I got to Rockford Speedway later than I had originally anticipated on Sunday, but it was all for good reason. Since my dad died, one of my biggest insecurities is finding a place to land. When I get to the track I usually find myself on a mission to either find someone to talk to as quickly as possible or go find a place to sit. Either way I still don’t always feel 100% comfortable, no matter how awesomely hospitable people are. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that secure feeling again. No matter how long it’s been, I still have that sense of invasion of sorts.
Walking into the track my eyes immediately looked up at, of all things, the billboards. There’s just something about them that triggers so many memories. Weird, I know. I guess maybe because I saw them so many times for so many years. I don’t know. But when I close my eyes right now, I see the back side of turns three and four from the pits, the light poles, and the score board with Rockford Speedway underneath it. That’s what I see. Crazy, isn’t it?? I agree.
I see past all of the bustle in the pit area and I see the emptiness of the track. The emptiness that I can only attribute to my empty heart whenever I step foot into that place. I’ve never gotten angry while writing these blogs, but I have to admit, I’m feeling a little bit of frustration right now. I hate that this happened. I hate that his last victory was there. I hate that the track has so many deep rooted memories. But at the same time, I love that his last victory was there, I love all of the memories that I have there.
My mom brought my kids to the track shortly before racing started. This was their first trip to the track their grandpa was so known for. While my kids hear a lot of stories and have seen more pictures than they even care about, they never had the chance to meet him. They don’t fully comprehend all that he was, not just as a race car driver, but as a person. When I talk about going to a race and how much it means to me, they don’t understand, and I’m not going to lie, my heart breaks a little bit each time to not be able to share that with them. I know that the older they get the more they will appreciate it and I can guarantee you, they will never stop hearing stories about him.
My brother came out to the track with his family as well so it was nice to be able to be with at least some of my family to watch the race. I had a little bit of difficulty before the green flag dropped, just watching the cars pace the track, because without any action to watch, all my mind could do was wander. But that’s the great thing about having kids with you. “I need to go to the bathroom. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.” Distractions, sometimes they come at the best times.
I was sitting in turn three, just as they got on the gas to go for the green. The roar of the engines as they hit the gas pedal sent a chill through my body. That feeling never gets old. As the green flag dropped over the field, I was immediately caught up. At Rockford Speedway even the cleanest of driving can look dirty depending on the angle you are watching from. So it is impossible for me to take my eyes off the track and the group of cars I was watching.
As I watched the cars go around the track on Sunday afternoon, all I saw every time I looked at turn two was my dad’s car. I could imagine his eyes, his hands gripping the steering wheel, making his infamous slide. I couldn’t get past it. I watched that turn more intently than any other part of the track. Never once did I see anyone else who had mastered it how he had. The race was exciting, no doubt, and I had my favorites, but I still saw his car, lap after lap after lap.
I couldn’t help but think about victory lane that final day. I can still hear his weak voice and see him trying to hold up that wreath of flowers for the final time. I will never forget our final victory lane hug, which I am so thankful was captured in a photograph. In fact, I think I have more pictures from that day than any other race I can remember. It was as if everyone knew. No one really wanted to know or think the unimaginable, but I swear there was something telling people this was it.
The crowd didn’t leave right away. There were tears in people eyes and I’m not sure they even knew why. Maybe for some it was seeing their hero so vulnerable as he climbed out of the car and waved, what they didn’t want to ever believe would be his final farewell. Or maybe it was just because it was an incredible race regardless of my dad’s circumstances. Either way the stories I hear from people about that day 17 years ago are always filled with emotion, many who can’t explain it themselves.
When the race was over on Sunday afternoon, the track and stands had cleared, and the pits were beginning to empty, there was one last thing I wanted to do…..and that was put my hands in his. During Rockford Speedway’s 50th Anniversary, the very day of his final victory, they had my dad make an imprint of his hands into a concrete block, which can be found between the fences of the grandstands and the track itself. I found it just to the left of the flag stand as I came up from the track. There they were, my dad’s handprints. As I placed my hands into the mold, all I could think was that I was placing my hands into his once again. I closed my eyes for a moment and as you can imagine, it was a very difficult moment for me, but I kept my composure so that I could at least get out of the track without breaking down. I’ve gotten pretty good at that over the years.
I didn’t think I was going to get through this one today, and I couldn’t have it if weren’t for the support and encouragement of the amazing people that I’ve met in this crazy world of racing. I know I say it all the time and I’ll continue to say it until the end, racing is a family like no other, and there is no other family I’d rather be a part of, and I’m pretty sure my dad would be grateful to all of you for allowing me to remain in it.
Whew! I made it! Again, so much more to say, but I need to save it for some off-season material.
Now it’s time to prepare for another memorable one…Oktoberfest Race Weekend.