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THEY NEVER GAVE UP
Richard Hoffer
December 25, 1989
Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives
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December 25, 1989

They Never Gave Up

Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives

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In the years since he returned to Drummond, where as a boy he would snake logs from the woods with a team of horses, Turcotte has lived life one day at a time, raising four daughters in affluence thanks to nearly $3 million he earned as a jockey. If the normal duties of husband and father haven't been distracting enough, he has been haunted by pain and sickness. It's a mistake, Turcotte says, to assume that similarly injured people are similarly handicapped. The popular image of the guy who crosses the continent in a wheelchair is unrealistic; some days Turcotte can't wheel the length of his driveway. Sometimes he's housebound for a month. Even when he's in relatively good health, he can't always summon a full day's worth of energy.

"It makes it hard to plan," he says. He thinks of training horses someday, of somehow getting back to the track. But time passes. He is 48 now. The complimentary copy of the Daily Racing Form arrives, and he reads it. Hunting season comes, and he sights a moose from his specially equipped van and bags it. "The days never seem long," he says. "But I don't know where they go."

Just this year he has gone back to school—he dropped out in the seventh grade—to get his high-school equivalency degree. It's hard work, he says, but there has to be a future in education. He sits by the window looking out on his property and scribbles homework in his notebooks. He is beginning to think ahead. Maybe he'll even go back to Saratoga next summer.

Bob Hurt, 50, suggests that his visitor meet him in the infield of the Daytona International Speedway, where he likes to spend some of his time. Cars are being tested this day, and throughout the interview a red car and a blue car play a noisy game of tag on the giant and otherwise empty tri-oval. After every five laps or so, the cars return to the pits and Florida reclaims some of its serenity. But soon the cars roll back onto the track and destroy the calm.

"Music to my ears," Hurt says as Vivien Veerkamp, his young companion, moves his wheelchair into the afternoon sun. Hurt often raced at Daytona, and a promotional banner for the 24-hour event in February reminds him of the track's special appeal during the famous endurance test. "At five in the morning, when all the partying in the infield has died down and everybody's asleep, and the smoke from the campfires is just drifting over the turn...it's just exhilarating."

Stock cars are what Hurt started racing. He was 15, six years below the age limit, when he answered his first green flag in 1954. "All this noise and horsepower and dust, all this mayhem, cars side by side into the first turn," he recalls. Talk about exhilaration! When officials finally demanded his birth certificate, Hurt changed its date to make himself 21 and spent a week aging the paper. He used battery acid, ink and sandpaper until the document looked like the Magna Charta. The officials laughed, saying it was obviously a forgery. "Obviously? Obviously?" Hurt replied, furious. "I worked a week on that!"

So he went to Canada and learned to drive sports cars, horsing a big Ferrari around the turns, the car's rear end slipping way out. He impressed some folks, and by the time he had passed the legal driving age in the U.S., there was a man who wanted him to drive his car at Indy. Somebody always had a ride for Hurt, although the cars were castoffs and the parts were secondhand. One of the car owners bought used pistons from A.J. Foyt. "In a turn, I'd close my eyes and count to five, and if I didn't hit the wall...." He's kidding, sort of.

At the 1968 Indy time trials, after days of rain, Hurt took an unfamiliar car onto the track. Maybe there was moisture on the first turn, or maybe driver Mike Mosley dumped some oil ahead of him. Hurt had his eyes open, that's for sure. The rear end of his car sailed out, and as he watched the infield recede at an alarming rate, he backed into the wall. He hit it dead square, then slid another quarter-mile down the course to the second turn.

There was a flash fire behind him, and scalding oil and water were pouring onto his lower body, so Hurt quickly reached for his belt release. Right arm wouldn't move. Left arm wouldn't move. "Great," he thought. "Two broken arms and there goes not just Indy but Phoenix and Milwaukee." It wasn't much later that a group of doctors appeared in his hospital room and told him he would never again have movement below his neck. At the time, it seemed to Hurt that the doctors were curt and that after giving him the bad news they practically ran out of the room.

Veerkamp reddens; she must have heard this story before. Hurt is nothing if not a storyteller. Throughout the interview she rests her foot lightly against his leg. Sometimes she wipes his brow, which glistens in the sun. Once, she helps him smoke a cigarette, taking it away after each puff.

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