I have become selfish, selfish about what I want to get out of short track racing, plain and simple. This past Sunday I realized just how selfish I have become. I am selfish about what I want to remember, the pictures I want to look at, and the stories and memories I want to hear about. When I think of short track racing history I don’t think much beyond my dad most of the time. I listen most intently to stories about him that I was around for and also enjoy the stories of the racers I remember him going up against. Now please don’t mistake selfishness with a lack of appreciation, because they are not one in the same.
In 2012, my dad was inducted into the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame in its inaugural year. It was an honor for our family not only that he was inducted, but that he was voted in the very first year. He was joined by many other greats, most that I honestly had never heard of. Each inductee or family representative accepted the honor and shared a story or two about their racing history. I have to be honest, I heard them all, but I really wasn’t listening all that much. But something changed this past Sunday when I attended an Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame open house, for lack of a better description.
The Hall of Fame display is housed at the Historic Auto Attractions museum in Roscoe, IL, and if you haven’t been to the museum it is a bucket list must see. Racing is not the main attraction in the museum, I mean it is just mind-blowing. Okay, I digress, my dad’s display has been in the museum for many years, even prior to the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame, so I’ve seen it a few times, but it never gets old. Each of the inductees has a trophy case displaying some history about them including some type of item or items from their racing past. It is a really cool deal that you just have to see to fully appreciate.
On Sunday, past inductees were interviewed and asked to share stories. For the first time in my life, I actually listened to the stories. What I mean by that is that I didn’t just hear what they were saying, but I listened. I hung on their words and was kind of disappointed when each interview was over. I would guess that most of the guys were in their late sixties up to their early to mid-seventies or maybe even a little older. Just like many people, they were a little uncomfortable and timid as they took the mic in their hands. But when they started to tell their stories their eyes lit up and their voices became clear. Their memories were as clear in their heads today as mine are of my dad. It was as if they went back in time and were living it all over again. There might have been a few details they didn’t remember, but the cool thing was that they were able to call out on a past competitor who was also there to help with some of those.
As I sat there and listened to them and watched their faces light up and the smiles and laughter emanate from them, I started to get pulled in and began to visualize what it must have been like. I am sure what I saw in my head and what it was really like were completely different, but sometimes I think that’s part of the fun of hearing descriptions. You can create them however you want in your mind. They talked about how they drove the same car they raced to and from the track, it was also their street car. One guy told how he had lost his windshield during the race and had a three hour drive home. He and another guy took turns driving and once their face got too cold, they would switch. I mean, come on, how many of us would actually do that today. Okay, it might not be legal…but still.
I wish I could tell you all of the details of all of the stories I heard. I’ve never been so intrigued to hear about the past than I was on Sunday afternoon. What I wouldn’t give to sit around a table just to listen to all their stories from days past. I think I had a smile painted on my face the entire time, just listening to them and watching their minds jog through the memories. Many of the inductees knew and raced against one another, so to see the others nodding and joining in on the smiles and laughter was priceless.
As I sat there listening, it all of a sudden hit me…like a ton of bricks. We…are…all…connected. Every story that these guys were telling carried a link to right now, today’s racing. The generations of our day must know and respect that they didn’t start stock car racing, and as long as we continue to keep it strong and alive, they won’t be the ones finishing it. It brought me back to what I was always taught and continue to teach my own kids about respecting your elders. When it comes to racing, it is respecting not only them, but what they did 50 and 60 years ago. It it weren’t for them, where would racing be?
The best way for me to describe it is the domino effect. When one domino falls it sets off a reaction that doesn’t stop until the final one falls. But the fear of what is happening is that there is a domino in the middle that never receives the message and so it continues to stand like a wall between the past and the present. The only way to get that domino to fall is to reconnect the past and the present through things like Halls of Fame that keep legacies going and stories alive. Yes, many of the legends have passed on, but because so many people shared in their lives and so many have shared the stories with others, the wall comes down to reconnect the past with the present.
One of the guys hit the nail on the head. He said, “People today don’t know these stories. They are forgetting about them and essentially forgetting about us. If people don’t continue to share and pass on the stories, no one will remember them. No one will remember us. These generations don’t have any idea what it was like for us. Half of them don’t even know that we raced at Soldier Field” (as a Packer fan, I personally think that’s a way better purpose for that place).
I just wanted to jump up from my chair and run up and hug this guy! What he said sunk into my heart so deep. As I continued to listen to him I started to feel that strong connection, like, ‘hey, I get you and you get me even though we come from generations apart.’
As they told their stories the same words that are used today were echoing through the room. “We had so much fun. Those were great times. The best times I ever had was when we were in the shop or at the track or hanging out after the races.” I bet you’ve all heard or even said that before.
I hear a lot of people, myself included, talking about the good ‘ole days and how we wish it was still like that. These guys even recognize that. They of course built everything from the ground up from the chassis to the engine. Most of their cars came from junk or salvage yards and they could race them anywhere they went…dirt to asphalt. Another Hall of Fame inductee got up to speak and said, “It isn’t that way anymore. Now it makes me sad to see that the only way to get in and to be able to compete is because of money and that is just too bad. None of us really had any money, but boy did we have fun.”
Don’t get me wrong, just like anything else, technology and advancements have been taking the world to heights past generations never thought possible, and I don’t think that going back to the way it was is necessarily the answer. I don’t think that’s what these guys meant either. What I think they were trying to get across is that short track racing is meant to be fun, so do whatever you can to keep making it fun. Everyone’s out for the win and championships and of course it can be a stepping stone to the future, but all in all, all of those guys who paved the way don’t want us to forget where it all started and the laughter and memories that came with it. Never Forget.
Speaking of forgetting, another racer that got up to talk, who by the way, just raced at West Liberty the night before, which is not too far from me and the first actual dirt late model race I ever went to. See…..all connected. Anyway, he was talking about a racer who had passed from Alzheimer’s. On most days he didn’t know where he was, let alone his own name. But they continued to visit him regularly. A couple guys had stopped by and were talking about a particular race and even though it appeared in his eyes that he wasn’t even in the same place as them, they decided to ask him if he remembered something about the engine of that particular race. He said a switch went on in the guy’s head and he started to rattle off every detail about every spec of every inch of the car they were talking about. I almost cried listening to him tell this story. There is just something about racing that is so deeply rooted and impacts people all the way down to their soul. I personally don’t believe it ever leaves.
I have never shared this before, but I took a leave of absence from my job for the two weeks before my dad died to spend as much time as I could with him and to help care for him. It was just me and him one day and he had been out in the garage, aka, our shop, just sort of tinkering with the race car. He had his moments of coming and going in a sense of reality near the end but when I had checked on him earlier, he seemed completely fine and wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I was sitting at the kitchen table and he walked in the house. He looked at me and asked kind of sternly if I had signed in. At first I was a little confused because he had been fine all day, so he asked me again. Once I figured out he meant, did I sign in to get into the pits, I simply said, “yes dad, I signed in.” He nodded his head and said, “ok” and headed back outside.
I followed him out just for my own comfort. He started to walk down the driveway, so I fell in step beside him. He started asking me if I had seen the engine for the race car. I never messed with anything in these situations and calmly said, “dad, the engine is in the car in the garage.” But he was adamant that it wasn’t. So I simply walked along side him as he searched for it along the driveway. When he didn’t find it, he looked at me and said, “I think you’re right, it’s probably in the race car.” So we slowly walked back and I lead him into the garage. He stood there just staring at the car. I watched him for a few moments before he turned to head into the house. It was almost as if he was just making sure everything was in order.
My dad had hoped that he would have just one more chance to race, just one more, and I believe that whether he was having a good day or a bad day mentally, he was determined to make sure that everything was perfect with that car, just in case. As the next week or so passed, his time in the shop became less and less, but I believe that he felt content knowing that the car was ready…just in case. It was in his soul and that’s something I don’t think any illness can take away. Hearing the stories that people have to share about my dad from their earliest memories, even before the color picture days, is like feeling his soul come alive again.
I can guarantee you that from this moment on at every Hall of Fame ceremony or event I attend and every story I hear, I will be clinging to every word of every story from days past. I will be listening with an even deeper appreciation of what laid the foundation of the sport that I hold so dear to my heart and lingers so deeply in my soul.
We have to keep the history and legends alive. We cannot let the stories die with the legends. The Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame means so much to the founders and when I heard Art Fehrman close out the day with how near and dear it is to heart, how much he appreciates everyone’s support, and how he wants to see it grow, I could feel the truth to his dream radiate through the room. The people that take the time to put things like Halls of Fame and other similar things together do it because they don’t want to see the past forgotten, not just for themselves, but for all of us who carry racing so deeply in our souls. I personally thank any and all of the people out there who take the time to maintain stats, stories, photos, and everything else that goes along with the history of stock car racing. I am more than honored and humbled for my own dad to be included in such an amazing group of legendary history makers.