Like most race
drivers, Hurtubise speaks easily of the many accidents in his long career. What
were once brief moments of numbing terror become, in his retelling, shaggy-dog
tales covered with a veneer of thin but honest humor. In 1959, at Cedar Rapids,
Iowa, he found himself sailing over a guardrail in a sprint car. The car landed
nose first on a railroad track; Hurtubise was undamaged except for having burst
most of the tiny blood vessels in his eyes. After a day or two, the whites of
his eyes turned bright red; after another day or two, they turned black. No
real problem yet, but in time Hurtubise found himself in need of a haircut. He
went to a barbershop serviced by an elderly gentleman with a penchant for the
bottle who took one look at the spooky face before him and proceeded to make a
shaky rip with his shears up the side of Herk's head. Once was enough.
Hurtubise paid his bill, ran out the door and bought a hat.
A couple of years
later, this time in Dayton, Ohio, Hurtubise again found himself flying through
the air in a sprint car. This time he landed upside down high in a tree, whose
sturdy branches gently broke his fall and deposited him right side up on the
ground without injury.
He even jokes
about his most recent mishap, in which he tore up a lot of sheet metal during a
stock-car race at Dover, Del. What gives an edge to this story is that the car
he crunched is the same 1976 Ford owned by John Kennedy that Hurtubise is now
trying to get Fred Carrillo to buy for him. Kennedy says that all he wanted
Hurtubise to do at Dover was cool it, finish the race and earn some prize
money. Herk says that Kennedy put the wrong gear in the car and that when he
tried to drive out of a jam the power just wasn't there.
The one crash
Hurtubise doesn't volunteer much information about is the one at Milwaukee.
Hurtubise and Foyt, who had won his second Indianapolis 500 the week before,
were driving roadsters, while Rodger Ward was in one of the new rear-engine
cars. For 50 laps the three accomplished veterans put on as good a show as
big-car fans had ever seen. But as the leaders exited the fourth turn on Lap
51, with Ward showing the slightest advantage over Foyt and Hurtubise, the rear
end of Ward's car suddenly locked up.
"Ward put up
his hand," said Hurtubise, "but I didn't see it because I was about to
take a shot at going to the lead. Foyt did, though, and when he braked, his
rear end slid out to the right and there was nowhere to go. I ran up over his
right-rear wheel—it didn't hurt him; he won the race—and got airborne. I peeled
over like a P-51 and grabbed the wheel and crouched. I remember all of this.
When I hit, my right front wheel came off and hit me in the chest. Broke three
ribs and punctured a lung and knocked me out. That's the last I remember until
they were carrying me into the ambulance."
It was already a
heavy crash by any standard, but Hurtubise would have survived with no further
damage had it not been for a 15-gallon auxiliary fuel tank located immediately
behind his front axle. The impact forced the axle into the tank, and although
the tank did not break, a filler cap burst and racing alcohol flooded into his
car. There was a spark, and for those long 60 seconds Hurtubise sat unconscious
and helpless in the caldron.
remembers that as he was being loaded into the ambulance, Andy Granatelli of
the STP Corporation stuck his head in the door and asked, "You O.K., Jim?
Andy," he said. "I'm O.K."
But, of course, he
wasn't. There was no pain right away. That didn't begin until a couple of hours
later, after he had been taken to a hospital in West Allis and the extent of
his injuries had begun to be determined. Early the next morning he was flown in
a military transport to the burn center at the Brooke Army Hospital in San
Antonio. He had second-and third-degree burns over 40% of his body. His face
was burned except where his helmet and a red bandana he wore across his mouth
had afforded some protection, his legs were burned upward to the middle of his
thighs, and his arms were burned as far up as the middle of his biceps.
"I knew I was
hurt," he says. "The doctors told me from the beginning, 'We're doing
the best we can, but we're not sure what we can do about your hands.' "