Friday, June 15, 2012

Michigan, Milwaukee Memories

NASCAR returns to the “new” Michigan International Speedway this weekend with the repaved track promising record speeds.  Meanwhile IndyCar returns to Milwaukee for a Saturday race.  OK, I know they “returned” last year, but I didn’t have a blog then.  Anyway, the two tracks bring back strong memories.

I was at the very first NASCAR race ever run at MIS, back in June of 1969.  It was a 500-miler then.  It was a dominate year for FoMoCo in NASCAR, the most serious challenge to the Ford Torinos coming from the Mercury Cyclones.  Even Richard Petty had jumped over to the Blue Oval for the season. (Ironic that going into Michigan this year the hot rumor is Richard Petty Motorsports will jump from Ford to Dodge.)

Donnie Allison was on the pole in the orange No. 27 Torino of Banjo Mathews but left early with a blown engine.  Engine failures happened a lot back in those days.  David Pearson led some in the No. 17 Holman & Moody Ford.

But it came down to a battle between Cale Yarborough in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Cyclone and LeeRoy Yarbrough in Junior Johnson’s No. 98 Cyclone.  LeeRoy had won the Daytona 500 earlier in the year and several other races, but I was a Cale fan.  I even used masking tape to put a “21” on my dad’s Cyclone for the drive to the track (he didn’t think much of that when he saw it later).

Yarborough and Yarbrough banged against each lap after lap.  Coming to the white flag, LeeRoy hit the outside wall and stayed glued to it, Cale going on for the win.  I remember LeeRoy running nearly a full lap grinding against the wall, before coming to stop right in front of our seats.  He climbed out and walked away.  Nothing more was said by either driver.  A far cry from what would happen today.

My Milwaukee memory dates back to 1964.  I wasn't at the race and there was no live television.  The memory comes mostly from newspaper reports of the day.  In those years the Rex Mays Classic took place the first weekend after the Indianapolis 500.  The 500 in ’64 was marred by a fiery second-lap accident that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.  Fireball Roberts had been badly burned at Charlotte a couple of weeks earlier (he would eventually die from complications) and Joe Weatherly had been killed earlier in the year at Riverside.  The sport of auto racing was under attack. 

A. J. Foyt had won the ‘64 Indy 500 in what would be the last 500 victory for a roadster, turning back the challenges of rear-engine Lotus-Fords.  At Milwaukee, Rodger Ward put his rear-engine Watson Ford on the pole with Foyt second and Jim Hurturbise third. 

When the race started those three battled lap-after-lap, swapping positions until the halfway point of the 100-lap/mile race.  Then something broke in Ward’s rear suspension and he slowed.  Foyt swung wide and slammed on his brakes but it was too late for Hurtubise, who drove up over Foyt’s car and hit the fourth turn wall.  His car flipped before landing on its wheels in front of the main straightaway.  He was knocked out and the car exploded in flames.  It took nearly a minute for rescuers to reach him and pull him from the car.  Foyt went on to win the race, his fourth straight Champ Car victory to start the season.  Afterwards he said the race was so hairy he was considering retirement.  Of course he didn’t and he went on to win seven straight and 10 of 13 races in capturing his second straight national championship. 

But the real story of that Milwaukee race is what happened afterwards.  Hurtubise was badly burned with second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body and he was flown by military aircraft to the Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.  No one expected him to live.

Hurtubise was a fan favorite, known as “Herk” for Hercules, and there is a very real chance his death could have altered the future of auto racing.  Several major papers were already calling for an end to the Indy 500.  But he hung on day-after-day as the newspapers reported his progress.  Finally Herk seemed to turn the corner and doctors began rebuilding his body with skin grafts.  They asked how he wanted his hands shaped, the grafts allowing for little movement once the hands were formed.  "Just make 'em so I can hold a steering wheel," he said.

Herk would somehow be back to start the ’65 Champ Car season with a fourth at Phoenix and would qualify for the Indy 500.  But he would never win another Indy car race.  He did, however, win the Atlanta 500 in 1966.

Oh yeah.  Le Mans is being run this this weekend too and my most vivid of that race dates back to 1964 as well.  Le Mans came several weeks after Milwaukee back then.  It was the first year for Ford to challenge Ferrari, which had won the race four years in a row.  It’s a story well told by A. J. Baime in his book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.  The start and finish was being shown live on Detroit TV and I was watching the tiny black-and-white television in my parent’s room.  At the time they still did the  famous Le Mans start, were drivers stood on one side of the track and ran to their cars at 4 p.m., jumped in and pulled away.  As expected, John Surtees led the first lap in a Ferrari.  By the second lap the announcers were screaming.  There were only a couple of cameras around the track and the announcers were getting their information by telephone, the cars long past the reporter’s position by the time their information was relayed to viewers.  Suddenly there was Richie Ginther, storming onto the front stretch.  Even in B&W it was a beautiful car, the white GT40 with the blue hood -- America's racing colors.  Just like my slot car.  Shortly thereafter the coverage was over and I had to wait 24 hours to find out the Fords had long since gone to hell, except for a lone Cobra that won the GT class and finished fourth overall driven by Dan Gurney.  It would be another couple of years until Ford was able to top Ferrari overall, but it will always be the first year I remember most. 

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