Travis McDonnell sent a text to a friend and fellow race car driver just 24 hours before he was found dead Monday beneath a race car in his garage north of Wall.
News of McDonnell’s death spread quickly in the racing community and the close-knit rural community that isn’t defined by city boundaries, but by friendships.
A family member discovered the 38-year-old McDonnell’s body about mid-morning Monday, according to Lt. Marty Graves of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
Family members were unable to contact McDonnell on Sunday and went looking for him on Monday, Graves said.
“It appears he was working on the car and the jacks fell,” Graves said.
His death was ruled an accident.
McDonnell was a familiar figure at the Black Hills Speedway where he drove mini-sprints and modified race cars.
Andy Fitzgerald of Rapid City competed against McDonnell in the Midwest modified division.
McDonnell sent Fitzgerald a text at about 11 a.m. Sunday asking how he was coming with his car.
“He knew I was having trouble getting my car set up right,” Fitzgerald said. “I texted him back and never heard back.”
McDonnell was looking forward to the coming racing season, according to Fitzgerald.
“He had a new car and he was really excited about it,” Fitzgerald said.
McDonnell and Fitzgerald compared notes frequently.
“I haven’t known him as long as some of the guys, but we talked quite a bit,” Fitzgerald said.
Jordan Kjerstad was several years behind McDonnell at Wall High School, but the men shared a common bond – a love for the land, Kjerstad said.
“He loved farming, his family and racing,” he said. “He was really proud of his family.”
Memories of McDonnell’s big smile will stay with Kjerstad.
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“He was always in a good mood,” Kjerstad recalled. “He was an easy guy to talk to. He just knew so much.”
Talking about their friend and colleague was emotionally hard on both men.
“You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy,” Fitzgerald said. “He loved racing a lot. It’s too bad that that’s the way it had to happen.”
Before Travis McDonnell turned to racing, he was one of the region’s best football players with the Wall Eagles. McDonnell played tight end/defensive end and was a member of Wall’s 1990 state class 9B championship team. His younger brother, Brady, etched his name on Wall’s 1994 9B state championship trophy and then went on to star at the University of Colorado. He played for four years in the National Football League with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills.
Travis played one season of college football at Black Hills State University before deciding to pursue the family farm business.
Paul Olson of Rapid City didn’t have a reason to be concerned when McDonnell didn’t answer a Monday morning phone call.
“I called him about quarter after eight. He never answered, which is not unusual,” Olson said. “But he always calls back and he never did.”
“For the last four years, (Travis) and Brady have been like brothers to me,” Olson said. “It’s just not going to be the same going to the track without him.”
Olson laughed when he recalled going to a mini-sprint race with McDonnell in Worthington, Minn., in 2008.
“I had sold my mini-sprint at that point in the season and was just helping Travis. He wound up winning both nights and tipping over after he won,” Olson said.
Olson said the reality of McDonnell’s death is just sinking in.
“When I first heard it today, I just kept hoping it wasn’t true,” Olson said
Journal reporter Jim Holland contributed to this report
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or email@example.com