FARGO — The path was always clear for Kelly Jacobson. The third-generation dirt-track racer has spent nearly half of his weeknights at the local race tracks for as long as he can remember.
Kelly doesn’t know a world without the sport. His earliest memories are watching the two generations before him, his father, Scott, and Scott’s uncle, Joe, behind the wheel.
Now at 27 years old, Kelly is an accomplished sport mod racer himself, who had never missed a race — whether it was his own or a family member’s. Until last fall, when Kelly had to bow out of some competitions from what he thought was excruciating back pain.
Kelly works as a metal fabricator, drives a race car and builds demo derby cars. He attributed the pain, which first began in early summer 2019, to him being hard on his body and that finally starting to catch up with him.
An MRI revealed that he had Myxopapillary Ependymoma in the lower part of his spinal column, a tumor that arises from the support cells in the brain and spinal cord, that he would need to undergo an aggressive surgery to remove.
No. 51 in the orange car won’t be racing for some time.
Three generations of Jacobsons are normally out there together in the pit six months out of the year, usually from April to October, with Kelly competing alongside his dad in the IMCA Sports Modified races. That’ll change this season.
The looming hiatus is emotional for his family, who have become a fixture at the local dirt tracks.
“We race as a family,” said Kelly’s mother, Donna Teegarden. “We just don't not go racing. He never misses.”
'Takes your feet out from under you'
Kelly first went into the doctor for the severe back pain in mid-June, and was ordered to take the standard anti-inflammatory drugs. The doctor scheduled Kelly an MRI that day, but he blew off the appointment, figuring he would be fine.
About a week and a half after Kelly missed his MRI, he called his doctor to reschedule, because “something wasn’t right.”
The MRI confirmed what Kelly had been feeling. The scan showed a tumor in his lower spine, right down his L3, L4 and L5 vertebrae.
It was squishing all of the nerves in the lower half of Kelly’s body up against his spinal canal. Even though the pain was in his back, his brain thought it was coming from his legs, hips and shins.
“Toward the end there, I felt like I was getting hit in the shin with a ball-peen hammer pretty much all the time,” Kelly said.
The doctor told Kelly the tumor was smashing his nerves, which is why the impulses went to his brain and why he didn’t know exactly where the pain was coming from.
When it came time to discuss removing the tumor, the first doctor the family saw said there was a good chance Kelly wouldn’t come out of the surgery able to walk.
“Everybody was saying 60% chance (he won’t be able to walk) if we do the surgery, but we have to do the surgery,” said Brenda Podetz, a friend of the Jacobson family. “So now what do you do?”
The family, from Fargo, went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a second opinion.
The neurosurgeon at Mayo said he thought there would only be a 15% chance Kelly wouldn’t walk out of the hospital. The doctor also told Kelly he was an odd patient for this kind of tumor, which is something typically seen in elder women.
By the time the family got back down to Rochester for Kelly’s Dec. 16 surgery, his tumor, which usually progresses slowly, had grown.
“It's one of those things that comes by and takes your feet out from under you that you never would’ve thought that you needed to worry about,” Podetz said. “There's nothing necessarily that caused it. It's not known to be genetic. It's just something that little old ladies get, and Kelly.”
Kelly was already preparing for how he would get back out on the dirt track if things took a turn for the worst in surgery.
If he were to leave the operating room unable to change gears in his car, Kelly had a plan. He would install hand controls.
On the way to one of his final appointments before surgery, Kelly watched a video about a guy who used to race motorcycles but broke his back. The guy still wanted to race, so he made hand controls for a dirt-track car.
Sitting out a season
As of now, everything has gone well since the surgery, but it’s still a bit of a struggle for Kelly to put his own socks on, and the future prognosis and recovery time are unknown, Podetz said.
But what he does know, is there’s no way he’ll be racing this season.
Kelly raced the first week of last October in Mandan, N.D., with severe back pain. He said it was a bad decision.
“I hurt so bad when I got done. I could barely get out of the car, I had to have somebody else hold it up for me,” Kelly said.
Even though he won’t be in the driver’s seat, Kelly will still be at the dirt tracks to watch his dad, who has been racing for nearly three decades, and 15-year-old sister, Andrea, who races hobby stocks.
“This family, we race. So taking this summer off is going to be a struggle,” Teegarden said. “It is going to be different to not actually be working on the car.”
Before his recent medical issues, Kelly typically raced three nights a week, with his mom and fiancee, Shelby Gilbertson, in his pit crew.
Kelly is heading back to Mayo on March 19 to see where things are three months out from surgery. Podetz said the doctors may decide that they want to do radiation at that point. There’s a chance Kelly’s type of tumor will recur, and if it were to come back in the same spot, there’d be no operation to take it out, Podetz said.
A benefit dinner and silent auction to help alleviate some of the medical costs Kelly is now facing is being held from 4:30-8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at El Zagal Shrine in north Fargo.
Cash/check gifts payable to Kelly Jacobson Benefit Fund may be directed to Gate City Bank, Fargo.