When Mankato resident and Army veteran Jack Zimmerman attended the season opener of Arlington Raceway with his family on May 11, he was surprised when the announcer called him down to Victory Lane during the opening festivities. At first, Zimmerman thought that they simply wanted to include him while the National Anthem played, since he had been involved with the Arlington racing scene for years and everyone knew he was a veteran.
His first clue that something was up was when a Humvee drove past him on the track. But that was just the beginning. Soon, another car drove past him, driven by his close friend, Chad Schroeder. Schroeder, who lives just outside of Belle Plaine, had become friends with Zimmerman about a year and a half ago, and the two of them worked on race cars together for the last several months, but he had refused to let Zimmerman see his current project until opening night. Zimmerman could see that Schroeder’s car, Number 7, was painted a patriotic red, white and blue, but he didn’t catch the details until the car was closer.
“I thought, ‘Dang, that thing looks sharp,’” Zimmerman recalled.
It was only when the car pulled into Victory Lane and drove closer that Zimmerman finally picked out why this car was truly special. Splashed across the top of the windshield was his name, and on the hood was a giant emblem for the 101st Airborne Division, which he had served with in the Army. Around the emblem were pictures of him from his time stationed in Afghanistan.
“Then I started putting it all together, when I saw my name across the visor,” Zimmerman said. “I started looking at all the pictures around the shield, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ I usually catch on to most surprises, but I would never expect or ask anyone to do that for me.”
Sacrifice and Triumph
Zimmerman grew up in Cleveland and joined the Army in September of 2009. He had dropped out of college a while before and was working in the area, but he said he wanted to do more with his life.
“I love this country, and I think it’s worth fighting for,” he said. “I just wanted to feel like I didn’t ride in the cart—I helped pull the cart. I didn’t want to be 30 years old and look back and go, ‘I wanted to serve but… I found other things to do.’ I wanted to go and do my part.”
Zimmerman said one day after work, he walked into a recruiter’s station and told the recruiter that he wanted to go to “Iraq or Afghanistan” as soon as he could. He signed the enlistment papers that day and was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. A few months later, he went to jump school and earned his paratrooper wings. He joined up with the 101st Airborne Division and was deployed in June 2010 to Afghanistan.
On March 9, 2011, Zimmerman was on patrol in Afghanistan when his unit was caught in an ambush. Running through an open field, he stepped on an IED, which severely injured both his legs and arms.
“Because of some pretty amazing guys who were willing to risk their own lives to save mine, I was able to get off the battlefield that day and put on a chopper and medivacked out,” he said.
When he arrived in the operating room, Zimmerman was put into a medically induced coma for the next six days, and both his legs were amputated. Three fingers on his right hand were also amputated. He spent eight weeks in a hospital, undergoing 20 surgeries, and was eventually medically retired from the Army. For the next year and a half, he went through arduous rehab therapy, until he was finally able to move back to southern Minnesota in 2013.
“I would have done 20 years,” Zimmerman said. “I loved every minute of it. I served with the greatest guys in the world. But, at the end of the day, all great things must come to an end.”
Now, Zimmerman is a motivational speaker, serves as commander of the Cleveland American Legion Club, volunteers and is the coach of the Cleveland trapshooting team.
Zimmerman and Schroeder met through racing, which is a passion for both of them.
Schroeder has been involved in racing since he was a kid, because his father both raced and built cars for other racers.
“I’ve been around it my whole life,” he said. “I think the first time I went to the racetrack, I was four days old. I’ve gone pretty steadily since then.”
Schroeder started building his own cars in 2000, including the one that he used for Zimmerman’s surprise. He actually built that one in 2010, but he refurbished it, put a new body on it and created the design work this year.
Zimmerman had a similar experience, since both his father and brother raced at Arlington for years. He never raced himself but enjoyed watching, especially the stock car races.
“Everybody I hang around with, that’s what we do,” he said. “There’s really no other place I’d rather be. I think I’ve missed one race from the time I was born to when I left [for the Army].”
When he returned from the Army, Zimmerman started going to the track again. He found a go-kart for his son and also started working on cars with Schroeder and other racers. He said a group of race enthusiasts meet at Schroeder’s place every Friday to work on cars, with up to 30 people coming some nights.
“That’s where I fell in love with this whole family out here,” Zimmerman said. “I hang out with everybody and do what I can. It’s good for your soul being out here. It’s just cool to see everybody that comes together to work on these old things. It just turned into a family. If anything ever goes wrong or if someone needs something, somebody’s got it. Somebody’s willing to help.”
Helping Other Veterans
Schroeder explained that he was inspired to pay homage to Zimmerman’s sacrifice on the racetrack, one of Zimmerman’s favorite places.
“He’s just an inspiring person,” Schroeder said. “He’s already given up so much and still wants to do more. It makes you feel like that should be honored.”
In addition to the car, Schroeder said he is donating half of his winnings throughout the entire season to the Independence Fund and Tiger Team 7, which both work with wounded veterans. The Independence Fund specializes in helping with mobility issues, such as obtaining Zimmerman’s motorized wheelchair. Tiger Team 7 is another one of the Independence Fund’s programs, bringing catastrophically wounded veterans together to share their stories. Zimmerman is a part of the group.
Schroeder said for him, donating half of his earnings to a good cause was an easy decision—especially because racing is about much more than winning.
“I just feel like Jack’s already done so much,” Schroeder said. “I think if everybody chipped in, it goes a lot further. We just decided that’s what we’re going to do. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; it’s not going to make or break you. We’re going to be there on Saturday no matter what.”
There will also be T-shirts available for purchase, both at the track and through Arlington Raceway’s Facebook page.
Recently, Schroeder took first place in his division during races on Memorial Day weekend, which Zimmerman said was especially fitting.
“If there’s a night I’d wanted Chad to park in Victory Lane, it was definitely Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “Seeing the shield on the front of the car, it got me kind of choked up, thinking of all my buddies who didn’t make it home. I sent a picture to the guys [of my division] right away, and they’re all jacked up to see the car parked in Victory Lane. It’s just cool to see all my brothers being recognized, not just me but everybody. To see the 101st shield coming across first in Victory Lane was pretty moving.”