Taking the Back Road to Rockford Speedway: Memories Will Never Fade

It’s been 17 years since my dad made his final laps around Rockford Speedway and claimed the final victory of his illustrious career. Obviously I know what that day meant to me and I’ll be honest, I had the blinders on to anyone else around me. I know I’ve written a story in the past and if you’ve read it, I apologize for any redundancy. Heading into that day, I did not know it would be his last victory, or maybe didn’t want to believe it would be. But it was and I can’t imagine a more amazing way to leave his legacy behind than the way he did. Frontend torn off the car, coming from the back of the pack, knowing just how much he could use of the car he had left. And the final pass, oh the final pass. That imagery is as fresh in my mind as I type this as it was that day. Steve Carlson dubbed it, “The Joe Shear Slide,” and he would know cause he was the victim of that very “slide.”

On this past Saturday night, I sat in the parking lot for quite awhile just listening to the cars and the excitement of the announcer’s voice. I watched the score board as laps from the shorter races clipped by. After so much time, I took a deep breath and said, “I’m going in.” I walked briskly through the pits and headed directly to the stands, not stopping to say hi to a soul. I sat and watched race after race. The longer I was there, the more I realized I had friends all around me. I had not even noticed until I removed my eyes from the track. Being that it was Saturday night, the memories didn’t really overflow too much. Sunday was always the big day.

As always, the racing on Saturday night was exciting. Yeah, there were a fair share of cautions, it was getting late, and you could hear the people complain here and there, but let’s face it, that’s how it has always been, and frankly all part of the experience. When the checkered flag flew, I can honestly say that I saw some of the hardest racing I’ve seen in a long time and probably one of the closest and most hard-fought finishes of all time.

I took the back route home (to my mom’s) that I only remember taking when my dad drove. It is a quiet back road with few interruptions and provided a good time to just think. When I got up Sunday morning, I was already feeling a little bit uneasy because I knew that it was going to be a big day. I had a lot of friends I couldn’t wait to see and for the first time since 1997, I couldn’t wait to watch the race. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the racing there, and I’ve been there three times since his final race, but it was just to work and go home. I did my thing and didn’t allow myself to think about it. It was just another racetrack. This year was different.

As I left my mom’s house, my heart started pounding in my chest. I had one brief stop I wanted to make before I headed directly to the track, and it just so happened to be off that very back road I drove on Saturday night. It was my dad’s grave site. I feel somewhat embarrassed about saying this, but it has been 10 years since I last visited. It hasn’t been intentional avoidance. It has just not been something that I think about doing that often, and honestly I don’t get back to Wisconsin very often (okay, until this summer). I know my dad’s in Heaven, so it didn’t seem necessary to always have to “visit” him there.

I knew where the cemetery was, but somehow I drove right past it. When I got down far enough, I turned around and just kept thinking, “I know it’s on this road!” So as I headed back in the direction I had come from, suddenly there it was up on a hill. I could have sworn I looked there when I drove by the first time but didn’t see it. My heart stopped because I knew there was no turning around this time. The cemetery is very small and private and the drive to get back there is just a grass path, which if you didn’t know it was there, you would miss it…clearly.

I pulled up and parked on the grass, cause there isn’t anything else to park on. I left my car running and walked up. There it was. I bent down and wiped away a few leaves that had fallen and just ran my hand along it, feeling every letter and number inscribed. There’s a checkered flag and the number 36 in the upper left hand corner that has begun to fade a little bit. I didn’t say a word, I just stared for a few moments. My mind was completely blank. I didn’t feel a thing. Nothing. But as I turned and walked away, the thought of going out to the track was almost unbearable.

As I started to drive on that quiet back road all I could think about was how things in racing remain the same, especially at a place like Rockford Speedway. It’s been 17 years, but when I step foot in that place, I can go right back in time (if I allow myself to). It was an epiphany about how critical the future of short track racing really is. How many memories would fade if the sport slowly faded away? Had I not been heading out to the track on Sunday morning, my emotional response to visiting my dad’s grave site would not have been nearly the experience that it was. And I am very thankful for that….

(to be continued….)