SULLIVAN: What Will 2021 Look Like?

Patrick Sullivan

I don’t know about you, but I am still amazed that we were able to patch something together that looked and felt a bit like a real season of auto racing in 2020.

Think back to that night when many of us sat at home and watched a streamed sprint car event from South Dakota and wondered if we would really be able to catch live action at any point in the summer.

We did.

Better yet, in some major open-wheel racing tours, the championship tussles went down to the very end.

On the USAC front, all three of the National series had point battles that went right down to the wire and produced some compelling action. It was the same story with the World of Outlaws, which was a hotly-contested affair that raged until the final weekend.

On the negative side of the ledger, there were big events lost – none larger than the Knoxville Nationals – and racing on the west coast was essentially decimated.

Praise is due to the teams who hung in there, and a big thanks to those who went out on the road, at a time when much was unknown and compliance with safety regulations was less than uniform.

It has been a trying year for many of us and, while there has been some measure of success, we can’t forget that there has been plenty of heartache too.

Over 30 years ago I was headed to a Drury College basketball game in Springfield, Missouri. As I pulled into a parking slot on a side street, I looked up and noticed that the person who parked just in front of me had a World of Outlaws bumper sticker.

Then, as the group climbed out of the car, I spied a young girl wearing a Chili Bowl T-shirt. This may not seem all that noteworthy now, but in the late 1980’s sprint car and midget racing was even more of a niche sport than it is today.

At that time, I was working at I-44 Speedway in Lebanon and Speedway USA in nearby Bolivar. While both tracks had taken a chance on a USAC sprint car race, make no mistake about it, this was primarily stock car country. So, I hurried from my car to say a word to the family and it was here I first met Donnie Sherrell.

Donnie Sherrell was a character of the first order. He could make me laugh without really trying all that hard. Let’s just say he had a unique perspective on life and he really loved racing. He loved it so much that when he quasi-retired he packed up the family and moved to Indianapolis.

I had already been in Indy for a few years and, in that time, I had only been able to see Donnie at big events like Knoxville and the Chili Bowl.

I was thrilled that he was nearby again. As long as he had racing (and copious amounts of Diet Mountain Dew) he was good to go. He fit right into the Indiana racing scene and didn’t miss many USAC events.

If I was to provide a picture, many area fans would immediately recognize him.

There won’t be any races for Donnie in the future. I got a call that he tested positive for COVID and, while he was briefly discharged from the V.A. hospital, I knew it was over.

He was a good man, a Vietnam veteran and a genuinely funny guy. Now he’s dead, and there was no way to say goodbye adequately in this environment.

That’s the unvarnished truth.

Shortly after this, another friend also came down with COVID. He is someone nearly everyone who reads this column would recognize – a future Hall of Famer. He is much younger than Donnie, and in better physical shape, but as I write he has been knocked flat for a full week. He is very ill.

We can debate policies and procedures, but here is one of the last things Donnie ever said to me. Please note, this is edited for family consumption.

“If anybody thinks this thing is a joke,” he said, “feel free to tell them to give me a call.”

That was when he barely had enough energy to talk.

If you are reading this, you have survived one of the worst years imaginable, but the stark reality is that some didn’t. I can get on social media right now and find plenty of requests for thoughts and prayers for those who have an ill loved one. Because you’re not sick doesn’t mean you aren’t shedding the virus.

I have read all the comments about not living in fear. During the 2020 season I wasn’t paralyzed, but I was very cautious. Nonetheless, I went to Pennsylvania and the Midwest with USAC and, all told, worked somewhere near 50 races.

What I tried to do was live as smart as I could. Still, there were moments when I was far from comfortable and felt that I really wasn’t making a wise choice.

Here is my concern. We’re all fatigued with this. I get it. Me too. We are all hopeful of some kind of breakthrough that helps us go back, at least in part, to the world we knew. Yet, here’s the deal. Donnie Sherrell is not the only person I know who died from this virus. He happens to be the last friend to do so. I’m very afraid there will be others.

So, like you, I’ve found myself engaged in magical thinking that once the big ball dropped in Times Square in New York City all of our problems are over. Finally, this awful year, one that historians will write about a century from now, is all behind us.

Yes, the year is over. However, the challenges have not gone away. Will we be able to race in February? Will big events like the Knoxville Nationals, the Kings Royal, the Indianapolis 500, or the Daytona 500 actually be contested with full grandstands? We don’t know.

Unless a safe vaccine is launched with wide distribution or the virus disappears as quickly as it arose, we are going to be tested again. The numbers in Indiana right now are worse than they were the day I walked out of my office last March and was told that we would all be working from home for a while. I have yet to go back.

Once again, race tracks and racing organizations are going to have to come up with a plan and diligently try to follow it. If we don’t, we will be shut down.

We can scream and holler all we want, but I see empty stadiums at NFL games right now and the NFL carries a whole lot more clout than a local speedway. No, we aren’t out of the woods.

Race tracks, teams, and drivers are going to need our help next year. Many took a tremendous hit in 2020 and some aren’t going to survive.

Do what you can. Offer a small sponsorship to a team. Buy a T-shirt. Hit the concession stand a bit harder. It’s been tough but, if we work together, we can get through it.

We can all live, but to do so we must be smart.


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