When Jim Cahill began driving at I-80 Speedway in 2016, his original goal was just to scratch an itch to get back in the car after stepping away nearly three decades earlier.
But his driving quickly grew into a passion, while also serving as a way for him to spread awareness for his other passion.
Cahill was a police officer in Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha, for 20 years, and now works as Corporate Security Manager for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Not long before he began racing in the sports compact division at I-80 Speedway – a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series sanctioned 0.4-mile semi-banked dirt oval in Greenwood, Nebraska – another office in Omaha, Kerrie Orozco, was killed in the line of duty. Cahill decided to honor Orozco by putting a special wrap on his car in her memory.
Cahill works closely with the First Responders Foundation in Omaha, and asked the owners at I-80 if it would be possible to do a tribute to first responders at the track.
Since then, the tributes and fundraisers have just gotten bigger.
In 2017, Cahill lost another police officer friend, Mark Burbridge, also in the line of duty. In addition to another special wrap on his car to honor of Burbridge, Cahill asked the track if they could do a 50/50 raffle for Burbridge’s family at a race. The raffle raised $6,000.
“It was that year that I decided there’s an interest in this,” Cahill said. “I don’t want to let these people’s memory go.”
Now, Cahill and I-80 team up once a year for a special night honoring first responders with tribute laps, police helicopters, and involvement from local fire agencies.
This year, his idea for the tribute night was his biggest yet. On the night of the event, first responders got the chance to get directly involved on the track, racing in a “guns and hoses” race between the regularly scheduled races at I-80. Cahill convinced other drivers at the track to let local police officers and firefighters drive their cars after getting some coaching behind the wheel from the local professionals.
The race was a huge success.
“We told them, ‘Don’t tear the cars up, be competitive,’” he said. “I was standing there with (track owner) Joe Kosiski in Turn 1 and we were both looking at each other and he said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ They were competitive. Some of the drivers took them under their wing and coached them up, showed them how to drive, told them what to do. There was a little door banging but it was very competitive and we looked up in the stands and everybody was up on their feet and hooting and hollering. And I thought, ‘Wow they don’t even do this for us.’
“There were a couple close calls and I thought maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, but it all worked out. The guy who won the whole thing was a policeman from Iowa and you’d have thought that he had won Daytona when he got out of the car. And the fans loved it.”
Giving back to his police family and his racing family is important to Cahill because they’ve always been there for him. In 2017, with Burbridge’s memory on his hood, Cahill had an accident, flipping his car during a race at I-80. He wasn’t injured, but his car was beyond repair.
“I was like, ‘Oh crap, here we go,’” he said. “Everybody came out of the woodwork, because I didn’t have a backup car, so everyone was loaning me their car till I could get going so I could still run for points. I still finished in the top 10 that year.
“That goes to your racing family. That’s what has really made me focus to use the racing to promote the memory and importance of first responders and their needs because I’ve been there myself. I had a law enforcement family and a racing family, and they both have always been there for me and helping me out.”
Getting into racing was a later in life choice for Cahill. He raced for a couple of years in his late teens before giving up the sport to join the Air Force. When he decided to give it another go-round, he won the rookie of the year title at I-80 in 2016 when he was 55 years old.
Cahill decided to give the sports compact division a try because it would allow him to get in the car without breaking the bank. The racing part all came back to him pretty quickly, but there were some other aspects of the sport that had changed in his three decades away.
“It was just a bug that I had from some years ago,” he said. “It all came back. The funny things were back when I used to race in the late 70s, early 80s, there were no transponders, there were no receivers. I had to ask a buddy of mine up here who’s a sprint car driver, ‘What the heck are these things?’… It was all good, it was just a little bit of a learning curve for an older dude to get back into it I guess.”
This season has been a bit of a struggle for Cahill. He’s already gone through two transmissions, but he still sits in the top 10 in points at the track.
But even if they don’t get it figured out this year, racing is about more than just racing for Cahill.
“We’re going to keep plugging at it and hopefully I’ll catch a break and maybe some good things will come back to me in some way this year. If not, no big deal. Well fix it up over the winter and be back next year for sure,” he said. “I like racing. Do I like winning? Yea, but my overall goal is to really just make an impact with this stuff to be honest.”
Cahill’s goals are to raise awareness for first responders, honor the fallen, and raise some money for the foundation in the process. If he’s able to do all of that, and still race, that makes for a perfect night at the track.
“I feel like I’m double-dipping on happiness,” he said. “I love racing, and I like the opportunity promote this.
“I feel blessed to be able to do it… We all have our thing, our passion, and these are my two passions – supporting my fellow first responders and racing.”
Racing will return to I-80 Speedway Friday night for Nebraska Corn Growers Night, featuring all NASCAR classes except Modifieds and Compacts.