INDIANAPOLIS — Here he came, easing through the restaurant door because easing is the best he can do, heading toward a wicker chair that for a healthy man would have been five paces away.
The trouble is, he is 85 years old, and the confident stride that used to be his trademark has given way to a shuffle. He leaned on a walker, his eyes fixed on that chair like it was the checkered flag in the California 500. Getting there was his only goal.
This was Bobby Unser arriving for lunch. He groaned as he settled into his seat. The groan told you that everything hurt more than it was supposed to.
“My back is junk,” he said, pointing out the worst of his problems.
There was a time when Unser was the fastest thing on four wheels. Now it takes six legs — his own pair, plus the four on the walker — just to get him through a crowded dining room. Wherever he goes, the Ghost of Crashes Past rides with him.
“The truth,” he said, “is that I’m worn out.”
The record books paint him as a winner, not a crasher. Three times, Unser won the Indianapolis 500. In 1968 and ’74, he was king of USAC’s Championship Trail. He won from coast to coast in sprint cars, beat A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarborough to an IROC title, and conquered 13 Pikes Peak Int’l Hill Climbs. That’s a lot of glory.
But if you race long enough, you’re going to run into a few things. Unser has ridden out countless wrecks, including a handful that should have killed him. One city alone — Phoenix — tried to snuff him three times.
In 1965, rescuers were stunned to find him in one piece after his Indy car submarined the Phoenix Int’l Raceway guardrail. In 1973, a brutal crash at the same track snapped his Eagle in two and the compression of his belts broke “all my ribs.” The ribs pained him so badly that doctors missed his cracked neck and fractured feet.
But his worst Phoenix experience came across town at the Manzanita Speedway dirt track, where a sprint car tumble knocked him silly. The nearest emergency room, in a tough part of town, was full of “Saturday-night guys from the knife fights.”
Awaiting treatment, he faded in and out of consciousness. When a friend insisted that Bobby needed help, a smartass nurse declared, “Ah, don’t worry about it. He’s gonna die anyway.”
So Phoenix was tough on him. Throw in all the “lesser” crashes elsewhere, and you understand why Bobby Unser creaks like the “Wizard of Oz” Tin Man.
It is the same, sadly, for so many aging racers. Jack Hewitt used to beat sprint cars into submission; now he’s 68, and a heavy limp and bum arm are reminders that those sprinters beat him, too. Johnny Rutherford won the Indy 500 three times between 1974 and ’80, but he hasn’t been able to straighten his right arm since 1966, when he flipped out of Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
Thirty-one years after the NASCAR Cup Series crash that ended his career, Bobby Allison knows all about the mystery of head injuries; one minute he dazzles you with his recall, and in the next he struggles to move words from brain to tongue.
Bugs Stevens, a three-time NASCAR modified champ, recently underwent a vertebroplasty, a procedure in which doctors injected medical cement into unstable vertebrae, hoping to ease his everyday suffering. And Foyt is a living museum for rebuilt joints, mended bones and scar tissue.
I know a hundred other retired racers with bad hips, crooked shoulders, trick knees and shaky memories. To quote Paul Newman quoting Bette Davis, “Gettin’ old ain’t for sissies.”
I tell you all that as a prelude to telling you this: Every now and then, I find myself complaining that the ethics that once governed race-driving have crumbled. In every branch of the sport, aggression is sky-high. In dirt-track sprints and midgets, every slide job seems more ruthless than the one before; in pavement stock cars, bump-and-run passes have given way to crude shoves.
It comes down to safety: Today’s drivers have better helmets, better seats, better restraints and better fire gear than the warriors before them. When things go wrong, they even hit better barriers.
It’s harder than ever for a racer to hurt himself and many of them drive accordingly. And as on-track behavior deteriorates, grouches like me moan that racing has become “too safe.”
Our point is that if injury — or at least the threat of injury — was more commonplace, we’d see cleaner, more precise driving.
But there’s a flip side to that argument and it shows up in the physical struggles of men who raced when every green flag came with the very real possibility of hospital time. One day, discussing his souvenir aches, Foyt said, “These golden years aren’t what they’re supposed to be.”
Yes, I get angry at the carelessness I see in a lot of fast kids. But I like thinking that most of them will still walk straight when they turn 70.
I don’t think Bobby Unser would trade his three Indianapolis wins for anything. But I do believe he’d surrender a few from Trenton, Milwaukee or Michigan if it meant he could stroll in, smiling, for tomorrow’s noonday meal.