Good News From A Small Iowa Town

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Magazines and newspapers -- most reporting of current events, for that matter -- depress me. CNN, Time, Newsweek. Gloom. The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times. Melancholy. What man does to man doesn't offer much encouragement these days.

I never thought Sports Illustrated, CNN/SI and ESPN would have the same effect. Rioting, fighting, selfishness, lawlessness, greed. All over a game. Doesn't do much for one's rah-rah. Does even less for one's optimism.

Then I ran across this story.

Last weekend, a group of 11 people -- all drivers and mechanics from Stuart Speedway, a tiny dirt track in Iowa -- paid a surprise visit to Jimmy Hickey, a 49-year-old man who's afflicted with muscular dystrophy. Jimmy, a resident of the Earlham Health Care Center, lives for racing. His wardrobe consists of racing T-shirts; his thoughts are IMCA and NASCAR. His room is filled with racing photos and collectibles. He watches all the races on TV, but he's no longer able to attend the ones nearest his home.

"I tell Jimmy every Sunday when I see him that this is race night and that I wish I could take him with me," said Donna Coe, an employee of the care center who organized the visit. "He even tries to climb out of bed. I figured if we can't take him racing, we'll bring the races to him."

Coe's Garage and Towing in Stuart -- the family business that keeps Donna, her husband, DeWayne, and son, Kevin, hopping -- became the command center for the visit. Donna and Shephenie Shook, the activities director at the care center, finalized plans and contacted drivers. Before long, they had a list of seven.

There were the hobby-stock driving Embreys -- Larry, son Randy and grandson Jeremy. Modified drivers Joe College and Rex Parkison. Stock-car driver Tim Baker. Cruiser driver Jeff Coon. None of these drivers have the talent of Dale Earnhardt -- but all are excellent at their level.

To Jimmy Hickey, it was a visit from Big E, Little E, Rusty, Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. These are his heroes, guys he admired and watched before his illness kept him from it.

In the face of a wicked thunderstorm, everybody showed up, with cars in tow, to say hello to Jimmy Hickey. He greeted all, looked over their cars, received shirts, caps, autographs and smiles. The Coes, familiar figures in the pits at Stuart, and DeWayne's stepson, Travis Guzinski, joined the party, likely getting as much satisfaction from it as Jimmy. They made his day. And he gave them a reason.

Believe it or not, most race-car drivers in the U.S. don't race for a living. In all corners of rural America, men and women spend their weekends racing for as little as $50 to win. It's a losing proposition, if you focus only on the financial side. It's a hobby, one at which some of them are quite good.

To the fans who attend races at these little dirt tracks, though, the racers are stars. Normal stars. People they see daily at the coffee shop and convenience store. On the weekends, though, these regular people do something highly irregular. In little towns across the country, race-car drivers are placed on pedestals, yet held to higher standards. And, under that all-knowing scrutiny of small towns, racers almost always deliver. It's what they get from racing. For the countless drivers who aren't Jeffs or Dales, racing is about competition. And fun. And returning something -- adding something -- to their communities.

So, when you discover your sports heroes are insolent 20-year-old millionaires who do little more than put a ball through a hoop or over a fence and incite insolent 20-year-old morons to riot in the streets, this is your anti-story. A handful of racers -- heroes to some, regular folk to all -- make Jimmy Hickey's day.

Maybe we're giving our attention to the wrong games. Maybe we should all be at the nearest Stuart Speedway this weekend, grateful for something decent in our newspaper.

And in our lives.

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