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Back on the Track
Sam Moses
May 16, 1988
A crash last year put driver Roberto Guerrero in a coma, but he's behind the wheel again and pointing for the Indy 500
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May 16, 1988

Back On The Track

A crash last year put driver Roberto Guerrero in a coma, but he's behind the wheel again and pointing for the Indy 500

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Had Guerrero's accident occurred somewhere other than Indianapolis, he might not have survived. But the Speedway's ambulance was fully equipped, the paramedics were very experienced, and transport to the hospital was immediate. Methodist Hospital has a highly regarded neurological facility, as well as model accommodations for a patient's family: Katie stayed in an adjoining hotel for the time Roberto was in intensive care, and then she moved to his suite for the week he remained in the hospital after regaining consciousness.

The racing world can be cold about serious injury: The possibility of injury is taken for granted and the fact of injury is not allowed to get in the way of racing. But love and support blanketed the Guerreros, including little Marco, who fortunately understood only a little of what was going on. "I had at least a dozen people around me the whole time I was in the hospital," says Katie. "That was the saving grace. They wouldn't let me think about it. And we received thousands of cards and letters from people praying and things. It was a tremendous help to know that that many people were pulling for Roberto."

Vince Granatelli, who, like his father, made his money in the automotive after-market, bought Guerrero's team at the end of 1986. Granatelli began spending May at the Brickyard 27 years ago, when he was 18. He has worked on Indy Cars from Novis to Lotus turbines, and he has hung around with drivers like Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones. Vince Granatelli Racing occupies 41,000 square feet of floor space in a building in Phoenix.

Guerrero had been in his coma for 10 days when Granatelli decided it was time to get back to the business of racing. For the next event, at Nazareth, Pa., on Sept. 20, he hired Indy 500 champ Al Unser Sr. to drive his car. After Unser finished 10th, Granatelli stopped to see the unconscious Guerrero in Indianapolis on the way back to Phoenix.

"The doctor told me that even if Roberto woke up that day, I wouldn't be able to talk to him for two months," Granatelli says now. "And he'd be real lucky if he could even get in a race car for a year. I didn't believe it. No way. But what the heck am I going to do? I don't have a driver. I want to ask him, 'Listen Roberto, how do you feel? You think you're going to be O.K. by next year? I think I'd like to hire Al here, until you get better. What do you think?'

"I wanted to talk to the man. I'm not going to go out and hire another driver without talking to him first—although plenty of them were calling me. So I'm still sweating it out. When is he going to wake up?"

Two days later, Guerrero began to regain consciousness. "When he first started opening his eyes, it was really eerie," says Katie. "He had such an intense, staring look. He looked at you, but there wasn't a whole lot going on. And he was so thin; he looked like Gandhi. He had no behind, his arms were like toothpicks. It's so nice to be able to smile about that now."

At first Guerrero couldn't talk, so he responded to questions by squeezing people's hands. "Do you know who you are!" asked Granatelli, who was among the first nonfamily members to visit Guerrero. Guerrero squeezed. Then the wet-eyed Granatelli asked him, "Do you realize that you're the world's greatest race driver?"

In three days Guerrero was talking, which put him 57 days ahead of medical expectations. On Day 4 he was walking. By January, as we shall see, he was back at the wheel of an Indy Car.

"There were a number of reasons Roberto's recovery was so phenomenal," says Dr. Stephen Olvey, associate director of Methodist Hospital's Critical Care Unit and the medical director of CART. "But I believe that possibly the most significant one was the way Katie dedicated all of her waking hours to his recovery, being with him and encouraging him, even talking to him when he was totally comatose."

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