Aidan Fleischmann says he has the “coolest grandpa” in the world.
And it would be tough to argue that fact with the 11-year-old who was on had to watch grandpa, Gary Simmons, 75, drive a few laps around Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, during a recent practice run.
While his wife Cathy opted out of watching her husband’s latest bucket list item on the Grain Valley dirt track, Aidan was joined by his twin sister Brenna, older sisters Elisabeth and Clare and his daughter, Dr. Lisa Fleischmann, a veterinarian at Cavanaugh Pet Hospital.
“I have the coolest grandpa in the world,” said Aidan, as he and Brenna sat in the speedway’s crow’s nest, waiting for Simmons to start his series of laps around the track. “I just hope he doesn’t die out there.”
That comment brought a howl of laughter from Simmons, who seemed to enjoy this bucket list item as much as Aidan and his family.
“Well, I’m glad I didn’t die, too,” quipped Simmons, who is retired from a three-decade career in Kansas City’s financial world. “I’ve been a gearhead all my life, and Aidan is my buddy, my fellow gearhead, who knows more about muscle cars than I do.”
“When I told him I was going to race a sprint car, I think he was as excited I was. Now, I’m not so sure about the girls, but it meant the world to me that they all came out to watch grandpa race around the track.”
Fleischmann said she wouldn’t have missed the moment that was so special for her father.
“Are you kidding me? All the years he and Mom came to all my events, there is no way I’d miss this,” Fleischmann said. “If I had an event, they were always there. And I want to be there for him today.”
Clare didn’t quite share Aidan’s enthusiasm, adding, “I’m freaking out. I just want Grandpa to drive and be safe.”
And he accomplished both of those goals.
Simmons, who worked on hot rods when he was a teenager growing up in Chicago, had always wanted to drive a sprint car at Valley Speedway, so he posted a note on the message board asking if any driver might let him race their car at a practice session.
“I posted it a long time ago, and to be honest with you, I kind of forgot about it,” said Simmons, a longtime resident of Blue Springs. “Then, I got a message from a young man named Kyle Lewis, who races at the speedway and he said he’d love to have me down and drive his car.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I’d done the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the NASCAR track in Kansas and loved that, but it was pretty expensive – my wife Cathy gave it to me for my 60th birthday – so I asked Kyle what it could cost to drive his car.
“He said, ‘Nothing!’ and seemed surprised that I asked. What a charming and wonderful young man. I know that gas is expensive, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with me paying him, which I am forever grateful.”
As it turns out, Lewis is an 18-year-old driver who travels the circuit with his father Brent, who retired from driving two years ago.
“I love it that Mr. Simmons wanted to drive a sprint car and I’m excited to see how he does,” said Kyle, who brought along his father’s fireproof suit for Simmons to wear.
When Brenna heard “fireproof suit,” she cringed.
“Why does grandpa need a fireproof suit?” she asked, to which Aidan replied, “In case the car catches fire! But don’t worry, it won’t.”
Simmons, decked out in his fireproof suit, helmet, gloves and racing boots, climbed into the smaller than expected car, washed put out on the track with the car in third gear, and he was off.
“I don’t know how fast I looked on the track, but I felt like I was going 200 miles an hour,” said Simmons, who took 10 laps around the track. “When I raced the NASCAR car in the Petty experience, I was harnessed in, but it was a regular size car.
“This was a tight fit, and you have the harness for you head and neck and a harness for your arms – in case the car flips, your arms stay inside and don’t get broken.”
As he whipped around the track, his family stood and cheered.
So did Kyle.
“I’m so happy he finally got to drive a sprint car,” Kyle said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as excited about driving as Mr. Simmons was today.”
Ditto for Aidan.
“So cool,” Aidan said, with a touch of pride in his voice. “Kyle asked me if I wanted to drive his car and I said a big no to that. Maybe when I’m older.”
With the Lewis family and his family waiting for him in the pit area, Simmons slipped out of the car, gave Kyle a bear hug then greeted each of his grandkids and daughter with hugs.
“That was amazing,” Simmons said. “When you get to my age, you need to take care of your bucket list items and Kyle and his dad allowed me to do that.”
When he was asked if it was everything he had hope for, Simmons’ smile said it all.
“It was even better than I ever imagined,” the coolest grandpa said, “I’m ready to go out for another 10 laps!”