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'I'd rather have something to give me hope'

Denny Marchel is preparing to live out one of his dreams with his 1951 Studebaker, which he plans to race at the Bonneville Salt Flats this August. Marchel (left) is shown with the car and mechanic Ryan Nelson at Jackelen Auto Body where the car is being worked on. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia.

Denny Marchel is working hard to reach his dreams. Little by little he's been seeing one start to come true. He plans to race a car at the Bonneville Speedway this year.

This all started about a year and a half ago when Marchel, a Vietnam veteran, found out he had prostate cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society website, research has shown a potential link between exposure to Agent Orange and CLL.

Doctors told Marchel that his CLL is incurable. Marchel said CLL causes "complete fatigue," but he'd gotten some energy back after starting chemotherapy.

He was talking to a friend when he got the idea to complete an item from his "bucket list": racing at Bonneville Speedway.

Located in Bonneville, Utah, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a 30,000 acres of hard, white salt crust to the west of the Great Salt Lake, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website. The Bonneville Speedway is located in the flats.

Marchel said he'd dreamed of racing a car there since the early '60s.

He said he's always loved cars. As a child, Marchel said he was bullied. Then he got his driver's license at age 16.

"That was an equalizer for me," he said. "I could go as fast as anybody else, it was my escape."

After the chemotherapy had helped him regain some energy, Marchel said, he saw a car sitting in a field. He bought it intending to fix it up and drive it a little bit.

The 1951 Studebaker Champion needed a lot of work, so Marchel brought it to Jackelen auto body. He's long been friends with owner Don Jackelen Sr., and others at Jackelen.

Mechanic Ryan Nelson has been working on Marchel's car for about nine months, he said. There were so many things that needed fixing, Marchel reached out for assistance.

"I'm a firm believe that there's a higher power in my life, and that happens to be, for me, God," Marchel said. "And he directed me to start writing letters to some different companies."

One of those was BluePrint Engines in Nebraska. Marchell wrote to the CEO sharing his story and asking if the company would be willing to give him a discount on an engine. In response, Marchel was told he'd receive one of the company's test engines.

"I said, well, since you're going to be so gracious and do this for me, I'd like to come down and meet you," Marchel said.

When he did, he said he was welcomed.

"They treated me like I was somebody special," Marchel said. "They gave me a tour of the plant, I met the CEO, his wife and his grandson, and all the department heads and they showed me everything that they did there."

Then, they sat down in the office, and told Marchel he wouldn't be receiving a test engine after all. They decided to build an engine for him.

"Which blew me out of the water," Marchel said. "The whole episode just was very emotional for me."

When he came back to River Falls, Marchel met with Don Jackelen Sr. and told him about his dream of going to Bonneville.

"I simply said to him, you know I've been paying you all along for the work that (mechanic) Ryan's been doing for me, but I've only got about $2,000 left in the coffers" Marcel said. "He said, 'Keep your money, we'll do the rest.'"

Jackelen said he was "absolutely" glad to help.

"Denny's a good, soft-hearted guy," Jackelen said. "He'll be moving on here pretty soon. He's always been a really nice guy. He delivered parts for us."

Marchel said his efforts to get to Bonneville aren't just about his own dreams, it's also an effort to other Vietnam veterans.

"I've lost so many friends to cancer from Agent Orange exposure like me. And there's been at least 50,000 Vietnam veterans that have taken their own lives," Marchel said. "I want this story to tell them that there's people out there that still care about them. Just ask."

Marchel said he was touched when he found out that BluePrint Engines and Jackelen Auto Body were going to help him fix up his car, and achieve his dream.

"It just amazed me people would do this," he said.

As a result, he and his wife Juli Ek-Marchel decided they are going to make this trip happen. They took out a $10,000 loan on Ek-Marchel's 401k plan to help them get through "speed week," which is set for Aug. 11-17, according to the Southern California Timing Association website. They also have created a gofundme page:

"I just felt if I don't' do it this'year, I won't be able to do it next year," he said. "I think I'm full of cancer and I could just say "That's the way it's going to be,' but I'd rather have something to give me hope."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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