CEDAR RAPIDS — For C.J. Van Horn, it has been the summer of racing that nearly never was.
Five days before the start of the 2018 season at Hawkeye Downs Speedway, the Marion native and 29-year-old Sportsmen division driver learned that his 87-year-old grandparents, Duane and Beverly Van Horn, were seriously injured in a head-on automobile collision near Quasqueton.
“I was sitting there, he was in intensive care, he had a tube down his throat,” Van Horn said Friday night before finishing fourth in the Sportsmen feature during the weekly points races. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Grandpa, I don’t think I can do it.’ I choked up. … He told me, he said, ‘You go out and go get ‘em. I’ll be just fine and I’ll be there when I get out.’”
Hawkeye Downs has long been a special place for C.J. Van Horn and his grandfather. The pair bonded at the venerable asphalt racetrack each summer from the time C.J. was in kindergarten.
“He is actually the one that got me into racing,” Van Horn said.
Duane Van Horn sustained multiple pelvic fractures in the accident, had his spleen removed and was bound to a wheelchair for the first few weeks of nursing home rehabilitation. His wife, Beverly, suffered multiple rib fractures, a broken left wrist and a fractured left pelvis.
Even before his return home three weeks ago, Duane Van Horn received permission from the nursing home to trek to Hawkeye Downs to see his grandson race in what has been an exceptional season. Last week, the ex-Marine stood in Victory Circle as C.J. celebrated his third Sportsmen feature race victory of the season.
“It was the happiest moment of his life,” C.J. Van Horn said.
There is a huge opportunity for more happy moments this summer for the Van Horn family. C.J. (164 points) entered Friday night with an 18-point lead in the Sportsmen division season points standings over Drew Nickell of Newhall (146). After placing third overall in each of the past two years, Van Horn is two weeks away from a possible first season championship.
“It would actually mean a lot to me,” Van Horn said. “I’ve been trying real hard. It’s been a lot of frustrating nights my first couple of years.”
Van Horn got started with a three-year stretch of racing street bikes on road courses. Ultimately, the memory of race nights with his grandfather prompted a change of direction.
“I had a couple crashes, kind of figured out,” Van Horn said. “I told my mom one day, I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy a racecar.’ She didn’t like the idea at all.”
While Denise Van Horn may have initially been hesitant at the thought of her son driving racecars, she is now a fixture behind the scenes and in the racecar stall each and every Friday night at Hawkeye Downs.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to do it without her,” C.J. Van Horn said.
Van Horn made his Hawkeye Downs racing debut five years ago in the hornets division. For his first two years, he alternated between driving hornets and Legends, but ultimately sought a better fit for his 6-foot-1 frame.
In 2015, he purchased a Sportsman racecar — a limited late model that typically uses a small-block V8 engine and a standard automotive frame — from Hawkeye Downs driver Craig Stepanek. Before Stepanek, the car had been raced by Michael Weber and Hawkeye Downs Wall of Fame member Johnny Mudd dating back to 2001.
“It’s got a lot of history out here,” Van Horn said.
Van Horn had never driven a Sportsman before purchasing one. He caught on quick enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors at Hawkeye Downs in 2015, his first season in the new division.
“Basically just learning how to drive,” Van Horn said. “In the hornet, you can pretty much drive wherever you want and bump into people. In these things, if you abuse your tires you abuse a lot. Everything goes away.”
This season, Van Horn has leaned on the expertise of longtime racer Tim Plummer and Martin Schulte, an engine builder and crew chief who was part of the 2018 Hawkeye Downs Wall of Fame class. Friday night, Van Horn finished outside the top-3 for the first time this season. He is tied for the division lead with three wins in eight feature races.
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While Plummer and Schulte provide the technical expertise, Van Horn beams when he describes the inspiration and motivation he receives from the family under his roof, girlfriend Sarah Plummer (Tim’s sister) and her three children, Jayln, Jayce and Jaxon.
“I’ve probably got the best people back behind me,” Van Horn said. “Every year has kind of been a learning curve and we’re on to something pretty good this year. Patience is the key.”
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