There was no fanfare when Roberto Guerrero drove his first official mile of the 1988 Indy Car season, but his heart must have been pounding like a kettledrum. Just by attempting to qualify for the Championship Auto Racing Teams ( CART) opener at Phoenix International Raceway early last month, he was about to set an unofficial record for medical recoveries. Certainly Guerrero was beating staggering odds. He had won his first Indy Car race a year earlier on this difficult one-mile oval, slashing through the 22-car field from last place on the starting grid. Now he was trying to prove he hadn't lost it. Lost it in the darkness of the coma in which he had spent 17 days in September, after a crash during a test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Now, at Phoenix, he was out on the track alone, trying to qualify an Indy Car for the first time since that crash. For two laps at the limit, all eyes would be on him. So would the clock—the impersonal arbiter of his judgment, his coordination, his reflexes, his confidence, his courage.
Had he lost it? If so, it took him less than 22 seconds to find it—and show it off. The track announcer fairly shouted Guerrero's qualifying time across the desert: "Twenty-one point eight-oh-two!" He had driven with precision to place his Lola-Cosworth in the front row and was edged for the pole position by only .079 of a second by Rick Mears. As Guerrero climbed out of the cockpit, it was obvious that a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders. After the coma had come the awakening, the recovery and the doubt. "Now it's definitely over with," he said as he walked away from the vivid-red race car.
In four years of racing Indy Cars, Guerrero has come to be known as a hard-luck driver. He had almost won a number of races, only to be struck down near the finish, sometimes so hard it hurt to watch. The most memorable of the losses occurred at last year's Indy 500. "I cry every time I think about it," he says. Guerrero, who was leading after 182 of the race's 200 laps, was on his final pit stop for tires when his car stalled as it dropped off the jacks. His crew pushed the 1,500-pound car in an attempt to restart it. It lurched forward, only to stall again. "The——clutch is gone!" Guerrero screamed to his crew chief over the radio, as five mechanics ran after him to push some more. "1 don't believe it!" By the time he got rolling again, he was more than a lap behind Al Unser Sr. Guerrero drove masterfully to close the gap to only 4.496 seconds at the finish, but Unser won another 500, his fourth, and Guerrero had another second. In four years at the Speedway, his record is a fourth, a third and two seconds.
Still, Guerrero might consider himself lucky even to have seen the checkered flag at Indy last year. Early in the race a wheel had broken off another car and rolled directly into his path. The sloped nose of his March struck the wheel square-on at 200 mph, knocking it up over the catch fencing and into the top row of a grandstand. A spectator was killed by the flying tire. Unaware of the tragedy, and miraculously unscathed, Guerrero had continued the race.
Three months later, on Sept. 10, it was Guerrero who faced death, after the crash at the Speedway. A tiny part called a camber block had broken in his car's rear suspension, sending him into the wall. This time a tire was knocked off his own car and clouted him in the head. The irony was as cruel as the silence was sudden.
As Guerrero lay unconscious in the Neurological Critical Care Unit of Indianapolis's Methodist Hospital, his wife, Katie, who was two months pregnant with their second child, was told that the first three days after the accident would be critical for Roberto. "It never occurred to me that 'critical' meant he might not make it," she says now. "He didn't have a mark on him. But he was on life-support systems, and there were lines and tubes going everywhere, things on his head, his chest, his arms. It was very, very scary."
Even more scary was what was revealed by a CAT scan: hemorrhaging and severe bruising of the brain. Neurologists use the Glasgow Coma Scale to rate brain trauma, and Guerrero's condition was a 5 on the 1-to-15 scale. A patient with a 5 or below is considered to have less than a 5% chance for complete recovery.
"The doctors said Roberto could be unconscious for an hour, a day, a week...or longer," says Vince Granatelli, the son of Andy (They Call Me Mr. 500) Granatelli and the owner of Guerrero's car. "I really thought he was going to be awake the next day. I just felt he was going to be O.K. I mean, he is tough; he's a nice guy, he's a warm and affectionate human being, as gentle as anybody I've ever known, but he's tough. He's tough mentally, he's tough physically.... But I must admit, after a week I was beginning to get worried."
Guerrero grew up in Medell�n, Colombia, a city of nearly two million that's known more for its cocaine kingpins than race drivers. But go-cart racing is a passion in Colombia, and Guerrero's father, an executive in a fiberglass business who is also named Roberto, was a champion. At age 12, Roberto Jr. joined his dad on the track; their deal was that the senior Guerrero would finance his son's racing if the boy would prepare both of their machines. And keep the costs down; even go-carts require the latest in tires and other expensive go-fast parts. Roberto Jr. describes the economic level of his family as "medium." He lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister on the 14th floor of an apartment building; burglary in the city, a consequence of the country's high poverty level, made ownership of a freestanding house impractical.