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COURTESY PHOTO From left, Steve Hilker, Rick Salem and Steve Schartz stand in front of the tribute car for Sgt. Christopher Ryan Kruse.

Sprint car a tribute to soldier killed in action

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net

Sometimes, racing is more than just turning laps on dirt ovals of northwest Kansas.

Sometimes, it's about honoring someone special, who has given others a drive to live life to the fullest.

That's what Sgt. Christopher Ryan Kruse has provided for friends and fans of the United Rebel Sprint Series, the 305 sprint car division of founder Rick Salem of Oberlin.

Kruse's story is both heartbreaking and fulfilling, all at the same time.

Now, his longtime friend Steve Hilker is honoring Kruse in one of the best ways he can -- partnering with others to provide a winged sprint car as a tribute to the sergeant.

Kruse was killed in combat Nov. 13, 2007, at age 23. He's the son of Dan Kruse and Linda (Lake) and Brant Hensley.

Kruse was only a teenager when terrorists struck in the Northeast on Sept. 11, 2001. But the attacks struck a cord with Kruse.

"He told his mom that when he was old enough, he was going (to serve)," Hilker said. "He told the recruiter he wanted to be out in front, that he wanted to be the tip of the spear."

Kruse, a graduate of Dodge City High School, worked his way through basic training, then was assigned to a Stryker team.

He was a leader of a Stryker team when he was killed in combat in Iraq.

Kruse was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Expert Infantryman Badge and a posthumous Purple Heart.

"It was a huge funeral, one of the most heartbreaking things I've been through," Hilker said. "People lined the streets, and there were American flags all over. My son grew up with him. His stepdad (Brant) worked for me for 15 years. It was a tough one."

Before the racing season began, Hilker began contemplating how to honor Kruse.

"I had the idea rolling around in my head for awhile," Hilker said. "I talked to Steve Schartz about it and seen if he had any interest. He said, 'You bet.' I'd had it in the back of my mind after the shock of losing Chris. He was always a guy who liked cars and kind of a gear-head."

Hilker's idea came to fruition in the form of a 305 sprint car with the No. 911 on it. There are no sponsors on the car, and it is funded by Steve, Sara and Katie Schartz of Schartz Farms in Cimarron, as well as Steve, Tracy, Alleah Hilker Heise and Adam Hilker of Hilker Trucking Inc., Cimarron. Hemel Motorsports, also of Cimarron, provides tech help, parts and advice.

"There's no sponsors on the car, just 911 is it," Hilker said. "We didn't want to put anything else but that on it. It's not just about Chris, but the thousands of kids volunteering to go. We want people to be mindful of that. We wanted to put a name to his face and let people see a picture of Chris."

The car has been to a few races this season, and its next outing will be Sunday night at WaKeeney Speedway. It will be piloted by Salem, the founder of the URSS and an Army veteran who served from 1973 to 1976.

"(Hilker) called me in August or September and told me what they were doing," Salem said. "He asked me how retired I was, and I told him I wasn't retired -- really. I never officially retired. It's exciting and fun, and I hope it doesn't interfere with anything."

Ty Williams, formerly of Liberal, drove the No. 911 car the first night at Dodge City Raceway Park. Salem piloted it last weekend in Nebraska and will drive it again Sunday.

"I'm pretty honored to even get asked," Salem said. "It's a tribute to Sgt. Kruse and an honor to even have the chance, considering my age."

Now, Salem is wearing two hats some race days. Along with organizing the URSS, he's also donning a helmet and race suit.

"I've sat in the infield the last eight years, now our ninth year," he said. "I watched what has become the most competitive and affordable sprint car racing in the country. I've always been a little jealous that they got to take pride in the series, and it's something I always wanted to do, too."

But Salem knows it's about more than him turning a few laps and being competitive in the car.

It's about Kruse -- and the other veterans -- who have sacrificed so much for racers and others to enjoy the freedoms some people take for granted.

"It's really a neat deal," Salem said. "It's an honor to showcase our troops and support them for what they're doing."

Races begin at 6:30 p.m. Sunday to kick off the two-day annual Memorial Day weekend races at WaKeeney. The URSS sprint cars and the five regular IMCA classes will compete. Monday's regular five IMCA classes also compete at 6:30 p.m.

* RPM Speedway also will be in action at 7 p.m. Saturday, featuring the five regular IMCA classes, along with school buses.