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I am certain that my memory of the crash has been influenced by the four photographs I saw on the front page of the sports section of the Riverside Enterprise. The first picture shows a racing Mustang compressed and looking like an accordion, sliding sideways down the pit straight inside a cloud of smoke, pit crews scattering. The second photograph shows the Mustang spinning in the opposite direction after being hit by a Corvette. In the third photograph the upper torso and helmeted head of a man can be seen behind the burning wreckage of the Mustang—which is being hit by a Lotus. The caption identifies the man as me.
What is the man thinking? Is he looking at his burning car, hoping that no one else will hit it and move it over on top of him? Yes, that's precisely what he is thinking. Clouds of CO from the fire extinguishers fill the fourth photograph, but just below the white vapor we can see the prone body of the driver in white coveralls and a dark helmet, and four legs that will later be identified as those of Richard Caldwell, a racing mechanic, and an unnamed doctor.
Now a replay from the driver's seat. This was the American Road Race of Champions, bringing together the top three drivers in each class from each of the Sports Car Club of America's six geographical divisions. There were 36 cars in the race, Cobras, Corvettes, Lotuses and Shelby GT350s, the big-bore production cars.
Riverside Raceway is a fast, fairly flat and fairly dangerous circuit. It is dangerous because in those spots where the drivers are most likely to get into trouble there are hazards: concrete walls, overpasses and loose desert sand. And in all of those places they are traveling rapidly enough to do considerable damage if they hit something. I was rolling along at approximately 90 mph when I lost it and hit the wall.
It was about the third lap. I was running third or fourth and had just passed a white Corvette going into Riverside's parabolic Turn Nine at the end of the long straight. The Corvette fell in behind me and we swept through the long curve like the Panama Limited, drifting wide to the edge of the wall. I was dropping down off the slope of the turn when it happened. I felt a nudge, as if someone had touched my shoulder.
The white Corvette filled my mirrors. I was going sideways. I reversed the steering wheel but nothing happened; then I was spinning and the end of the pit wall was coming up fast. It was exhilarating for a moment, then, magically, everything slowed. I could see the wall moving slowly toward me; the concrete was porous, that's all I remember. At the time I couldn't tell if I was hitting the wall head-on or sideways, but I could see the little holes in the concrete. I stopped breathing, my face shot forward into the steering column and my hands ripped the steering wheel rim off the spokes. My nose spread to cover one eye like a patch, and the air was full of glass and fire, the engine against my right shoulder. I was sailing backward. I felt another impact and I was spinning in the opposite direction. Now all I could see was fire. I don't know how I got out of the car, but there I was, lying on the track thinking, "Oh God, I've really done it this time," and hoping that no one would hit me again—though at that moment I was convinced it wouldn't matter.
As I lay in my hospital bed I amused myself reading the accounts of my crash in a number of newspapers and sports car magazines. The reports of my condition ranged from "facial lacerations and a possible broken nose" to "dead on arrival." Both inaccurate. The total damage came to two broken legs, two broken arms, numerous broken ribs, a displaced spine, a fractured skull, several lacerations and contusions and one broken nose. The nose was easily the most obtrusive of my injuries. It almost obscured the vision in my right eye, and while I was still lying on the asphalt the blood from it ran down my throat and made me fear I was drowning. My mechanic was the first to reach me after the car had come to rest on the start-finish line directly in front of the pits. He held my head up and I was able to breathe until the doctor arrived and ordered him to put my head down. Then I began drowning again. I was convinced I was going to die. There wasn't any particular panic about it: "You're going to die," I thought. "That's too bad. I'd really planned to live longer. It's a stupid way to have killed yourself." A doctor in the ambulance stuffed tubes up my nose and into my mouth and put a needle in my arm.
I woke up in the emergency room. It was just like a scene from a movie, the clich� shot up at the operating room lights and the encircling faces of all the doctors looking down. It was quite similar to the shot from the center of the huddle in Saturday's Hero. A policeman was trying to break into the circle, insisting that he had to ask me some questions. I remember the doctors putting their hands over the policeman's face and pushing it out of the circle. The doctors looked so grim. I couldn't bear the intensity of all those faces staring down at me so I said, "Don't anybody laugh." No one did. I had apparently said it in my mind; no words passed my lips and I felt panic for the first time.
I began to believe I was dead and they were going to cremate me. They wheeled me into the operating room and I woke up hours later to see my wife and my mechanic at the foot of the bed talking with stock-car racing celebrities David Pearson and Paul Goldsmith, who were in Riverside to do some tire testing. They autographed the casts on my arms and Paul told me about his motorcycle racing accident and how well all his bones had healed. I realized I'd been given another chance.
That was Nov. 27, 1966. I had been racing for a little more than five years in various kinds of cars and in races ranging from SCCA Nationals, the so-called amateur series, to Daytona, Sebring and the fall pro races which later became known as the Canadian-American Challenge Cup. I'd had moderate success, winning a few and blowing a few, so that at the end of the season I always wound up near the top in the point standings—but never first. I began racing about the same time as such then-unknowns as Mark Donohue and Peter Revson; in fact, Donohue and I were both driving Mustangs for Shelby American in that ill-fated race at Riverside. By that time I knew that drivers like Donohue and Revson were going to make a far greater mark in racing than I ever would, because they had something that I didn't have anymore: dedication.