CEDAR RAPIDS — If you ever wondered what Hawkeye Downs Speedway means to the people who grew up there, all you had to do was look at former racer and NASCAR official Alan Sheppard’s face on Friday during Wall of Fame Night.
The Marion native, who worked in NASCAR’s chassis department from 1998-2013, now lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., but grew up coming to watch dirt racing at the famed half-mile in Cedar Rapids with his family.
Over a career that has spanned five decades in the car and out, with track championships, wins and all kinds of other honors, Sheppard said Friday night was the highlight of them all. Going up on the Wall of Fame with men he calls heroes — and having them in attendance to boot — was enough to move him to tears.
“This is one of the favorite nights I will ever have with racing,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been in racing for 45 years. In January I was put in the Florida racing Hall of Fame with some Daytona 500 winners. That does not top this tonight. To be included with my childhood heroes means more to me than anyone will ever know.”
Sheppard was inducted along with Sylvia Cooper, Randy Lockwood, Blackie Lyons and Curt Martin. He also got to see his friend and one of those racing heroes Ron Hutcherson get his plaque Friday night, a year after he was inducted but couldn’t make it back to Hawkeye Downs.
Having everyone back in one place was what meant the most to Sheppard. All Sheppard wanted to talk about was seeing guys like Hutcherson, former NASCAR, USAC and ARCA racer Ramo Stott, Ed Sanger, Verlin Eakers and the other inductees.
His wife Lori was with him Friday, and she is no stranger to racing herself as the senior director for the NASCAR medical liaison department, but she said she first understood what Hawkeye Downs meant to her husband when they made a stop at the track last year.
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They were on their way to Iowa Speedway — him to work in his current role as a head ARCA official and her to work the infield care center — when Sheppard decided to stop to show her where he fell in love with racing. There he saw the Wall of Fame for the first time and said it moved him to tears then, too.
He then was invited to speak at Hawkeye Downs’ year-end awards banquet, after which he was given a standing ovation.
To be included among the group himself was hard to wrap his mind around.
When he found out about his induction, he called Hutchinson — who also lives in Florida — and Hutchinson knew he had to come back for his friend. Sheppard might not have wanted to talk about himself, but the guys he called heroes did.
“When I found out they were going to induct Alan, I had to come,” Hutcherson said. “It’s great to see. He’s had a smile on his face for weeks.”
Sheppard and Hutchinson got together after learning the news of Sheppard’s induction and made a trip to Iowa from Florida to visit Stott in Keokuk. Stott famously won the pole for the 1976 Daytona 500 after front row starters Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt had their times disallowed, and hadn’t been back to Hawkeye Downs since he was inducted into the first Wall of Fame in 2002.
Stott had to kind of be convinced to make the trip up, but once he, Sheppard and Hutcherson got to looking at old photos that day in Keokuk he knew he had to make the trip up.
“Alan called me and even came to see me, and I thought if he and Ron Hutcherson were going to be here, and Ron is a good friend of mine, I thought I had to come up and see how everything is here,” Stott said. “I didn’t think it was going to be such a great honor with all these guys that have been inducted and the ones that will be. You’ll see me coming up more.”
Sheppard was just one of five people honored by Hawkeye Downs, and each have their own story and own impact on the historic facility, but Sheppard’s story Friday night was the perfect example of why John Park and the rest of the Wall of Fame committee work so hard to make the night special.
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Sheppard was reminded of the words he gave at the banquet last fall while waiting to receive his plaque on Friday. It summed up everything he felt then and everything he felt Friday.
“This means as much to me as any championships or wins I ever accomplished,” Sheppard said. “Tonight will never be topped.
“The last sentence I said that night (at the banquet) was, ‘We live in Daytona now, and we race at New Smyrna, but Hawkeye Downs will always be my home.’ I mean that. Nothing is going to top the memories I have here.”
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