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The last lap

Pandemic prompts family to host funeral at speedway

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Cole Mizio waves a checkered flag as a hearse carrying Lola Lewis passes the finish line on its last lap around the Historic Bolivar Speedway. 

When his mother, Lola, died last month, Brian Lewis of Willard said his family wasn’t sure how they’d hold a funeral service.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social gathering sizes would have to be limited, and Brian Lewis said he knew that wouldn’t be fair to a woman who had positively impacted so many lives in her 75 years. 

“It's a different time, and that just made it so hard,” he said. 

The Lewises, who share a common love of competitive driving, compete regularly at the Historic Bolivar Speedway, he said. Over time, Brian Lewis said, they’ve built a family of close friends in the racing community.

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Jeffrey Chavez leads a funeral service for Lola Lewis from the press box at the Historic Bolivar Speedway. 

The day after his mother died, he said he got a text from Historic Bolivar Speedway owner Vicki Benner, who offered to use the speedway to host his mother's funeral service. 

“She reached out right after Mom passed away,” he said. “She said she’d already gotten it approved by the local powers that be.”

Close family members could sit in the stands, Benner told him, while others remained in their vehicles in the track’s outfield listening to a service broadcast over the speedway speakers. 

The arrangement would honor social distancing guidelines while also paying respect to his mother, who he said was both a devout Christian and a racing fan. 

Brian Lewis’ son Zach said the family considered the offer.

“There was a lot of last-minute planning with whether we could have it at the funeral home, but there was a maximum of people we could have in there,” Zach Lewis said.  

Brian Lewis said the family was told only 15 family members would be able to attend his mother’s funeral if it were held at the funeral home.

“As soon as they said that, we called the Benners and said, ‘Yes, we’d like to have it here,’” he said.

On Friday afternoon, May 8, about 50 of Lola Lewis’ closest friends and family members spread out in the stands at the speedway, with about another 50 vehicles parked in the outfield. 

Funeral home employees placed Lola Lewis’ open casket at victory lane during the service.

Lola Lewis’ granddaughter Brandy Dunnic said the service relieved stress that had been building since her grandmother died. 

“When it happened, I thought, ‘Of all times, it had to happen now during this pandemic?’” Dunnic said. “It made me worry instantly about her services and how we would hold a gathering that was respectful to who she was.” 

The situation faced by the Lewis family has been a common one for those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic, said pastor Jeffrey Chavez, who conducted the service.

Chavez, who now lives in Oklahoma but previously pastored a church in Springfield, said many families have found themselves struggling to find venues for funeral services. 

“It’s already so very hard for them with the loss of their loved one,” Chavez said. “Now, add in the fact that they may feel they can’t properly grieve unless they hold a proper funeral service. My heart’s been heavy with this.”

Chavez said he’s led one other funeral since the pandemic began, and in that case, social distancing guidelines forced the family to divide the memorial into two services.

“We held the first one, and then those family members got up and left the room and another group of family members came in, and we did it again exactly the same,” Chavez said. 

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Members of the Lewis family pose for a photo on the track at the Historic Bolivar Speedway, where a funeral service for the family’s matriarch, Lola Lewis, was held.

Close to home

Butler Funeral Home manager Kyle Lancaster said he, too, can only imagine how difficult it has been for families grieving during the pandemic.

“It’s not easy to begin with, and then you throw this in,” he said. “Not to have that social gathering and social support of a large memorial can be difficult. There have been challenges and hardships for everybody because this pandemic has affected every piece of life.”

The Bolivar funeral home has been abiding by local regulations, including initially limiting gatherings to 10 people, he said. 

“In those cases, we might have the funeral home open for a day or two, so a stream of people can stop by and see the deceased and visit with family,” he said. “We’ve also been having a lot of graveside services.”

Lancaster said one of the things that has concerned him most is that many visitors attend from outside the area. 

“It’s not just people from Polk County attending funerals here,” he said. “I was worried about that.”

Lancaster said he made sure the funeral home was following all local guidelines from the Polk County Health Center.

“They’re really on top of things,” he said. 

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Family members of Lola Lewis embrace while, in the background, mourners pass by Lewis’ casket in their vehicles. 

Fitting tribute

For his mother and his family, though, Brian Lewis said the service couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute.

“Our very last race here last season, my son Richard won OctoberFast,” Brian Lewis said. “He was parked here at victory lane. I was third in that race. Mom was right here celebrating with us, even though it was freezing cold. This was a place she loved to be with her family at.”

After the service, as family members and friends left the speedway en route to White Chapel Memorial Gardens, where Lola Lewis would be buried, a Greenlawn Funeral Home hearse sped through a pair of final laps at the speedway. 

“It’s pretty fitting that her final lap will be right here,” Brian Lewis said. 

Richard Lewis said the service was appropriate. 

“We know it was tough with not being able to have all the people close to her because of the stay-at-home order,” he said. “With how few people we were going to have, something this big was the only way we could get it done with how many people she impacted.”

For speedway owner Jim Benner, it was a new use for the track, which hosted an interdenominational Easter Service last month. 

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. 

Vicki Benner, his wife, said the couple is also thinking ahead. 

“Depending on how this virus goes, it may not be the last service here,” she said. 

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The hearse carrying Lola Lewis rounds a turn. 

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