Race car drivers are a special breed, this we know. As has been mentioned, in some quarters they are knocked because of how ‘easy’ it all seems to be. Of course, we know this is not the case at all. While it may be called many things, blasting down Mulsanne straight at 3am at the 24 hours of Le Mans at 180mph in the pouring rain three hours into your stint behind the wheel, with the windshield fogging up and the tail lights of a far slower car in another class growing larger at a rapid rate with the harsh glare of one of your same class competitors headlights flickering inside the cockpit and an hour to go before you get to the pits again… yes…there is much to describe that, but ‘easy’ does not come to mind.
And after what they do is described as ‘easy’, more often than not something will follow like ,”and they never compete when they are hurt, not like other sports like football, for instance.” Maybe followed with; “yeah, they are pussies, for sure.” The stick and ball set might be onto something here. They are right, race car drivers do not play hurt the way the other sports do, no they certainly do not. They drive and compete with injuries that would put the stick and ball boys on the sidelines, if not sitting in their Barcalounger on game day. We make light of it, calling it “race track rheumatism” at times, but it can be so much more. Here are a couple of examples .
Dale Earnhardt was a racer’s racer. Respected by everyone in the garage, he was probably the greatest pure stock car driver that there ever has been. Stock car racers have always been previewed as being tough, and nobody lived up to that moniker better than the plain spoken, blue collar racer from a small mill town in North Carolina with a God given talent for car control and a toughness instilled from a lifetime of bullring competition. But there was a series of racing events that took place some years ago that could only have been done by someone truly different from everyone else.
Midway through the 1996 season, on a sunny day in late July at Talladega, “swervin’” Ernie Irvin caused yet another one of his multi car pileup’s his career was peppered with. This one turned Dale Earnhardt’s black #3 into the front stretch wall at 200mph. That in itself was enough to destroy the car. But at those speeds it takes a long time to stop wrecking. The car barrel rolled down the front straightaway, tearing itself to pieces while being hit hard by numerous cars caught up in the dreaded big one. The demolished racecar came to rest a crumpled smoking heap with everyone holding their collective breaths. But out came Dale, in obvious pain, clutching his left chest, even managing a thumbs up. Very quickly it was determined that Earnhardt had suffered a broken Sternum; that’s the big bone across your chest that hold many important parts together, for you non doctor types. Just the act of breathing is painful. Walking is virtually impossible. And this was not a crack, one of the violent hits Dale’s Monte Carlo had absorbed had broken this vital bone completely in half. But that was not all, Dale also had broken his collarbone, and had a badly bruised pelvis. Not to mention the bruising of the aforementioned ‘race track rheumatism. The healing time was a minimum of 6 weeks, no other racer would have been behind the wheel again until the leaves of autumn were on the trees, and the stick and ball set would have been done for season. But this was not just a racer, and certainly not a stick and ball jock playing a game. This was Dale Earnhardt.
The following week was the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the most important races of the year. NASCAR rules state that in order to get driver points, the driver must start the race. Just 7 days from a terrible crash that had left him battered, bruised, but unbeaten, Dale Earnhardt started the Brickyard 400. He turned the car over to Mike Skinner and was white with pain when he climbed out of the car and sat on the pit wall. Dale had done the impossible, driving a racecar with a completely broken sternum and collarbone. how could he possibly top that?
Just a week later, 14 days after the crash, was the road course of Watkins Gen, NY. A place where 1 and a ½ tons of antique racecars known as NASCAR’s stock cars hurdle themselves around a track designed in the early 50’s for sports car and open wheel F1 racing. Just watch a lap, one lap at this historic track and imagine what it would be like to manhandle a racecar around the place if it caused pain just to breath. Slamming left and right thru the esses, hard braking into the chicane with more hurdling left and right, slamming over rumble strips, constant shifting, how could a human being with a broken chest bone, collar bone, and a nasty hip pointer for good measure even run half speed around this place? Surely even Dale Earnhardt would sit this one out…right? Well, not exactly.
First thing, Dale puts the 3 car on pole. The garage sprouted “hurts so good” T-shirts, what could everyone do but wear his shirt? Racers are not strangers to competing with broken bones, but this was something else, this was beyond that. Kenny Schrader said; “ I have had that exact injury, I broke both my Sternum and collar bone at the same time, I could not even walk, the pain was so bad. It was three weeks before I got in a car again, and that was to drive to the grocery store, much less race again. I have no idea how he is doing this.” Rusty Wallace said; “he’s not like the rest of us, he’s at a different level.” Jeff Gordon perhaps said it best when he said; “there is nothing you can say about this.”
Race day rolled around quickly. Of course, Dale would have to get out of the car, its just that no-one knew when. A relief driver was standing by, helmet on. There were assorted bets and a pool going around the garage as to when this would happen. The prevailing thought around there that Sunday morning was that he would exit by the first pit stop at the latest. And it would be perfectly acceptable to drop back when the green flag dropped…and then the green flag did, in fact drop. And Dale left everyone in the dust, in more ways than one.
Under the most impossible and painful conditions imaginable, Dale Earnhardt completely dominated the race that day. He led most of the day, relinquishing the lead occasionally on pit stops, then storming back to the front. By the final pit stop the forgotten relief driver was nowhere in sight. At the very end, he faded slightly, finishing 6th on that special Sunday afternoon. Getting the five bonus points for leading the most laps. To say he was better that everyone else does not do justice to that phrase. The great drivers have something extra, beyond the skill sets that are obvious, and that intangible was on display for the entire world to see that day. He was literally white with pain as he got out of the car afterwards, saying “guess the car went away a bit at the end there.” He had fully expected to win that race! After the race Dale Jarrett said; “he’s Dale Earnhardt, and the rest of us are not.” As Jeff Gordon had said the day before..” there is nothing you can say about this.”
Gary Patterson was another racer’s racer. An original Outlaw before such activity was sanctioned by a club and the name trademarked by stuffed suits in a boardroom, this tough as nails dirt track sprint car driver criss-crossed the country, going wherever the competition was the hardest and the purses the biggest. A fixture at the Knoxville Nationals for decades, “the Preacher”, as he was known, had a saying,” when I don’t show up at Knoxville you’ll know I’m dead.” Sprint cars are constantly trying to kill or maim those who try to master them, and the racing gods seemed to look at GP as a special case. One night at Ascot Park in a non winged sprinter, Patterson took a nasty tumble in the heat, the violent impact cracked 6 ribs. As emergency repairs went on, Patterson made a quick decision, that was always his trademark. For this one, he ordered his crew to tape him with duct tape. As he grimaced in pain, his stunned crew did what he asked, and the he was lowered into the car, as he could not bend over at all. The Preacher went out and ran in the top 5 in the 40 lap main event. If you have ever cracked a rib you know how painful just moving a bit can be. Now imagine wrestling the bucking bronco of a non winged sprinter around a rough dirt track with 6 of them. Competitively. A pretty incredible event. But that was nothing………..
It was a hot, sweltering summer’s night in the mid 70’s, somewhere in California as 24 non winged sprinters lined up and were pushed off for the 30 lap main event. The preacher was buried deep in the field, and as the cars banged wheels and pulled sliders on each other early on, someone sent Patterson hard into the wooden fence. The fence splintered, Patterson’s car staggered, then recovered and sped on, the race stayed green. Patterson came hard through the field, but with a few laps to do started wavering a bit, there seemed to be something amiss. The race ended and Patterson came into the pits, as he approached his pit, he slumped over in the car. His crew ran over, and with stunned looks saw the cockpit and suit covered in blood. Then everyone saw why: there was a massive splinter of wooden fence that was driven through the side panel and into the Preachers gut. Patterson had driven the entire race with this horrifying injury, never once letting up, never occurring to him that was compete insanity to compete with an injury like that, and it was only the loss of blood that finally slowed him. A very special tough guy for sure, who did things his way. Right to the end. On May 29, 1983 on Memorial day, the Preacher made another decision. Midway through the feature he had a choice of crashing into a wrecked competitor, or taking his chances with the wall of the Calistoga speedway in his non winged sprint car. Yet again there was no hesitation. The way it was told to me by someone who was there;….. “he went over 19 times and the roll cage tore loose somewhere around number 12.” Gary Patterson missed the Knoxville Nationals in 1983.
When you talk about great racecar drivers, and tough racecar drivers at the same time, the name AJ Foyt might well come up. One of the very great drivers of all time, Foyt had many injuries and close calls over the 5 decades of competition. But one in particular, towards the very end of his great career personifies the almost super human ability that some possess. On Sept 23, 1990 at Elkhart Lake’s Famed Road America, the brakes failed on Foyt’s Lola Indy car. At 190 mph, Foyt sailed off the end of the straightaway and into a sand embankment. At the time Foy’s injuries, while bad, sounded fairly routine, more or less typical of the injuries Indy car drivers of the day suffered. Among other things, it was reported that Super Tex had a broken left knee and a crushed upper left foot. Here is what was NOT reported….it was his left foot that was crushed on top of his left knee, thereby shattering his kneecap and crushing his foot. Ok, stop reading. Stand up, and look down at your feet and knees. Now imagine the top of your foot crushing your kneecap. Joe Theismann got an injury similar to this during a Mon night football game that ended his career. It is terrible to watch. Foyt’s injury must have STARTED like that. At age 36, Joe Theismann’s career was finished. AJ Foyt was 55 years old when he received the injuries that would have ended the career of most drivers. Or at least broke the streak of Indy 500’s that stood at 32 consecutive starts. How could anyone possibly drive a race car again in just 7 short months after injuries like that; hell even walking on crutches would have been a major achievement by May of 1991! And what did this great champion have to prove, anyway? He had won Indy 4 times, the Daytona 500 and the 24 hours of Lemans, countless other races and championships along the way. A survivor from the days of the roadsters and non roll caged sprinters, Foyt had been racing at a championship level for well over 30 years, everyone close to him was urging him to hang up his helmet. But as AJ would later put it, “ I did not want to go out that way.” And further stated, “ I was not going to walk on crutches to a race car.” So at the tender age of 55, Foyt underwent a series of operations, followed by a 7 day a week workout schedule that would have broken lesser mortals. He became a regular fixture at the Houston Oiler’s training facility where the players whispered among themselves about the old guy with the shocking leg scars pushing himself so very hard.
The month of May, 1991 came quickly, and soon it was qualifying day. Pole day. All eyes were on the #14. And limping to his car with nary a crutch in sight came the man who’s knee cap was crushed by his foot just 6 months previously. The crew watched in silence as he slowly worked his way into the sleek turbocharged missile that a state of the art Indy car was in the early 90’s. A few minuets later and AJ Foyt had put his Lola in the middle of the front row for his 33 consecutive Indy 500. An incredible comeback by one of the great immortals. As Smokey Yunick put it, “ there was not a dry eye in the place.”
There are so many more examples of guts and perseverance in this sport of ours. And its not just the men who complete, they have no exclusive on depth of character and intestinal fortitude. Top Fuel ace Shirley Mouldowney shattered her body when her dragster crashed at over 250mph. As she put it, “it would be easier to say what I did not break or crack.” Besides breaking almost every bone in her body, her deep wounds were so packed full of dirt and grime they had to be scraped with a wire brush. And being allergic to morphine resulted in it being almost 6 months until a pain killer was found that she could take. Just imagine that. And she came back to race and win again. There are so many more, they date back to the very beginning of the sport and continue to this day. There are some who will do whatever it takes to remain a part of this, and that speaks volumes.
I always have the thought in the back of my mind, ‘be careful what you wish for’. Perhaps its just as well that the incredible feats of mental and physical toughness that our competitions go through at times remain unknown by most. We live in a society that seems to want to stamp such things out…..for our own protection, of course. Racing is hard, its tough, its exhilarating , and at times it is tragic. Somehow all of this threads itself together, those of us who understand and get this, we arrange it all in our own way. Maybe we need to leave things just like that.