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CEDAR RAPIDS — Anniversaries like the one Hawkeye Downs Speedway had last Friday night are never easy to handle.
It was on that racing weekend a year ago that Marion native and Legends car driver Joan Feller was involved in the accident in Turn 4 that ultimately would take her life later that week. It was not an anniversary the historic half-mile honored or even recognized in the moment, though it was one its racers and her friends there felt on their minds.
No, the track didn’t have to honor Feller on that anniversary, because she’s become a part of the speedway in subtle but important ways ever since. And as long as the track and promoter Kevin Korsmo are around, she always will be.
“Boy, I’ll tell you, time went so slowly at the beginning, then once you get back in your normal routine, it snuck right up on us,” Korsmo said. “We started honoring her last year with the awards banquet. Now we’ve got the banners in Victory Lane with Acts 20:24 on them, which was the Bible verse she had on her car and I have on mine now. We want to string it out and not do everything all at once to honor Joan. It’s cool to be able to do that.
“We try to move on from the accident and do things tastefully, and not go overboard. There’s still ideas we have we haven’t gotten to, but we want to honor her in some way each year.”
Feller has been honored in the last year with a pair of banners in Victory Lane as Korsmo mentioned, as well as having the Driver of the Week award named for her, and a sign with a photo of Feller standing next to her Legends car that has a permanent spot below the flag stand.
It’s on his last point, of remembering Feller and making sure she’s never forgotten while also not shoving it in fans or fellow racers’ faces, that Korsmo and everyone at Hawkeye Downs has worked hardest.
Korsmo said Feller’s family, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has signed off on everything the speedway has done to honor her, and that they wouldn’t do anything without their signing off on it first. He said, “we’ve stayed in communication with her family, and what a great group of people they are,” and said before the racing season that the dialogue between the family and the track has been positive throughout the past year.
From the racers’ perspective, what Korsmo and Hawkeye Downs have done for her has been right on point. One of her closest friends in the pit area, Stacy Olson, said it’s been perfect.
“It doesn’t seem like a year at all,” Olson said. “It’s gone by so fast. It’s hard to explain. It seems like just yesterday it happened.
“If you do too much, it’s just too much. We can’t focus on just that. It’s a terrible thing that happened, but let’s move on while remembering her. The banners are perfect. The Joan Feller Driver of the Week is perfect. It’s plenty and I think everybody would agree with me.”
Last Friday night was certainly not without emotion, even if there was no clear acknowledgment of the anniversary, and that was in large part to who won the Legends main event.
Sammy Smith, the 12-year-old Des Moines driver who was involved in Feller’s fatal wreck, picked up his first career feature win. To those who were closest to her at the races, the result was more than coincidence, and was clearly a sign. Olson said “it gave me chills to look up and see Sammy won — to see No. 12, which was Joan’s number too, won.”
“Fittingly enough, Sammy wins that race. You can’t tell me someone wasn’t watching over that race,” Korsmo said. “I think that was a way of Joan to say, ‘Hey, it’s all good.’ We know she’s in the right place and we know she’s watching over us.
“Things fell in line for a reason. What are the chances of that, right? For him to be in position to win the night of that anniversary is divine intervention in my mind.”
Moving on is a part of grief. It sounds callous when said out loud, but everyone involved knows it’s necessary. The choice Hawkeye Downs has made in honoring Feller with the Driver of the Week award, the Victory Lane banners and the sign below the flag stand does that without simply washing their hands of the situation and pretending it never happened.
Feller remains an important person to many who raced with her, and Korsmo said emphatically that will never change.
Olson, a member of the family of racing Olsons that includes her cousins Tony and Kyle Olson, started racing INEX Legends cars at the same time as Feller, and won’t ever roll onto the track without thinking of Feller.
“I thought about her all day (last Friday),” Olson said. “I thought about her the entire night; I thought about her when I went out for my feature. … It’s hard not to think about her, because her and my mom died on the same day. I look in my mirror every night when I’m out there and want so badly to see that car, but I know it’s not going to be there. Every night when I get in my car and every night I go up there, she’s always going to be on my mind, no matter what happens, because I started with her. She was a good friend.”
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