Racing is more than just a sport for the Wilson family

09/30/2011 12:00 AM

09/30/2011 7:59 AM

Sometimes a story takes a turn. It becomes more than you expect it to be. What starts out as a straight-forward accounting of a family's successes in race car driving becomes more about that family's devotion to its deceased patriarch who some say is gone but to his family never will be.

Not as long as the Wilson family keeps getting behind those wheels and building those motors and running those races in honor of Rich Wilson, who died suddenly in 2007 after being the head of one of Wichita's best-known racing families.

This summer, Rich's son, Richard, and his two sons, Richie and Rustin, won division championships at 81 Speedway. Richard, 49, won the AAA Modified championship; Richie won the Rookie Modified and Rustin won the Thumper division.

No, that's never been done before at 81 by members of the same family. And the safest bet out there is that it will never happen again.

"We work pretty hard at this,'' Richie Wilson said. "Obviously, doing something like this has always been a goal. There were times we doubted it would happen.''

Racing is in the blood of the Wilson boys, passed down from Rich. He started racing in 1969 and the family hasn't stopped running since.

The two grandsons were interested in other sports growing up. They weren't sure racing was for them. But who were they kidding?

Spending all those days and evenings at the Wilson garage taught them the art of racing almost by osmosis. Their dad had picked up the same thing growing up because Rich Wilson determined that racing cars was what would provide the bond for his family.

Every last one of them.

"My father had quite an impact,'' said Richard, who won a title in the modified division at 81 Speedway in 1996.

Rustin, 26, only took up driving three years ago, so he's on the fast track. Richie, 30, has been racing a little longer. Both wrapped up their championships before last Saturday night's event at 81, but their father was in second place, 12 points behind leader Kyle Kemp.

Richard Wilson won the first feature of the night and did just well enough in the second to squeak into first place.

"Our family doesn't do a lot of celebrating,'' Richard said. "We're pretty down to earth people. We don't drink and do all that crazy stuff. But it was a good time. We rejoiced.''

All three Wilson men thought of the man who has meant the most to them, their father and grandfather. The Wilsons — husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren — did everything together because that's the way Rich Wilson wanted it. He loved to race and to work in the garage because it was a way for him to keep his family close.

And that family — especially Richard and his two sons — were devastated when he died.

One morning, Rich Wilson, then 64, went to the hospital with back pain. A couple of days later, he was gone. Doctors told the family he had picked up pneumonia, Richard Wilson said, but couldn't really explain how it had happened so suddenly.

"Everybody just wandered around,'' Rustin said. "Nobody knew where to go next. Pap had always kind of set the pace for everything.''

The family continued to race because it knew no other way. But it wasn't the same without Rich, who had built most of the tools and machines in the family garage. His stamp was everywhere. So were the memories.

Richard, in particular, had trouble coping. A man of God for 30 years, he said, he turned away, too angry to practice his faith.

"I felt like Dad had a lot more life to live,'' Richard said. "I got mad at God and I was mad at God for a long time after it happened. I had been a deacon at the church and all kinds of stuff but I stopped serving.''

That's where racing stepped in.

Eventually, the Wilson boys got the itch to get back into the garage and do the kind of work the Rich had instilled in them.

Driving cars is something they love, but family has always been the reason behind the enthusiasm for racing. It has provided everyone in the family with a common interest. Richie has three kids and Rustin has two children. There are cousins who will eventually end up in a race car, whether they're old enough to know it or not.

It's the Wilson way.

"Every time we're at our garage we're reminded of everything Grandpa did,'' Richie said. "Me and my brother kind of took all of this for granted, having grown up around it. It was so ordinary to us.''

They gained an appreciation when their grandfather died. They finally recognized just how important racing is to the family; how the family wouldn't be the same without it.

Which is why the three championships are so meaningful.

"I wish my dad could see how the boys have picked this up,'' Richard said. "He would be in hog heaven with this stuff.''

Richard has rediscovered his faith. The championships he and his sons won at 81 Speedway, he said, mean more than just taking home trophies.

"I think God was showing me just how in control of this world He really is,'' Richard said.

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com

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