Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Racing in peace
Family arranges for coffin’s final pass at Dragaway

If Jerome Miller was watching somewhere, he would probably have been yelling “Go faster!”

Miller, 72, an avid racing fan, died Tuesday. On Friday, his family arranged for Miller to have a final pass at Great Lakes Dragaway in Paris, where he had raced for decades.

“It was his passion,” said Miller’s daughter Michelle Cook.

To honor that passion, the funeral procession left Piasecki-Althaus Funeral Home in Kenosha and headed to the drag strip. At the track, family and friends gathered in the spectator stands overlooking the track, while the hearse carrying Miller’s flag-draped coffin rolled up to the starting line.

“Lay rubber!” someone shouted,.

Miller was born Aug. 8, 1937 in Racine. He loved cars from the start. “He street dragged all through the 50s when he grew up,” Cook said. “His pride and joy was a ’59 Chevy.”

For decades, he spent weekends at Great Lakes, 18411 First St., racing and talking cars. For a time, when he and his wife Carolyn were raising their children, he put his hobby aside. “Then he picked it up again in the ’80s,” Cook said.

His son Tony Miller, now 34, remembers spending nearly every weekend with his father at Great Lakes. They would camp at the track, becoming part of the community of racers who spent hours and hours working on cars so they could spend seconds tearing down the quarter-mile track.

“It was really like another family over there,” Tony Miller said. “Everyone helped one another. Dad was someone who knew everybody, who was always helping people out.” He said his father loved that atmosphere, loved hanging out with the people as much as he loved the cars.

Miller’s own car, in his last decade of racing, was a red AMC Concord.

Beyond racing, Miller served in the United States Marines, worked as a salesman, and from 1983 until his retirement in 2009 owned and operated his own company, Omega Advertising in Milwaukee.

Miller, who lived in Milwaukee, was forced to stop racing his AMC in 1993 when his vision was damaged after he suffered a brain aneurysm. But he still enjoyed going to the track, and most recently spent the day at Great Lakes on Labor Day.

He died this week after suffering a sudden illness.

At Great Lakes Friday, a group of racers from the Rockford, Ill., area who had rented the track for the day made way for the funeral party. Drivers gathered along the fence near the track, as the family climbed into the stands. Some drivers chatted with mourners, asking about Miller and, in true track fashion, questioning what kind of car he used to drive.

The hearse paused for several seconds at the starting line, then took off down the track. In the stands, Miller’s friends and family cheered and applauded. “Let’s hear it for Jerry,” someone shouted.

The digital scoreboard at the end of the track recorded the run’s time, and a worker from the track brought Miller’s ET slip — a slim, receipt-like recording of the run time and speed — to Miller’s daughter Michelle Cook. She held it in her hand and smiled.

The time, 45 seconds at 27 mph.

“So what’s going on? Is that someone who raced here?” one of the drivers waiting in the parking area asked.

When told the circumstances, he nodded. “So they took him on his last pass. Cool. That’s cool.”


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