Ever since that fateful day in late June, Dick Whirley still shows up at the family car wash in Grand Rapids every morning at 7:30 a.m., waiting for big brother Dave to arrive a short time later, but Dave never shows up.
Dave Whirley died Monday, June 28, just three days after being involved in an accident while racing vintage cars at Gondik Law Speedway in Superior, an accident believed to be brought on by a medical emergency. He was 70.
The Northern Vintage Stockcar Racers, along with Whirley’s family and friends, returned to Gondik Law Speedway for the first time last weekend and paid tribute to the outgoing and charismatic Whirley by gathering around track chaplain Steve Schreyer before the pre-race prayer. They all wore black shirts, which the racers paid for themselves but the family received for free, with a picture of Whirley’s car on the back and “R.I.P. Dave.”
Dick Whirley is a burly man who becomes real soft when talking about his older brother. He said it was emotional coming back to the track for the first time, just like it was emotional going back to work those first days after his brother had passed.
“It was really tough,” Dick Whirley said. “It was surreal. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, I was always waiting for him to come in …”
Whirley paused, and with a tear in his eye, he had to laugh, “and then he’d tell me what I was doing wrong.”
‘Living the Dream’
Dave Whirley was born in Grand Rapids in 1950. After graduating from Grand Rapids High School in 1968, he served as a lance corporal with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 and was a proud veteran.
Whirley came back with a little extra ambition, a little added bravado.
“He was my hero, all my life,” said Dick Whirley, who at 58 was 12 years younger, and like his nephew Brent, resembled Dave and had a lot of the same mannerisms. “When Dave got out of the military, he was all Marine, so he was gung-ho. He calmed down in his old days a little bit, but not a lot.
“We got our scuba license together and always did things together. He had all the toys, so I’d hang out with him.”
Dave Whirley was employed at Hibbing Taconite and then owned and operated Rapids Auto Wash, right behind the Burger King in Grand Rapids, for almost 30 years.
Besides scuba diving and racing, Whirley had a passion for skiing, flying (he got his private pilot’s license in 1994), sailing and boating, often bringing his family along for the ride.
“He liked to share the experience with everybody,” said Dave’s son, Jason Whirley.
Whirley bought his Modified vintage car in 2015 and was immediately hooked. Whirley was an old motorcycle racer at heart, having grown up doing motocross and racing go-karts.
White and sleek, with a red, white and blue stripe on the side, Dave’s Modified is a cool-looking car. And with a 355-cubic inch Chevy engine, it’s plenty fast, too. While the car received front-end damage from his accident, with a little work, it’ll be good to go.
Cars like Dave’s were the precursors of today’s sprint cars, and on the back of his Modified, he had inscribed, “Living the Dream.”
Jason Whirley said his father wasn’t unlike the other vintage racers who were at Gondik Law Speedway last week.
While regular dirt-track racing can get heated, to the point where guys want to fight, vintage racers are all about having a good time. They’re close-knit. Vintage racing is low key and relaxed.
While guys still like to race up front, they’re friends first, even going out to eat with each other some race weekends. They hit a race or two every weekend throughout the summer.
While results are kept, nobody’s really keeping score.
“I think there’s one guy out here who’s 80, but when they’re out here, they’re all 18,” Jason Whirley said. “When they get in their cars and strap in with their helmets, they’re 18 years old again. My dad loved it. This was one of the few things where you could get a true smile out of him. He thought the world of this group.”
Sue Roskos, Dave’s longtime partner, agreed.
“Dave never had anything but good things to say about them,” she said.
Whirley died ‘doing what he loved’
While Jason Whirley often attended his father’s races he was at home in Grand Rapids the night of Friday, June 25, when the Northern Vintage Stock Car Racers made their first appearance of the season in Superior.
That night he got a call from Roskos saying there had been an accident. He packed up and was gone in a flash, off to Essentia Health in Duluth.
“Something told me I had to be here right away,” Jason Whirley said.
By the time Whirley arrived, his father was unconscious and never would regain consciousness, passing away that Monday.
So what happened?
During the Modified heat race that night, Whirley went straight in the fourth turn, made contact with another car — open wheel-to-wheel contact launching Whirley’s car up and over the wall and into the fence. Whirley’s car teetered along the wall and then rolled on its side. The rest of the heat was called off as medics attended to Whirley.
Jason Whirley said “anoxic encephalopathy” was listed as the cause of death on the death certificate.
“Long story short, we were told a vascular injury or cardiac arrest probably occurred just before the accident,” Jason Whirley said, but added nothing could be confirmed. “There were some indicators on the car when we got the car back that something had happened beforehand. The (engine) kill switch (was never used), the fuel was on, the fresh air blower for his helmet was still on, all the stuff that would have been shut off was still on.”
According to track historian John Kimmes, only one person has died on the race track in Superior, which began organized weekly racing in 1962 but with roots much older than that. In 1966, Sportsman driver Robert Kaarto was driving his brother’s car that night, and they were having carburetor problems. During the one race, the car started on fire, and Kaarto exited the car on the passenger side, and got struck by oncoming traffic.
“Unfortunately, they just didn’t have the technology we have now, to communicate with the other drivers and alert them of the situation,” Superior track promoter Joe Stariha said.
Mike Bjorklund of Sandstone, Minnesota, is president of the Northern Vintage Stockcar Racers. He said the club has about 40 members, with about 16 who race any given weekend night in two classes, Full Body and Modified. There are no purse payouts or anything like that, just guys who love racing.
“We’re too old to do anything else,” Bjorklund quipped.
Bjorklund was the driver who made contact with Whirley that fateful night. Bjorklund saw things that indicated something wasn’t right before they ever made wheel-to-wheel contact.
“His head was down,” Bjorklund said. “I told the track officials that came to me after that they better check for something else. We race together at every event, we know how someone drives, and it was clear to me that something wasn’t right. I knew something was up ... Dave would never have let me catch him. He was competitive.”
Roskos, who was serving as Mike’s pit crew that night, helping with tires and gas, was watching from the stands.
“I kept waiting for him to pop up out of the car, and he never did,” Roskos said.
For Roskos, it’s like she lost her soulmate.
The couple met through Roskos’ mother. Dave had plowed her driveway. Mom said this is a nice guy and you should meet him.
Mom, apparently, knows how to pick ’em.
“Yes, she does,” Roskos said, drawing a smile.
Roskos said Dave was indeed living the dream, and it was a real “good dream,” and she was just happy to be part of it for the better part of the last decade.
Like Roskos, the Whirleys said it was emotionally gutwrenching going to the track last week but it was something that had to be done, and ultimately, it was good to be there, surrounded by family and friends.
“We’re a clan,” Dick Whirley said. “We always stick together.”
“Whether we were doing this or not, I would have been here, just because,” Jason Whirley added.
Jason Whirley said his dad was more than “just a dad,” helping raise the grandkids from the time they were born, granddaddy daycare.
“His grandkids were everything to him,” Jason Whirley said.
And so was racing.
If Dave Whirley could have picked a way to go, in the seat of his favorite car, on a summer night at the track, “doing what he loved,” as his obit so eloquently pointed out, well that, that would have ranked near the top.
Last week wasn’t just therapeutic, Jason Whirley said it was spiritual.
“You can feel it,” he said. “Dad was just doing what he loved. He just went out there and did something that brought a smile to his face, and for it to happen like it did, I don’t know. He’s happy.”