Fans in the Stands at the Springfield Mile
I see the dying man up close from the front for the first time.

We are sitting in the covered grandstands at the Springfield Mile, my son, John, and I. It’s a good crowd; lots of people but everybody has an empty seat to stow their gear. Fans like us are sitting feet away from one another.

I take stock of the people I see and try to do a written sketch of them. I position them using an analog clock for reference.

9:00, two seats away on my left. Great-grandpa.

An old guy and what I assume is his granddaughter. He has a dark tan, and the melanoma to show that even in winter, his skin is still tan. A farmer, with an Illinois seed cap.

He’s in his mid-80s by my reckoning. He’s very excited to be at the Springfield Mile; he watches every lap and still has the eyes to see a pass on the back straight—no glasses. Impressive.

His granddaughter, or great-granddaughter, like most teenagers, does not ever look up from her phone, at least that I witnessed.

He’s happy as hell to be at the Springfield Mile. He’s at an age where tomorrow is a gift. He could be of the mindset that his great-granddaughter is being a pain in the ass, or that the steps to get him to the good seats in the grandstand were a serious bitch to climb. But he’s not; he’s grateful for every lap. He catches me taking a pic of his face as the bikes rip past us, but he’s actually too into the racing to give me and my obtrusive camera a second thought.

He’s one of those guys who, if you’re in a waiting room at a doctor’s office and there’s a long wait, can talk about 50 dead friends at the drop of a hat. He's livin' and today it's good livin 'cause he's in the stands at the Springfield Mile.

3:00, The Gamblers

There is always betting in the grandstands at just about any motor race, and the Springfield Mile is no different.

On our right, a group of middle American men, most on their way to being bald and slow, but they still have the look like they once raced. There are four or five of them, and they are almost indistinguishable from each other. Other than the kid.

There is a kid with them, 10-11 years old. He has that look that seeing his dad in the grandstands at the Springfield Mile with his buddies is not a normal day at their house. The kid jumps around a lot—no phone—but gets drawn into his dad's circle when they start betting on the heat races.

On this day, you’d have to have suffered a head wound to bet on anybody but Jared Mees.

The kid's dad’s buddies set him up with an easy win for the first race—he wins $12—but in the next race, they talk him into a bad bet—with odds. He loses $16. It’s a lesson day in the grandstands at the Springfield Mile.

12:00, Chris Carr

Right in front of me, racer Chris Carr is sitting in race control with a headset on; he has official duties at the Springfield Mile.

The racing stops for a few minutes, and the watering trucks begin to lap the Mile. Watching the trucks go around, my curiosity is piqued. How much does one of those trucks weigh, full? How long does it take to fill one? Do they fill them on-site?

Carr is right in front of me, with his exalted headset. I whip out my phone and put the question to him in a text message. How much do those trucks weigh, full, I ask.

I watch as Carr pulls his phone out of his pocket, holds it up 18 inches from his face so he can read the message. He does so, shakes his head, and puts the phone back in his pocket.

11:00, The Dying Guy

Sitting just left of my left foot is a very thin man in desperately bad shape. He is ghostly white and sickeningly thin. His clothes are hanging off him. He is sitting on a fluffy pillow for a while, and when planted on it, he is so thin he barely makes a dent.

I watch him for a while as we wait for the races to begin. Occasionally, he dips his hand into a cooler and pulls out ice chips, which he puts in his mouth after he shakes off the excess water from his hand. Moments later, he grabs a plastic soda bottle and spits into it; it’s very red. Maybe he’s not dying I hope to myself. Maybe he is going in for a transplant tomorrow and will be back in these grandstands next year. It’s nice to hope, but you didn’t see him puke blood in the soda bottle.

Think about it. He looks like he is heading into hospice tomorrow, or was wheeled out of one this morning, to come to the Springfield Mile. To sit in the grandstands and watch one more Mile.

“Any show can be your last show,” Garrison Keillor said once.

I make a run for beers. Mid-stride, just past the thin, pale man, I spin and ask him and his friend if I can get them anything from concessions. The companion is happy to say no thanks but thanks we are good and shows me that they have a beverage cooler with them, with water and other beverages fresh for the taking. Do I want one?

I look to my left. I see the dying man up close from the front for the first time. I have had friends who have died an hour later who did not look as dire as this fellow did at 18 inches.

Okay then, I say awkwardly as I look at the dying guy. He does not see me, has not heard me. His eyes are focused only on the motorcycles on the track. His priorities are in a good place: His next blink might be his last, so he’s not wasting it on exchanging pleasantries with some guy asking if we need a beverage when the reality is what he really needs is a liver transplant.

We are together and separate in the spooky old grandstands at the Springfield Mile. I did not know any of those people well enough to learn their names, but I tell you I know them. I know them like a guy I talked into racing an SRX in a three-hour endurance race at the old Brainerd track. Time stood still. Or has stood still. I see him every few years. We don’t discuss kids or wives or cabins.

We talk only about who’s fast and why.

The old bathrooms at Springfield look like a scene out of The Shawshank Redemption.
— ends —
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