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by Ashley Zimmerman
August 12th, 2003; while for many generations of race fan, it’s a date that seemingly has very little effect, for me, while I was just 17 years old, it is still a date that can cause me to stop in my tracks, take an inventory of my life, and pause the hustle for a moment of silence. You see, seventeen years ago, it was a gorgeous Tuesday night before the Knoxville Nationals, and like usual, Terry McCarl was hosting the non-wing version of the Front Row Challenge in Oskaloosa. Out of the ordinary, Australian, turned Knoxville native, Keith Hutton put down the wrenches as the crew chief of the iconic #55 car, and suited up as a driver. Through what was later determined to be just a freak racing accident, we laid Keith Hutton to rest filling the grandstands at Knoxville Raceway later that week. Losses like Keith’s, are moments where drivers, car owners, fans, fabricators, crew members, we feel a lump in our throats, and a break in our hearts. While death is a part of this lifestyle we all love, we do not prepare ourselves to lose the men that strap in on just an occasion, and those moments we do, impact our lives in way we can never anticipate.
For myself, and my family, we spent every weekend eating breakfast with the Hutton’s (Keith & Jenny). When I was chosen for a trip to Australia, as a student ambassador, it was the Hutton’s that convinced my father I would be safe in the land down under, and what necessities I should take. I feel blessed to have shared in the love for rodeo with the same fire and passion that Keith also did. The impact losing Keith left on my life, I still continue to feel to this day. You see, it was the emotions that my father felt from losing Keith, that left him to share a multitude of details with his only daughter [me!] about what to do, if/when, my mother and I should ever lose him to a freak incident. At 17, I could not even begin to fathom the possibility of such, especially with a fifty year old parent, driving a semi-truck as an occupation. Unlucky for me, I would later use the knowledge I was given as the result of our loss as a family, and industry, exactly one month to the passing of Keith. My entire world turned upside down, and for a few moments in time, I faltered, and questioned the option of giving up entirely. It was when I saw the answers I had been given, were answers my mother had the questions for, that I dusted myself off, and planned the funeral my father had wished for, just thirty days prior.
If the memories I had made in my seventeen years of life prior to losing Keith and my father, had not solidified a love for sprint car racing, utilizing my love for sprint car racing to continue to feel connected to my losses, did.
This last weekend, I was honored to have been given the opportunity to reconnect with Jenny Hutton, Keith’s wife in Indianapolis. The last time I had seen her, was the 2004 Knoxville Nationals, and that moment is engraved in my memory. My mother and I had purposely sought out to find her, located in the All Star’s merchandise trailer, we stood on the midway, hugging, and sobbing; as I had just shown her the #55 I had tattooed on my arm, in memory of Keith. While reuniting with Jenny was bittersweet, in the truth that I was coming to say “safe travels” as she returns to Australia to enjoy family, and to chase her own personal dreams, it was also incredibly inspirational.
You see, Jenny has been incredibly private about the loss of Keith Hutton, and the memorialization of his death; but it’s simply because she’s been in the mecca of the racing industry, living out his legacy in the most positive way possible. While there were many times throughout the years after losing Keith, Jenny wanted to throw her sucker in the dirt, figuratively speaking, and allow the pain to consume her being; she chooses to change her narrative. Jenny is passionate about seeing the light in the darkness, and pursued a career at Indy Racing League in safety inspections and accident investigation. Jenny allowed her personal loss to fuel her passion for preventing others from suffering through similar pain.
I left Indiana this weekend feeling like yet another Hutton had turned my life upside down, but this time in teaching me how to take the pain from my losses, and find the light in the darkness. There is an incredible strength inside of women like Jenny Hutton. I’m going into the next two months looking at the significant dates, and reminding myself to see the light in the darkness of the loss of two incredible men. I was incredibly blessed to have the man whom raised me share his love for sprint car racing with me for seventeen years of my life, and I have been blessed that the people inside of that sport enveloped me with their love, hugs, and positivity after my losses. Myself, and the world of sprint car racing was made better for the contributions and passion that Keith Hutton brought to the racetrack every single weekend. While for some this may be the first time you’re hearing about Keith Hutton, there is still an impact to be made by his passing; don’t allow the sadness of tragedy prevent you from doing incredible and positive things, let it fuel you.
On August 12th, I implore you, take a moment, wherever that might be, use the remembrance of those we’ve lost in sprint car racing, and in our personal lives, and change the narrative. Take this moment to feel happiness for having witnessed their legacies, for sharing in their memories, and simply smile.
P.S. Please watch upcoming issues of Dirt Monthly, where I will have a full interview with Jenny Hutton about the remarkable things she’s experienced in Indy Racing League, her life with Keith, and her inspiring perspective on using loss to fuel her passion in safety.
While statistics and results are well documented throughout the history of racing, the emotion elicited by the rich moments created by our dirt track ancestors is developed through the delicate sharing of each goose bump in its entirety of every race. When this happenstance is passed from each race fan to the next we tend to name this recalling of events racingnostalgia; nostalgia that has become easily shared by turning to our fellow fans and sharing a warm smile and a welcoming greeting at any dirt track venue across the world, it’s as if this friendly approach is a trigger to recall in the most vivid of descriptions frozen moments throughout racing history. While COVID may demand we take a six foot away approach, we are still very blessed to have the ability to mingle with individuals that love our sport just as much as we do. Our reality in the world outside of the race track can be quite daunting these days and sometimes prevents us from living each moment with the warmth and enjoyment that we once did. It brings me to worry about those whom thrive on moments of happenstance and nostalgia, I call them the last few of a very rare breed, a breed that has been slowly dying from racetracks around the world for many seasons now. We are a breed that is hard to spot, you can’t just look us up and down and know we are “one of them”, you come to find us after you’ve shared a “hello”, or asked a simple question about the race, the track, or the town. We are the story tellers, we are the bringers of life to nostalgia, to the goose bumps, to the nights to remember, and the moments lost in statistics versus the results. Too often we are overlooked as the fan who sits alone, so dedicated to sprint car racing, they will come alone simply to just come to a race track that means something to us; we overlook the ones whom start off quiet; the ones we may potentially dub unfriendly, simply because they want to absorb every detail, every sound to recall later. It is that absorption of each detail that has created the nostalgia that has allowed us all to relive moments like Jack Miller and “hooooollllllyyycooooow”, that causes those goose bumps, and draws smiles across our faces, all thanks to the intense recollection of a dying breed, the lost art of storytelling, the beauty of sharing the nostalgia of racing history.
In our beginnings of life are taught we need wings to go to heaven, later we evolve to learn that leaving this Earth can solidify your moments in this fast paced sport, coining you a legend in our history.We seem to forget that strong beautiful wings lead us to heaven every single Saturday night, lucky are we to have our paths guided by vapor trails. Our nights in a slice of heaven on Earth begin with a little motor heat, and end us in celebration in Victory Lane. It’s the moments in between, at the track or the campground, where the details form from our interactions, and begin the deep roots of memories to later become filled with nostalgia. These moments years ago, started as potlucks with your neighbors, purchasing the same tickets at big events year after year; where we learned about your families, your trials and tribulations; with the hustle that has become daily life, these moments have slowly faded to brief passing’s – unless, by great happenstance, you’re one of that dying breed, the story tellers, the detail absorbers, the creators of nostalgia. You reach out to those camped around you, you cross fingers to see them the following race season; you answer the questions from the “puppy racers”, and you take each opportunity to recreate the nostalgia of the great moments you’ve witnessed in your race fan career, and take great pride in creating another generation in the now lost stories you were graced to hear fall upon your ears over the seasons.
We heavily document each Saturday night with statistics, who has done what or broke what record, and sometimes allow the details to fade. Social media has given us the opportunities to visually absorb the highlights of each race, but what social media lacks is the emotion those highlights are able to give us. Youtube is unable to let a proud smile creep across it’s lips when they recount how spectacular it felt watching Jason Johnson battle it out with Donny Schatz for his nationals championship; but the story tellers, the heart that goes into the way they pass nostalgia on to the next race fan, is a talent no machine can recreate.
COVID will undoubtedly change our normal lives for many years to come, but as race fans, we have shown our Saturday nights at the track are not to be messed with or interrupted. We have shown our love for sprint car racing, our local tracks, and our drivers, is unrivaled of any sport on this Earth. As race fans, it is also our duty to not allow the stories to die, to not trickle away into just remnants of days gone by. As we sit in the stands, or lounge around under the awning at the campground, don’t let the hustle of day to day prevent you from that warm greeting, and conversation. It may be through this simple interaction, you learn the power of Tony Bokhoven yelling “let’s go racing in the valley!” Our maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember that wings don’t just take you heaven in the afterlife, but heaven on Saturday night.
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Copyright © 2020 by "Hosehead's Sprint Car Photos & News." Do not reproduce anything from these pages without the permission of the photographers, writers or webmaster.
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