Every year for the past nine years, refurbished police vehicles line the quarter-mile racetrack at Ocean Speedway in Watsonville. Each car is race ready and decked out in paint schemes and decals representing law enforcement agencies from Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Santa Clara and San Benito counties.
The annual six-series racing event, Police in Pursuit, is a law enforcement fundraiser that benefits Special Olympics, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities through the joy of sport.
Each participant—a sworn, reserve or retired police officer—must pay a $750 entry fee, which goes directly to Special Olympics. In addition to the entry fee, each racing team collects community donations, with the coveted pole position going to the racer amassing the most donations.
Sgt. Roy Iler, longtime Hollister resident, father of two and a member of the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office since 1992, attended his first Police in Pursuit last year.
By the end of the race, Iler was ready to organize his own team, but first he had to present the idea to San Benito County Sheriff Darren Thompson.
“I loved the idea,” Thompson said. “I love that our industry will step up and donate our own time and our own resources for such a worthy cause. So, I was immediately supportive of Sgt. Iler’s efforts. Law enforcement has a long-standing relationship with Special Olympics. So, we’ve participated in a lot of levels for years.”
That special connection began over three decades ago, with the first Law Enforcement Torch Run created by a Wichita, Kansas police chief in 1981.
The event has been the largest grassroots fundraiser for all Special Olympics, and the only nonprofit endorsed by the California Chiefs of Police.
“Now fast forward to today, the Law Enforcement Torch Run is in every state in the United States and is in more than 177 countries,” John Hohmann, retired Scotts Valley Police lieutenant and organizer of the Police in Pursuit event, said.
Hohmann first proposed the idea of the six-series race to Ocean Speedway officials in 2010, and they were all in.
“After the first race, officers pay $40 to race the additional five races,” Hohmann said. “Each officer is more than willing to pay the $40 pit fee to continue racing throughout the year. It’s our way of giving thanks back to the speedway for allowing us to do what we do out there.”
This is Iler’s and his teammates Tony Weir and Frank Vierra’s first full season to compete in the race, and to collect donations for Special Olympics.
“This race season I raised $2,500 myself to donate,” Iler said, adding that a lot of people throughout the community helped out.
“San Benito Tire Pros is one of my biggest sponsors. Emergency Vehicle Specialists, they donated stuff to help us. Barragan Insurance Marketing helped us out, gave us some money, and Pinnacle West Exterminators.”
Halfway through the season, Iler is quite pleased with the team’s standings.
“Currently right now we’re sitting in fourth place in points overall, which is pretty good; we’re doing really well,” Iler said, adding that July 27 is the next scheduled race.
“It’s for a good cause and we get to have fun, and we get to help raise money for the special athletes,” Iler said, adding that the community is great about supporting the racers and the event.
Sheriff Thompson believes the event also affords the community an opportunity to view local law enforcement officers in a new light.
“It’s also valuable for people to see their law enforcement officials in their civilian roles, just being part of the society and part of the community,” Thompson said. “We’re the same as the civilians. We have lives, we have interests, we have cares, we have concerns, we have people of special needs in our lives and our families, and we have real-life attachments with the same struggles that everybody else has and the same joys.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Sgt. Iler and the other people on his team, who spent so much of their own money and so much of their own time to participate in this event and contribute to this effort,” Thompson said.
Special Olympics athletes and their families were invited to the inaugural race in April.
“One of the special athletes went into the flag stand to flag our race,” Hohmann said.
That special athlete is Trevor Lucken, 33, who started competing in the games at age 3 and has accrued more than 75 medals. For more than 15 years, Lucken has been a Special Olympics global messenger.
“I would go to the community talking about Special Olympics and what it means to me,” Lucken said, adding that one of his favorite things about the Olympics is reciting the oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
His father, Doug Lucken, accompanied him to his first Police in Pursuit and was blown away by it.
“It was amazing! It was packed,” Doug said, adding, “We were in the pit along with all the other race cars and the Police in Pursuit.”
“We actually drove mom’s car on the track,” Trevor added.
Also at the inaugural race, a Special Olympics representative was presented a check for $34,600. Hohmann’s goal for next year is $40,000.
“All the money raised by the event goes toward year-round training, equipment, travel expenses and participation in the summer games, which are free to the athletes and their families,” Hohmann said.
Iler and his team plan to continue their participation in the annual races and give credit to the man who introduced it to them and the entire community.
“John Hohmann is kind of like our leader of the pack, and he’s our liaison with Special Olympics,” Iler said. “He’s a great guy, if we didn’t have him we’d be lost out there.”
Contact Roy Iler at [email protected], or call 831-902-5518 to donate to Special Olympics.