INDIANAPOLIS — There are a lot of “what ifs?” in the story of Indy car driver Swede Savage and the daughter he never knew, Angela Savage.
The most obvious “what if” question is what if he hadn’t died from complications from the injuries he sustained in a fiery crash during the 1973 Indianapolis 500. At the time he was widely regarded as a future superstar. He was Dan Gurney’s protégé, and he had the attention of the Ford Motor Company. He was one of the fastest drivers during practice at the Brickyard that May, he broke the track record during qualifying, and he led the race before his accident.
His widow, Sheryl, was six-months pregnant with Angela at the time. The couple also had an 8-year-old daughter, Shelly. (Swede also left a son, John, from an earlier relationship.)
People handle grief differently. Heartbroken over the loss and with a young girl and a baby to raise, Sheryl Savage turned her back on the sport that had taken her husband far too young. Swede Savage was only 26 when he died.
Sheryl remarried a year later. As Angela and Shelly grew up, Angela said her mother wanted nothing to do with motorsports and she didn’t want to talk about her late husband with her daughters. Instead, she concentrated on rebuilding her life with her new husband.
All of her life, Angela has struggled to come to terms with never knowing her father.
“It was pretty confusing,” Angela said. “I suffered from anxiety and depression, and I was into alcohol and drugs by the time I was 10.”
The life insurance money was quickly spent. Tragedy struck the family again when Shelly died of leukemia at 28.
Today Angela lives modestly in Boulder City, Nev. She is married and has two sons of her own, Chance, 8, and Cruz, 2. Her husband, Scott Jackson, owns a Mr. Fix-It business, providing plumbing, electrical and handyman services.
As she got older and had her own children, Angela started to take it upon herself to learn more about her father’s career and his passion for motorsports. She had no desire to attend a race, however, and never watched racing on television.
Last May a chance encounter on Facebook brought her in touch with Paul Powell, a devoted race fan and photographer from Brownsburg, Ind. A customer service representative for Racer Parts Wholesale, an Indianapolis-based company that sells auto racing parts, safety equipment and motorcycle supplies, he has been instrumental in helping to preserve the memory of another famous racer, Mark Donohue.
Powell met Swede Savage only once, when Donohue introduced them at a drivers’ meeting. Powell was aware that Jim Wright, Swede Savage’s crew chief, had spearheaded a fund-raising campaign when Shelly became ill, so he knew about the family’s struggles.
As their Facebook chats progressed, Powell learned of Angela’s emotional wounds.
“All my life I’ve felt like an empty, broken girl without my father,” she said.
Powell gently suggested that she might find peace and closure if she attended an Indianapolis 500 and saw first-hand the sport that her father loved, and talked to some people who knew him.
At first the idea seemed impossible both emotionally and financially, but Powell told her he’d do everything he could to help her get to Indianapolis if she wanted to come.
Powell wasn’t sure if he could raise enough funds to pay for the transportation costs so Angela could attend the 2014 Indianapolis 500 or not, but he was determined to try.
“These days when there is a tragedy, people can help by contributing to a fund through social media, but it wasn’t as easy 40 years ago,” he said. “I thought it might help her a lot if she was able to learn more about her father, talk to some people who knew him, and see for herself why her father loved racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”