family’s golf cart. Mom was unaware. It was daddy-son stuff, and it stings Steve now. He remembers Chase’s smile, electric and ever present. “He never had a bad day,” Steve recalls. “There was no whining with him. It was always a smile.”
And that’s what the Kowalskis have chosen to carry with them. Two nights after Chase died, Rebecca awoke with a vision of Chase and one word ringing in her head, for reasons she can’t explain: “Amazing.” She shook Steve and told him that they needed to do something to keep their son’s memory alive. They decided to start an online fund to raise money to build Chase’s Place, a community center in Newtown, with sports as a central part of the facility. The Kowalskis hope Chase’s Place will feature a regulation-size running track and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and if there’s any way to incorporate motorsports, they would like to. They both call that late-night conversation the best they’ve had in 18 years of marriage.
Days after Sandy Hook, a friend arrived at the Kowalski home. Her children had attended the Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, and she had stacks of clothes that bore the school’s name. When Rebecca saw the bag, emblazoned with the words “Amazing Chase,” she broke down crying, taking it as confirmation of her vision. “Amazing is a word I’d just never use,” Steve says. “That was Chase showing us exactly what we needed to do. We won’t let him down.”