Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Racing family" defined at Darren Ackerman benefit

It has long been said the racing community is a tight-knit group that, unless you're part of it, most truly can't understand. For those of us who have the passion for racing, we have a tremendous appreciation for what the term "family" means. This has never been more evident than Friday night at the Bremer County Fairgrounds in Waverly for the Darren Ackerman benefit.

As I mentioned recently, Ackerman, a longtime Late Model driver at Independence Motor Speedway, was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in November of last year. So many of us are familiar with the ugly disease, the fear it creates and the emotion it brings forth when it hits close to home. Whenever a potentially devastating situation affects our day-to-day living, it's often the support we receive from those around us that helps us make it through those daily struggles. If giving time, donations and expressions of friendship and support can help in any way, then it's no doubt Darren will soundly defeat cancer and return to be with his racing family in the near future.

Friday night was simply unreal. Throughout the night I heard people use numerous words in attempt to describe the outpouring of support for Darren and his family. Words like amazing, incredible, unreal, unbelievable, along with many others were expressed throughout the evening, although I don't believe any word could do it justice.

Prior to the event, I heard rumblings from a few of the organizers that they were unsure how many people would turn out. While tickets were available for purchase prior to the event, they were also made available at the door, which left me with the impression that pre-paid ticket sales were low. Although the festivities were scheduled to start at 5:30, a number of us arrived a few minutes before the doors officially opened. At that time, there were probably 30 or 40 people in attendance, many of whom were organizers and family members who were frantically organizing the hundreds, yes, hundreds, of door prizes, silent auction items and live auction items.

A short time later, the ladies working the ticket counter got busier and busier as the crowd started to arrive. A few arrivals turned into a dozen, which turned into a long line out the door. One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred. The people kept coming. People were arriving at such a pace that dinner, which was originally scheduled to be served at 6:30, was offered prior to 6 p.m. While those in attendance were looking through the auction items, finding a seat or chatting with people they hadn't seen in months, if not years, the people kept coming. Four hundred. Five hundred. Not only was seating at a premium, it was difficult to find a place to stand. Then, they ran out of tickets... But people kept coming. Finally, after roughly another fifty people came through the door, they stopped counting, yet people still kept walking in.

The number of supporters didn't just bring their well-wishes for Ackerman, they also brought their checkbooks, credit cards, cash and any other means to help financially support the cause. A number of the larger ticket items went for hundreds of dollars and a few for thousands of dollars. The highest ticket item of the night was a Simpson adorned refrigerator (stocked with a couple cases of adult beverages from what I understand) that was purchased by Performance Bodies owner Scott Braun for a lofty $6,100.

I was standing near Darren as the higher ticket items kept selling for more than the item before it. Darren just looked on in amazement, seemingly in shock that this was all for him. He turned to me and asked the simple question, "How do I thank all these people?" So humble, so thankful and feeling unworthy of the outcry of support, the look on Darren's face throughout the night offered a glimpse as to why there was such a huge turnout.

For those who don't know Darren, he and his family are among the most genuine, soft-spoken and friendliest of those who race at Independence. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving of the support he received last night. I reminded him that a simple "thank you" was all anyone was expecting to hear in return, if even that. Everyone in attendance last night was part of something greater than helping one of their fellow racers, it was about supporting someone who we all consider part of our racing family.

Those who support a race track on a weekly or regular basis are probably familiar with the drivers who interact with and help their fellow competitors. Of course, not all racers know every other driver, let alone talk to them on a regular basis. Most drivers interact more frequently with those who compete in the same division, pit near them or, simply, who they've known for a long time. Last night, however, not only drivers from all divisions, but their own friends and families who may not regularly socialize with Darren, were on-hand to show their support.

Toward the end of the night, I spoke with Darren's parents, Mark and Carolyn, who were just as shocked at the support. So grateful and so humble, while at the same time determined that Darren will defeat the cancer and return to his #53 sometime later this summer. "The most important thing is getting Darren healthy again," Mark said, "but it will be great if we can make it back out sometime this summer. And, I tell you what, there will be one hell of a crowd there the night he comes back."

Without a doubt, I'm certain our racing family will make that a guarantee.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Off-season news and events

Despite the recent light snowfall we received in the area, the calendar assures(?) us that spring is just around the corner. In fact, the first race in Iowa is scheduled for the first week in April, which means area race fans can get their first taste of the 2012 season in just a month-and-a-half.

Prior to the first cars hitting the track this spring, however, there are a number of events on the calendar in the coming days and weeks, which will allow folks in racing circles to rub elbows and socialize, while supporting a couple of good causes.

Last month's Karsyn's Krusaders Wacky Bowling for Kids' Cancer was a tremendous success as roughly 140 bowlers turned out at Cadillac Lanes in Waterloo, along with many more on-lookers, to support the cause. That was the first of a few events in the area to get race fans together; the next two events coming up this weekend.

This Friday night, February 17, a benefit for Darren Ackerman will be held at the Bremer County 4-H Building, 515 5th Ave. SW in Waverly. Social hour goes from 5:30-6:30 p.m., with dinner from 6:30-7:30. There will be a silent auction, that closes at 8, along with a live auction, that begins at 8. A dance will follow the auction.

For those who don't know Darren, he has been a Late Model driver at Independence Motor Speedway since the mid-1990s and was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in November of last year. I'm happy to say that Darren has been feeling well and his treatments have also been going well.

Along with being one of the friendliest and most personable drivers we've had at Independence, Darren has had great success on the track. His 16 career Late Model feature wins at the speedway rank him in the top-10 all-time and he has earned a trio of track championships. He earned co-champion honors in 2004 and was the outright division champion in both 2007 and 2009. In fact, he is the only driver at the speedway to earn at least one feature victory in each of the last eight seasons. That's among all drivers in all divisions.

Although he won't be competing on the track this season, Darren will be working on his greatest triumph as he looks to beat cancer. There isn't a doubt in my mind that Darren will do just that and return to the speedway in 2013. If you're unable to attend the benefit, a benefit account has been established at Veridian Credit Union in Waterloo. Those wishing to attend the event, but have yet to purchase tickets, may do so at the door on Friday night at a cost of only $10 apiece. For more information on the event, please visit the Darren Ackerman Benefit page on facebook or click on the flyer below.

Another great event follows on Saturday night, February 18, at Pizza Ranch in Vinton. Janice Smith, who has been a great supporter of Benton County Speedway in Vinton, has organized a Cabin Fever Night for drivers, pit crews, family and friends of the speedway. The event will provide a great off-season break and give everyone the chance to get together to catch up prior to the April 1 season opener in Vinton.

Janice is taking on a new role at the speedway as the Lil' Racer Car Club makes its debut at the Vinton quarter-mile this spring.  As many of you may know, Mitch Swinton has done a tremendous job keeping the youth interested in our sport through the kids club. Everyone agrees that we need kids involved in our sport as they are the next generation of racers and race fans. Mitch has gone above and beyond that call of duty as his kids clubs are regular parts of a number of race programs in eastern Iowa. Check out the hard work of Mitch and his crew at Mitch and his family also plan to be in attendance at Pizza Ranch this Saturday for Cabin Fever Night to discuss the club at greater length.

In addition to Cabin Fever Night, Mitch and Janice will hold the first official Lil' Racer Car Club event in Vinton on Saturday, March 24. The first annual It's All About the Kids bowling tournament will take place at Berry's Lanes (1115 West 1st St.) in Vinton that afternoon from 2-4 p.m. The cost to bowl is only $12 per person for two hours of bowling. A free soda, including one refill, and one pizza per lane will be provided. Door prizes will also be awarded to the kids.

The Lil' Racer Car Club is a fantastic addition to the racing program in Vinton and will certainly be popular for the kids. Great job to Mitch and Janice for bringing the excitement to Vinton!

Driver registrations for Independence Motor Speedway continue to roll in. For drivers who have not already sent in their driver registration and pit stall reservation forms, the deadline to get a discounted rate and guarantee your same pit stall as 2011 is March 1. After that date, registration fees will increase by $5 and all unreserved pit stalls at the point will be available for anyone to reserve. While the early registration can save you a few bucks, it will also help speed things along on opening night. One of the most frustrating night at any race track is getting stuck in a long line at the pit shack while drivers ahead of you register their cars and try to figure out which parking spots are available. Drivers waiting to register at the track will see an additional $5 fee to register so registering today will save you $10. Visit the Independence Motor Speedway web site for registration forms.

Along with increased duties at Independence this season, I recently agreed to take on the weekly announcing duties at Lee County Speedway in Donnellson in 2012. New LCS promoter Dewain Hulett has been working diligently to prepare for the upcoming season and it should be a lot of fun making the trip to southeast Iowa on Fridays this season.

The 2012 season was actually scheduled to begin in Donnellson this past Saturday with a 4-Cylinder special. Ironically, the unseasonably warm temperatures put the kibosh on that event. Hewlitt and his team knew going into that race they would need a frozen surface for it to be a go. Due to the warm weather, the fear of a soft track and potentially dangerous racing conditions led them to pull the plug. Although die-hards were disappointed, it was definitely the right call to cancel. That means the Modified special slated for Friday, April 13 will kick off the season in Donnellson. Following a 305 Sprint Car special on April 20, the weekly points battles will begin on Friday, April 27. Five IMCA-sanctioned divisions will compete weekly, including Modifieds, Stock Cars, SportMods, Hobby Stocks and Sport Compacts.

That's all for now. Although the racing is still a few weeks away, please take the time to attend the events I mentioned above. Not only will they serve as an opportunity to get together with racing friends, they also support a couple of great causes. I hope to see you in Waverly on Friday and Vinton on Saturday!