CEDAR RAPIDS – The story of family and racing has been told countless times.
Across the decades that men and women have raced cars against one another, family has been the common thread around the world, at every track of every type.
Merv Chandler, who died on March 10 unexpectedly at age 60, raised his family in racing. Along with his auto body work at AutoCrafters in Cedar Rapids, which moved to Norway, Iowa after the flood in 2008, racing and his eight children – Kia, Nathan, Danielle, Bradley, Dallas, Adam, Destiney and Dalaney – were all that mattered to a man who won an estimated 400-500 races across five decades.
“Work, family and racing,” said son Nate. “That was all that really mattered to him.”
Merv’s success on the track made him a local legend by just about any measure a person could use.
Piloting his No. 2 – “always some form of No. 2,” his wife Connie said – he registered 118 feature wins at races sanctioned just by IMCA, won dozens of track championships over the years and two Iowa state titles. In the last ten years, in the sport compact division, Merv won 12 track championships, including a title at four different tracks in 2012 alone, an IMCA record.
In his earlier years, he was one of many who helped pioneer the modified division – just as he did for the sport compact division in this area – and was well known among the movers and shakers of the sport.
“Merv was a true racer,” said IMCA President Kathy Root. “He was one of the pioneers of the IMCA Modified and barnstormed to help start the division. IMCA has lost a good friend and we extend our condolences to the family.”
The success Merv had – and would pass on to his sons Nate, Brad and Dallas, each of whom have won track championships of their own in the sport compact division – left competitors and fans oftentimes confused.
Merv never had the newest or flashiest equipment because, as Connie put it, “he had a shoestring budget” that didn’t allow for such things. But that didn’t matter.
“His cars were always weird looking and abnormal,” said Nate, prompting laughter from his brothers and sisters.
Looks weren’t what was important in a race car to “Swervin’ Merv.” Making the most of what you had was what separated the drivers from the racers.
“He did twice as much with half as much (as others had),” son Dallas said. “He outdrove anyone with money.”
That fact was often infuriating to other racers, especially if they got a chance to get their hands on his equipment.
“People would claim his stuff, then get mad at him because it was worse, and he always benefitted because he could outdrive them,” Brad said.
It was Merv’s ingenuity and creativity to make a race car fast – which he passed on to his sons – that made him both a blessing and a curse for track promoters.
The blessing was he was able to put on a show for fans and surprise those who might’ve expected his car to not run so well. He was able to provide invaluable feedback to rule-makers and those in charge to help grow a sport he loved so much.
The curse? Like Brad said, many competitors couldn’t understand how he was winning, and surely didn’t like it.
“They were so successful that the competitors were constantly after me saying, ‘They’ve got to be cheating. They’ve got to be cheating,’” said Benton County Speedway promoter Dana Benning. “They’d go to national events that IMCA was putting on and they went through tech inspection and they passed. But everyone had to tell me they were cheating, that’s how they were good.
“But you know what? The only reason they’re good is because they out-thought, out-worked and out-drove their competition. And it all started with Merv. That’s the way he lived his life when he started out racing modifieds, and that’s how he ended it.”
Merv traveled the country attending races, and while that meant time away from his family sometimes, it never meant he was an absentee father – as can happen sometimes when men prioritize racing.
By all accounts, he was a loving and attentive father, grandfather and husband, who also cared deeply for his beloved dog Lil.
“I think the values he instilled in us were hard work, dedication and perseverance,” Danielle said. “He just taught us all to like other people, treat everybody fairly and he was always about working hard for his family.
“He was very unconditionally loving.”
His wife Connie, who was along for the ride since they were teenagers, said the same.
“He was a proud father to all his kids,” Connie said. “Dedicated and proud.”
That unconditional love and pride extended his racing family well-beyond his wife, children and grandchildren. Led by Merv’s racecar – towed by “No. 1 fan” Jeff Dake – and the hearse carrying his casket, dozens of cars filled with people who knew and loved Merv participated in a procession after Merv’s funeral that all took one final lap around Hawkeye Downs.
It was a special moment for the family made possible by former Hawkeye Downs promoter Mike Becker, and one that meant a great deal.
And though going forward without their dad will be hard, his death has renewed the spark for racing in his sons, who’ve started families of their own and had begun to slowly migrate away from the sport.
But family was everything to Merv and still is everything to the Chandlers, who will carry on their dad’s memory at race tracks where he made his name.
“He always said he was going to race until he died, and the last three years he raced pretty much three nights a week,” Brad said. “That’s what he’d want us to do (is to continue on), so we’re definitely not going to stop racing.”