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Dirt racing connections on pandemic's front line

April 1, 2020, 8:00 am
By Kevin Kovac
DirtonDirt.com senior writer
A sign in front of a Pennsylvania hospital.
A sign in front of a Pennsylvania hospital.

Most in the Dirt Late Model world haven’t experienced the coronavirus pandemic beyond stay-at-home orders, social-distancing guidelines, media reports and, of course, the shutdown of racetracks as part of the widespread ban on mass gatherings.

For others the crisis hits closer to home. Some people with Dirt Late Model ties work in medical fields and deal with the realities of the disease every day, facing worries of contracting Covid-19 and possibly spreading it to family members.

People like Travis Carr of Athens, Ohio, a 32-year-old Dirt Late Model driver who is a registered nurse in the emergency and critical care departments at a hospital in Lancaster, Ohio, and his 30-year-old wife and primary crew member Brandie Herdlitzka, a nurse practitioner at a primary care provider part of the same hospital system employing her husband.

People like Chip Stone of Albany, Ga., an anesthesiologist who formerly fielded a high-profile Dirt Late Model team with partner Randy Weaver.

People like Christal Sivils of Bolivar, Mo., a nurse at her hometown’s Citizens Memorial Hospital — the sponsor of last year’s Diamond Nationals at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo. — whose husband, Jason, pilots a Dirt Late Model.

People like Olivia Hicks of Mount Airy, N.C., the sister-in-law of Southeast Dirt Late Model standout Benji Hicks who is an emergency room nurse at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

People like Laurie Bowersock of Wapakoneta, Ohio, whose husband Jerry is a former Sunoco American Late Model Series champion, and Dawn Cochran of Richmond, Ky., the wife of former Dirt Late Model racer and longtime fan Cecil Cochran. Both women work at nursing homes.

People like Dirt Late Model fan Tyler Golden’s wife, the head nurse of a floor at a hospital in northeast Arkansas that is handling potential and positive Covid-19 patients.

People like Tonya Yates of Somerset, Ky., the director of case management at her hometown’s Lake Cumberland Hospital whose husband, Tommy, serves as an official for Ray Cook and Chris Tilley’s Schaeffer’s Oil-sponsored series.

And people like Nathan Martin of Morristown, Tenn., a Crate Late Model driver who isn’t directly dealing with coronavirus patients but, as the pharmacist-in-charge at Down Home Pharmacy in Bean Station, Tenn., is well versed in the medical situation and continues to interact with the public daily while carrying out his prescription-filling duties.

The medical professionals understand the seriousness of the crisis sweeping the globe. They live it every day, and their experience and expertise can offer a dose of reality to those the Dirt Late Model realm skeptical about a disease that's nearing 200,000 positive cases and 4,000 deaths in the United States.

“I feel like they’re starting to get it kind of, but I don’t think they’re thinking of the big picture,” Carr, a third-year Dirt Late Model racer who competes at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio, and other are tracks, said of those who have wondered why the coronavirus pandemic has halted so much of daily life. “They’re not thinking of, like, their loved ones, if they got sick and they would have to go to the hospital.”

“That’s what I keep telling everybody,” offered Stone, who remains connected to Weaver’s racing efforts. “They keep saying, ‘Well, it’s not bad around here,’ and I’m just like, ‘It’s coming, man.’ There’s no way it’s not. We’re too much of a connected nation. It’s gonna be everywhere.”

Stone, 45, is getting a first-hand view of how quickly Covid-19 can spread — and kill. His hometown of Albany, Ga., has become one of the hottest spots for coronavirus in the country over the past two weeks; a March 30 story in the New York Times detailed how, days after a funeral in the town about halfway between Atlanta and Tallahassee, Fla., the virus “hit like a bomb,” racing through the rural community so quickly that it developed into one of the most intense clusters of coronavirus in the U.S.

Stone said more than 20 people from his area have died from the virus in the last few weeks and there are more than 100 positive patients in the local hospital and another 150-200 who have tested positive in home quarantine.

While Stone hasn't visited Albany’s hospital in the two weeks since the coronavirus explosion, it’s possible he’ll be summoned — as an anesthesiologist, he’s experienced in intubating critical patients needing ventilators — if the situation escalates or more of hospital physicians are sidelined by the virus themselves. Stone is, however, still seeing patients regularly in his office at Allegiant Anesthesia — he has shifted his focus in recent years to mostly interventional and chronic pain management cases rather than working anesthesia calls at hospitals — and as a result he is taking precautions to keep the virus away from his wife, Lucy, and their 16-month-old daughter.

“We’re screening (patients),” Stone said. “What we’re trying to do, when everybody comes up to the office, we have an initial level of screeners outside and basically they’re taking temps and trying to make everybody wear a mask and have them fill out a questionnaire. We’re trying to make them distance in the waiting rooms. It’s hard to treat people without putting your hands on ‘em and touching ‘em and stuff, but you just try to wash (your hands) and everything like that.

“I strip when I leave the office and change clothes, and then go in the garage (at his home) and strip down and throw my clothes in a bag and come in and take a shower.”

Stone paused, and then added with a laugh: “I told my wife, ‘Just turn on the water hose when I get out of the car. Just blast me.’ ”

Stone’s home-arrival procedure is common among everyone staring down the possibility of crossing paths with Covid-19 carriers. It’s among a medical worker's biggest fears: bringing the disease home.

Carr, who works three 12-hour days per week in his hospital’s ER and ICU (he “floats” between the two), said several suspected coronavirus cases have been seen in his ER but there have been no positives yet. That doesn’t mean he nor his wife, who sees patients at her primary care office, can let their guard down.

“We always try to strip down as soon as we get home and get right in the shower and not really move around the house,” said Carr, who believes Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to make Ohio among the first to implement strict stay-at-home and social-distancing recommendations has helped slow the virus spread, though he still expects to see cases pick up at his hospital soon.

“There’s so many other diseases we can get from patients without knowing they have it — hepatitis, HIV,” added Herdlitzka, who married Carr last September. “So we’ve talked about it many times: we just expect that we’re gonna get (coronavirus). When you’re out there and you know what’s going on … imagine a patient gets into a car wreck and they come in, everyone’s gonna jump in and do what they have to do. Nobody’s gonna know if they had a cough prior to that car wreck or if they were exposed.

“We’re very fortunate because we don’t have kids, but my mother lives with us and she’s 65, so we always have to make sure we’re not breathing on her, we’re coming in and showering immediately. It’s the same thing everyone else is doing. We’re trying to stay away from our nieces and nephews and everyone because the social distancing is a very real thing that people are not taking advantage of.”

Olivia Hicks, whose husband, T.J., is racer Benji Hicks’s brother, has already had three patients test positive on her hospital’s floor, normally the medical ICU but now designated as the Covid unit “just to prepare in case there’s an influx of (coronavirus patients) as time goes by.” She has taken to being especially cognizant of protecting her family, including her 11-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

“I’ve actually been changing my shoes and leaving the shoes I wear inside the hospital in the trunk (of her car),” Hicks said. “Then when I come home, as soon as you come in our door, the mud room, that’s kind of becoming my little decontamination room. I’m taking my scrubs off and all that stuff. T.J.’s got me set up a separate little place for my scrub laundry to be washed in hot water separate, and then I just go straight to the shower. At work we’re trying to wear all the personal protective equipment we can to protect our hair and things that you can’t do much about, but it’s like, ‘Nobody touch me while I go scrub my skin off.’

“We’re used to (facing communicable diseases in the ER). We come in contact with a lot of things,” she continued. “But I haven’t been in the hospital when there’s been one that’s so much out there in the media being advertised like this one has been, and then of course there’s never been a worry about a shortage of equipment either. I worry about being more susceptible to getting this just because they’re trying to ration resources that we have, plus I don’t want to get sick because I’m the only one working right now.

“T.J. is a car buyer (for an occupation) and they’re not really selling a lot of cars right now, so he’s been helping with the kids, staying with them, and our son just got over the flu and there was an issue with his white blood cell count being low … they went back up, but it’s just horrible timing that this is happening at the same time he’s immuno-compromised.”

Christal Sivils’s homecoming after her stints conducting tests of potential Covid-19 patients — there have yet been any positives — includes entering the garage and heading straight for the basement shower. She bags up her work clothes and washes them that night and disinfects the house often with wipes.

According to Sivils’s husband Jason, who competes in ULMA and MLRA events at Lucas Oil Speedway and other nearby Missouri tracks, Christal and her hospital cohorts improvise to make up for shortages in Personal Protective Equipment as their use increases with the coronavirus threat. He said Christal and a doctor have been wearing breathers like a car painter uses (Jason said they’re “big canisters from O’Reilly’s”), and a doctor she works with was featured on the local news for using a 3D printer to make his own masks.

Golden and his wife have additional fears beyond her role as the head nurse of a hospital floor that handles potential coronavirus patients.

“She’s eight months pregnant which kind of adds to the stress for us,” said Golden, a longtime Dirt Late Model fan and loyal DirtonDirt.com subscriber who has made road trips to attend events at tracks such as Eldora, Knoxville and Fairbury. “We’re dealing it with it. I think we’re handling it better than a lot of people are. We’re pretty realistic and don’t get too uptight about things, but it’s still there, it’s still a concern, especially with her being pregnant.”

A 27-year-old high school business teacher, Golden said his wife’s fellow nurses are “helping her out because she’s pregnant, but it’s still a lot and it hasn’t been easy on her.” Every day brings concerns as she closes in on the due date of the couple’s daughter.

“They’ve told her not to bring anything in, so she can’t take anything to work, even like a purse,” Golden said. “As soon as she gets home, the first thing that she does is take her clothes off, throw ‘em in the washer and go get in the shower. When she goes to work they’re screening her and everybody that walks into the hospital at the door (with a thermometer for fevers). When she goes to her (obstetrician) appointments, they have a lot more questions they ask. Since she’s pregnant, her doctor’s told her, ‘Go to work and go home. Don’t have people over, don’t take anything everywhere.’

“They’re projecting that the worst of it here will hit in four to six weeks, which hopefully we’ll have had our baby by then and she’ll be out of that (hospital) for a little while. The question for us right now is, though, are they gonna let me come in (for the baby’s delivery)? Right now, they’re down to zero visitors (because of coronavirus restrictions) and for a woman giving birth they’re allowing one person right now, but there’s talk they might even take that out to where she’d have to go in and do it alone and I wouldn’t even get to be there when my child is born. I told her if that ended up being the case she might find me in jail because I wouldn’t take that too well.

“It’s also the first grandchild for both our parents so they’re all stressed out about it and how they’re gonna get to meet (the baby),” he added. “It’s just our reality right now and something we have to take one day at a time, make the best of it and know that there’s a greater plan out there.”

Laurie Bowersock is seeing the crisis as a nurse at a nursing home in Sidney, Ohio. Keeping coronavirus out of the facilities is especially important because it's potentially so much more lethal to the elderly, which has led to stringent safeguards for residents.

“We are not allowing any visitors right now until further notice,” said Bowersock, whose husband is a longtime Eldora Speedway competitor. “It makes it tough for the families and the staff. You’re working long hours and trying to meet their needs, and they miss they’re loved ones coming to see them too. It’s just tough, but we’ll get through it.

“We’ve had no cases up till now, but we’re beginning to see cases pop up in the community, in different counties around us, so it’s probably just a matter of time unfortunately. Fortunately we haven’t had to deal with it yet on a first-hand basis, but I look for that to change soon.”

Dawn Cochran understands what can happen when the virus infiltrates a nursing home. She’s living that horror now as the nursing home administrator at Tennessee’s Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation, which was struck by an outbreak that, according to published reports, saw more than 100 residents and staff members test positive. The residents were evacuated to hospitals and other facilities Monday to allow a professional cleaning company to spend several days sanitizing the entire 70,000-square-foot building.

Cochran’s husband, Cecil, who drove Dirt Late Models and modifieds in the ‘90s and has helped Steve Cornelius, among other racers, sits in awe of his wife’s dedication to the nursing home.

“She’s working insane hours — 16- to 18-hour days — keeping things going and trying to keep calm restored,” said Cecil, who this year is looking to attend Eldora’s World 100 for the 34th consecutive year. “Those people who work in nursing homes don’t get near enough credit for what they do to try to keep the elderly safe. My wife is a warrior who cares for her residents and co-workers. They are damn lucky to have her there at this time.”

Nathan Martin, meanwhile, is peppered with questions about coronavirus by customers who visit him to pick their prescriptions at the small-town Tennessee pharmacy where he works. The Kentucky native who attended pharmacy school at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City and now competes at east Tennessee tracks in his Crate Late Model has educated himself on the disease to keep his locals informed.

“I want to be as knowledgeable as possible because I’ve got guys coming into my pharmacy asking about it,” said Martin, whose wife, Laura, is a clinical pharmacist (she’s working part-time now because her pharmacy has seen a reduction in prescriptions because many non-essential clinics they deal with shutting down temporarily) and pregnant with the couple’s first child (she’s due in September). “I’ve had some tough guys — and I was one of them, don’t get me wrong — that were like ‘That ain’t that bad.’ I know it’s bad now. The flu does average 16,000 deaths or whatever and I know we’re not nowhere near that right now, but the flu is drug out over four months, let’s say. This thing, it can take a small community in days, and when everyone gets it, a lot of them need help (at hospitals), especially any of the older community.

“The three- to 15-day incubation period (of the virus) … it’s just so uncertain. We don’t know how big it’s gonna get here. They’re just saying, ‘Be ready.’ The risk to the baby (Laura is carrying) is what we have no idea of, so we’re trying to be as safe as possible.”

Indeed, staying safe is on everyone’s mind. In fact, for this group of people so close to the country’s unprecedented modern crisis, staying safe supersedes resuming Dirt Late Model racing.

Carr’s evaluation of when racetracks will be able to reopen to teams and fans is as good a sign as any of what might be ahead for the 2020 season.

“Originally I thought it would be the beginning of May, but now I think maybe the beginning of June,” Carr said. “I think just because there’s so much fear too, even if we get over this, what happens if we all start meeting together again around each other and then someone still has it and then it just reignites?

“I was really hoping — because I really want to race, I’m itching — for the middle of April, and I’m like, ‘There’s no way,’ ” he added. “The only positive thing I can think of that might get us back racing sooner than later is that everything we do is outside. I mean, that could be a plus. But I don’t think anybody knows about this virus enough to be very confident.”

Upcoming blog

Travis Carr is certainly unique: a Dirt Late Model driver who makes his living as an ER and ICU nurse. In an upcoming blog, Kevin Kovac dives into the Ohio resident’s racing and professional careers. We'll link this to our blogs page when it appears.

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