— Gary DeMasi has always been mechanical.
But even DeMasi never dreamed he would turn that skill into raising awareness about the dangers of having a stroke.
He should know. He had one.
DeMasi knew very early in life he was mechanical.
But he also knew the way he learned was different. He wasn't sure why, it just was.
One day at the tender age of six, he wanted some toast. Trouble was, the toaster was broke.
"I fixed the toaster because I wanted toast," he said.
His mechanical career had started.
By age nine, he was driving his parents' car around their property on Long Island.
As he got just a little older, he'd take the family car and drive it along the fire paths on Long Island.
"I had to drive good to drive fast," he said.
He never once scratched a vehicle.
By the age of 11, he began working on cars. In fact, it was then he tore apart a Volkswagen dune buggy — completely.
Two years later, he was in school and noticed a critical part he had been needing to put the dune buggy back together.
"It ran," said DeMasi, who added his dad wasn't sure that would happen but was proud of his son when it did.
Page 2 of 8 - "Right then and there I was a mechanic," said DeMasi.
At the age of 16, while he was in high school, DeMasi had plans to attend a mechanic's school in Colorado.
But then the family home burned to the ground. (Fire would again plague him later in life.)
That changed his college plans and he decided to join the Air Force. While in the service, he became and aircraft maintenance mechanic and was a B52 bomber chief.
"I am really proud of that," said DeMasi.
When DeMasi left the service, he had some odd jobs but then took a job at a Ford dealership.
"That started me," he said.
He worked at various dealerships and at some of them, he got to know some of the Ford engineers.
One day, after getting to know one of them pretty well, he had a simple question.
"How do I get your job?" he asked the engineer. "Well, not your job, but a job like yours."
The answer was simple. Go to college.
He immediately applied through a Ford program and was accepted into a program with a guaranteed job after graduation.
However, midway through the training, Ford changed the rules and asked for more schooling.
"I just couldn't do it that quickly," said DeMasi, who by then had been diagnosed with dyslexia.
But he endured and finished school, though it took longer than expected.
Page 3 of 8 - The next chapter
Somewhere along the line, DeMasi got engaged and moved to upstate New York to be with his fiance.
Then one day while riding his motorcycle with her on the back, he had a "horrific" accident.
It took 15 months with various surgeries, eight plates, 48 screws and five wires to put him back together.
(He still keeps the hardware in a jar and refers to how he was put back together, kind of like his vehicles.)
During that time, DeMasi reflected and decided maybe it would be best if they didn't get married.
Later, without the advantage of the internet, he decided to try "mail order" dating. Back then, people would send in their profiles via snail mail and seek matches.
There was one woman who he said matched perfectly.
That's when he met Juliana, who is still married to today. They have three children.
"I took her on a crazy ride," said DeMasi.
Because of a problem he squarely blames on a bad lawyer, he was forced to pay back all $140,000 of the medical bills and he got no settlement even though he says the other driver was in the wrong.
But he managed to work hard and pay off those bills. Eventually, with three children, the couple bought a house on Long Island.
"I went from a totally beaten person to being on top of the world," said DeMasi.
A taste of racing
By the late 1990s, DeMasi built his first stock car and raced for a couple of years.
Page 4 of 8 - But he was also doing mechanical work at his own shop and had grown tired of the attitude in Long Island.
"I called my wife and said put out a for sale sign," said DeMasi.
She did and that very night, someone was there looking to buy the house.
It sold and the couple began a very long search for that perfect spot. They searched and searched and eventually found some land about six miles east of Honesdale.
He began working at a local car dealership and though there were some setbacks, two years later their new home was built on the 10 acres in the Poconos.
By 2004, DeMasi decided to get involved with rally vehicles.
He got involved by volunteering as a "sweep driver" in events across the east coast.
A sweep driver is the person who goes and helps people after they crash their vehicles. Though it's volunteer, DeMasi said it actually costs money in terms of fuel, food, lodging and more.
He has volunteered at 58 rally events.
But he also had a dream.
"At the same time, I was building a rally truck," said DeMasi. "I was finally going to go racing."
By 2009, he had completed his dream of building the unique rally truck which is a 1985 Ford Ranger with a V-8 enginer, something quite unique in the sport.
There it was, all ready to go — and then it happened.
"We had a fire in the garage and it burned it down," said DeMasi. "I went back to volunteering."
Page 5 of 8 - The big one
In 2010, he continued to be a volunteer at rally events but also continued to have that dream.
At the age of 49, DeMasi says he had that "age 49" doctor work, which included checkups and other matters.
A doctor determined he had a small hernia so he decided to have the elective surgery. It was quite minor.
One week later, it happened.
"I had a stroke in my sleep," said DeMasi.
That was the fall of 2010.
But DeMasi didn't go to the hospital.
Instead, when he woke up that morning, he rolled around and finally fell out of bed.
He couldn't walk.
At the top of the stairs, DeMasi decided to curl up into a ball and he rolled down the stairs, banging into the downstairs wall.
He thinks the shock made him finally able to walk.
Then the phone range. He stumbled and answered, but his speech was mumbled.
His friend on the other end asked an ironic question: "Are you having a stroke?"
Still not sure
That afternoon, his wife and children came home and he was still struggling with speech and walking.
"They thought I was drunk," he said.
He managed to eat dinner and then went to the computer, typing with just one finger.
Page 6 of 8 - He spent four hours cutting and pasting the symptoms he was feeling into a two-page report which he gave to his wife.
"You are going to the hospital," was her reaction.
"I didn't feel in danger," he said.
He went to the hospital but was then sent home and told to see a doctor the next day.
DeMasi did go to the doctor who recommended various remedies, including more doctor visits.
That meant he would have to drive.
Though it sounds crazy, that might have been the key to where he is today.
Despite the fact he had a stroke, DeMasi had a rally to attend less than two weeks after the trauma.
He went to the rally and volunteered as a sweeper. Somehow, he manged to finish the day.
To this day, he says the doctors are still "not sure why I had a stroke."
He thinks it was because of the minor surgery, but nobody really knows.
DeMasi then began therapy at the hospital and though he said it was fine, "the hospital is not for me."
So he decided to try an alternative.
He bought a dilapidated house in Honesdale and began remodeling it from floor to ceiling.
"I used building the house as therapy," said DeMasi. "And I thought if I could do that, I want to go back to racing."
Page 7 of 8 - Determination
By 2012, DeMasi decided to once again build the rally truck.
He salvaged what he could out of the burned vehicle and found another vehicle, as well.
"We disassembled the two trucks," he said, noting the help of his crew chief, Mark Sharp.
Everything went very well and the one day, while out driving at just 15-miles-per-hour, he hit the gas and brake at the same time.
The truck flipped.
"We had to rebuild the truck once again," said DeMasi. "But we did it again."
"We both find good therapy through building stuff," said Sharp. "We bounce ideas off each other."
Those ideas paid off late last year when DeMasi, who still walks gingerly with a limp, competed in rally competition for the first time.
In his first race, at the Grass Roots Rally Cross, he captured a first-place trophy. He raced again late last year and finished second in the series.
He's also won the truck pull competition at the Wayne County Fair for the past five years.
A bigger idea
Once he had finally gotten the taste of rally racing, DeMasi had another thought.
"By racing, I got the idea for racing for a cause," he said.
That cause is stroke prevention and awareness.
He's in the process now of starting a non-profit group with that focus.
In fact, he will be racing for the first time this year at the Empire State Performance Rally in Rock Hill, N.Y., this weekend.
Page 8 of 8 - He is using a portion of the truck for people to purchase sponsorships to help stroke victims.
In fact, his business card and truck both have "Rally F.A.S.T." featured.
FAST is about stroke awareness:
• F - Face, uneven smile, facial droop
• A - Arm numbness, arm weakness
• S - Speech, Slurred speech, difficulty speaking or understanding
• T - Time, Call 9-1-1 immediately.
"We are trying to get the word out to help other stroke survivors," said DeMasi.
"Racing is important because it has helped me come back from a long, hard road," said DeMasi.
DeMasi said he will "work as long as I have to" in order to make a non-profit group successful.
He said other rally drivers have helped his team out, telling him it is "really cool you are doing this."
DeMasi is hoping that with donations and sponsorships, he can "continue to race and get the word out."
Stroke, he points out, is the number three killer in the world and that one in five people in the world will have a stroke and not even know it happened.
"I am fortunate I have been able to recover," he said.
You can find out more about DeMasi V-8 Racing by visiting www.v8rallyranger.com or their Facebook page at facebook.com/v8rallyranger. You can contact DeMasi at 647-9163 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.