Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing a father and a friend

Over the past few days, I've been considering if and how I would write a blog about the passing of my father. On so many levels, it feels like the memories of the loss of a loved one aren't really a good fit for a racing blog. The more I got to thinking about it, though, the more right it felt for me to write about my dad. In all honesty, if it wasn't for my father, I wouldn't even go to the races.

When it came down to sitting at the keyboard, however, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to write. I still don't. Regardless what the next few paragraphs include, you can probably call it therapeutic for me to try to put into words what my dad meant to me. No matter what comes to mind, everything I remember here will be fond, affectionate, loving memories of a man who sacrificed and gave a lot for his family. Those are the only memories of him that I can remember because those are the only ones that exist.

For the readers who may not know, my dad, Dwayne Burkey, died on May 14 after a brief battle with lung cancer. So brief, in fact, only three weeks passed from the moment we became aware of his condition until his death. By law, I guess you could say Dwayne was my step-father because he married my mom in July of 1987 when I was 13 years old. In my heart and in my soul, he was and will always be my dad and those are the only places that matter.

My dad was a race car driver for many years at Vinton Speedway back in the 1970s and 1980s in the Roadrunner division. From the mid-to-late 1980s, the track closed until Larry and Kathleen Kemp reopened the facility, since named Benton County Speedway. When the Kemps reopened the track (in 1989, I believe), my dad raced Dan Krug's Hobby Stock a few nights before getting back into racing with his own car in the Pro Stock division. He raced until 1995 when he retired from behind the wheel to help maintain the racing surface in Vinton, a duty he took pride in until last month when he became too ill to work at the track.
As would be expected, memories of my dad came flooding back these past few weeks as I spent much of my time at the hospital and in Vinton with my mom and my brothers. It's amazing to remember everything you thought you had forgotten about a loved one when they're no longer with you. There are also those stories that you've remembered and cherished since the moment they first happened. It's moments like those that have helped get us through the past few days.

I think many of you know the story of my dad's Pro Stock feature win in 1995. Although he had won at Independence, his hometown track was in Vinton and he wanted to win there more than anywhere. He started helping Larry Kemp prepare the track prior to the end of his racing days and it was on a day that season when he made a discovery while making his way around the track in the road grader. A horseshoe made its way to the surface after it had been lost in the track many years before. Larry told him he better hang onto that horseshoe because finding it may have been a good omen. When he got home, my dad and brother mounted the horseshoe in the cockpit of his race car and, wouldn't you know, he earned that elusive feature win that very Sunday night.

Victory lane in 1995

Another memory came in 1982 when I was eight years old. During intermission at the races in Vinton, I was talking with a few friends down in the old box seats at the front of the grandstands when announcer Bill Haglund called my name as the Junior Fan of the Week. I was not only in shock, but terrified at the thought of walking down to the front stretch in front of all those people.

Then, there he was, driving his #98 Roadrunner to the front stretch so I could get in and take a lap around the track with him. A track official handed me my trophy and helped me get into the passenger side of my dad's race car. Until that time, I had never even been in the car while it was running, let alone while it was in motion. He knew I was scared and took it slow as we made our way around the track. When we got to the back stretch, I felt like I was in another world. I'd never seen the other side of the race track and I remember thinking things seemed so different over there. I was so proud to be there with him for the whole world to see. When we made it back to the front stretch, I hopped on my dad's lap with trophy in hand so the photographer could take our picture. It's a photo I have treasured for the last 29 years and will cherish so much more for the rest of my life.

Junior Fan of the Week photo from the summer of 1982

Memories like those, along with countless others, were brought up in conversation with my family the last couple of weeks, along with the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects at his visitation on Wednesday. We joked at how my dad would have been furious at having a visitation for him. He was a simple guy who admittedly wasn't fond at being confronted with sickness and death. He was the type of person who always wanted to remember people the way he knew them in life, not in death. We realized that funeral visitation was a process meant for the family. Along with giving the many people who cared for him the chance to pay their respects, it was for that reason we decided to go ahead with the visitation. Looking back, I think he'd have been happy, but also embarrassed at the thought that so many people respected him.

Although he is gone, his memory will live on forever. Whether it's at home, at the track or wherever we may be at any given time, I am comforted by the thought that he is always going to be right there with us. I returned home today for the first time since last week to take care of things around the house. As I was finishing mowing the lawn, I looked up to see a cardinal sitting in my backyard. Not only was red always dad's color, it was the first time in the six years I've lived in my house that I'd seen a cardinal there. After a quick glance, the bird was gone. It brought a rush of emotion and tears to my eyes as I frantically fumbled for my phone to text my brother about what I had just seen. My dad was there to watch over me and to let me know everything was going to be okay because he'll be right there with me for every decision I make, to celebrate the good times with me and to provide support for any obstacles that may stand in my future.

Along with their condolences, so many people have expressed their sadness that his illness took him from us so quickly. While I wish we'd have had more time together, I am comforted by the fact that he did not suffer, that he was peaceful when he left us and that my family was provided the opportunity to say goodbye.

While the races will never be the same and while there will always be something missing on Sunday nights in Vinton, the memories of my dad will make race nights so much more meaningful. Like everyone else who is involved in our sport, my dad knew that racing was about family, friends and fun. His passion for racing will continue to live on in my family. Likewise, his love for his racing family will be present every race night. When I think of my dad, I will appreciate all the great people I've come to know over the years simply because he enjoyed spending his Sunday nights at the races.

Thank you, Dad. Your impact on my life is immeasurable and I will never be able to thank you enough for being a part of my life and of my family. I love you.

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