Buzz Calkins has had his share of boo-boos. A skull fracture here. A broken ankle there. Once, on a notably bad afternoon, a skull fracture and a broken ankle—plus a ruptured eardrum. Calkins, a three-year IRL vet, started his career in go-karts. Go-kart racers are good people, fine citizens and, in rare cases, mildly concerned for their safety. But in between the bumps, bruises and breaks, they see a nice chunk of hospital time. It's all but inevitable.
Calkins tells of one day when his legs went numb, his feet turned to lead, his vision blurred and his arms became Jell-O. At the time he wasn't driving a go-kart but experimenting with a different type of racing, which he describes as both the best and worst undertaking of his life. "There's no other experience like it, I'm guessing," says Calkins of running his first marathon, last fall in New York City. "It's not completely different from the Indy 500. Three hours is a long time to be driving; four hours is a long time to be running. It's grueling."
The IRL has become unexpectedly grueling for Calkins. In 1996 he tore up the circuit, winning its first event, the Indy 200 in Orlando, and sharing the inaugural league championship with Scott Sharp. Calkins had everything going for him: talent, boyish good looks, aw-shucks charm. Then, quicker than you can say Mark Fidrych, his luck turned. Throughout 1997 and '98 his car was plagued by mechanical mishaps. In July of last year, with no top five finishes in the previous 23 months, he bottomed out. Buzz's father and car owner, Brad, pulled Buzz's team out of back-to-back races at Dover and Charlotte and made major changes in the crew. Calkins finished the season in 19th place. In the only IRL race so far this year, the Indy 200, he finished 17th.
Given the turmoil at the track, it's no surprise that Calkins, 27—who has been running since he was an 18-year-old freshman at Colorado and finds it an ideal way to ease stress—threw himself into marathon training. He set a goal of four hours for the New York race and just missed it, finishing in 4:06:13.
Though he's one of the IRL's more established stars, he's also a full-time graduate student at Northwestern, where he is pursuing an M.B.A. "I love racing, and I hope it lasts for a long time," he says, "but drivers get burned out. They get injured. I think a lot of guys take the present for granted. They're doing well driving, so they don't think about the future. I don't want to criticize, but that's not smart."
Calkins occasionally misses a class for a race but has no qualms about traveling with his school books. "My only condition is that I don't want to be thinking school while I'm racing," he says. "So if I have an assignment due Monday and a race over the weekend, I'll make sure the assignment is done before I race. You can only do so many things at once."