Today’s Drivers: Innocent Or Careful?

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I have touched on this subject before, back when Titan’s quarterback Steve McNair was killed – but when the extremely sordid details of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino’s “indiscretion” (his word, not mine) became public last week; it made me wonder how the racing community is seemingly so immune to these types of scandals. I am not naïve enough to think that drivers, team members and owners do not ever give in to the human side of temptation. But you seldom, if ever, hear about it.

For those that don’t know, Pitino – a married father of five, had a chance one-time “encounter” in 2003 with a divorced woman inside of a restaurant after hours. Two weeks later, she claimed to be pregnant and Pitino gave her $3,000 for “health insurance”. She claims it was for an abortion. Six years later, she has tried to extort $10 million from him, lest she take it public. He instead went public himself, and every day since has produced bizarre twist after twist of sleazy and slimy details.

Racecar drivers are risk takers by nature. They are trained to push the limits and boundaries on the track, just keeping the car this side of teetering over the edge and being out of control. In earlier times, many drivers lived their lives that way off the track as well. They drove hard and played harder, always pushing the edge. Many drivers in the early days of the sport never made it to retirement age. Fate would intervene and take their lives at a very young age. The mindset was to live life to the fullest, while you can.

Many of our racing heroes from the fifties and sixties were known as much for their Pitino-like indiscretions off the track, as they were for their skills on the track. Some are well documented while others are hearsay. One of the more documented accounts involved a young Rodger Ward.

In his early years at the Speedway, Ward was known as a brash, reckless driver who couldn’t be trusted on the track. His reputation for being wild on the track was exceeded only by his reputation off of it. Although perceived as a drunk, he later acknowledged that his problem with alcohol was not that he was an alcoholic – it was just that it took very little to get him drunk. Therefore, after one or two drinks, he was a bumbling idiot. He also had the reputation of chasing anything in a skirt. He later admitted that a lot of that was due to his own bragging, rather than actual conquests.

Rodger Ward initiated the crash that took the life of Bill Vukovich in the 1955 Indianapolis 500. He had an ill-handling car, which he says he should have parked. Instead, he opted to stay out thinking he could keep it under control. On lap 56, Ward’s car hit the outside wall while exiting turn two and flipped upside down on the backstretch. The melee that ensued collected Bill Vukovich, who was leading at the time, en route to his apparent third consecutive 500 victory. Vukovich was fatally injured in the crash.

A despondent Rodger Ward sat in the stands at Indianapolis that evening alone with his thoughts, while contemplating where his life and career were headed. It was at that moment that Ward straightened out his life. His career followed suit. It’s amazing how that happens. From that point on, Ward became the Rodger Ward that we all remember. A two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and a great ambassador for the sport for many years to come. In his later years, he would freely acknowledge and openly discuss his wilder early days as a driver.

There were others in the sixties who had a fondness for indiscretions. Some were heavily rumored, without any such self-acknowledgement — so I won’t name any names here. Suffice it to say that some of them were 500 champions that were also some of my childhood heroes. In those days, there were no cell phone cameras, no internet and no Twitter. The press considered it just part of the “hands-off” territory of the lifestyle of a driver. They either thought it was no big deal worth reporting or they simply chose to look the other way.

The many bachelors of the sixties and seventies flaunted their lifestyle. Their jet-set parties made headlines almost as much as their driving exploits. Again, this was an era when it was not unusual to lose several drivers in a single season. While women were quick to throw themselves at a flashy driver for a celebrity fling, not many relished the idea of being widowed in their twenties.

The last two true “swinging” bachelors that I recall from the sport were Danny Sullivan and Jimmy Vasser. Sullivan’s party lifestyle in the eighties was legendary. Some suspect that it is what ultimately cost him his ride with Roger Penske. Sullivan did not get married until he retired from racing following the 1995 CART season. Vasser is still single and still likes to party. At Long Beach last season, his co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven said in an interview on Trackside with Cavin and Kevin that (paraphrasing) he has had to limit Vasser to three bottles of wine and two women per day while at Long Beach.

Today’s IndyCar drivers are either more family oriented or more careful. I think the advent of the motor coach has had a lot to do with that. It allows families to travel more easily with the driver. The spouses and kids have a quiet secure base while at the track. It also keeps the single drivers on the grounds at the track instead of heading into town to the hotel, where all sorts of temptations await.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, don’t under-estimate the role of the sponsor in a driver’s decision-making process. Most “stick & ball” athletes can push the envelope and generally only face consequences when they break the law, not just by engaging in questionably moral behavior. Racecar drivers must answer to the sponsors they represent.

A case in point is the fall from grace of Al Unser, Jr. While his demons were apparently well known within the CART paddock of the late nineties, it was pretty well kept under wraps by the media. Although it ultimately cost him his job with Roger Penske; most of us in the general public were not made aware of his problems until his infamous 2002 arrest when he assaulted his girlfriend while intoxicated. Only then, did his problems become public knowledge. He has since tried to rebuild his image and his life. He had a well publicized slip in his recovery when he was arrested for a hit & run DUI in January of 2007.

Little Al has worked hard since that 2007 incident but has not gotten much favorable press since. The public is very willing to offer a second chance (witness the sudden affection for Michael Vick), but not so much a third chance. His last driving appearance was in the 2007 Indianapolis 500 driving for AJ Foyt; a very forgettable performance where he started twenty-fifth and finished twenty-sixth.

Robin Miller wrote an excellent article about the two-time Indy 500 and CART champion just last week, when Unser, Jr. was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame. Most of the racing press was all to eager to try and bury Unser, Jr. when he was down. Where are they now when he is seemingly getting his life back in order? I suppose that’s not as juicy of a story. As most of you know; warm and fuzzy, feel good stories are not Robin Miller’s specialty. It’s a shame that he is the only one willing to write it.

Racecar drivers are human, just like the rest of us. I’m sure that a few of them still have their indiscretions, just as their predecessors did. But if they do, they are being very careful and quiet about it. As this Rick Pitino episode plays out stranger than Fatal Attraction, I think many a public person can learn from it. Rick Pitino may survive his self-induced firestorm. Toady’s sponsor-driven IndyCar driver would not.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “Today’s Drivers: Innocent Or Careful?”

  1. I think that society has changed a lot since the 50′s and 60′s. Back then the press considered the private exploits of public figures to be off limits. I’m not sure when that changed, or why, but at some point the tabloidization of all news took over. Sports stars, public and political figures today are closely scrutinized in everything they do. (Witness the recent kerfuffle over Obama serving an import beer at the White House. In the early 60′s I don’t you think the press cared what sort of Scotch that Kennedy was serving, as long as he poured them a glass too.)

    From the sports world I would compare the legendary carousing of Mickey Mantle with the recent exploits of Alex Rodriguez in New York. A-rod has paprazzi following his every move. The press knew all about Mantle’s drinking and partying, but chose to protray him as the All American boy back then. Of course, some of the difference is in the press corps themselves. Back then they partied along with the folks they covered.

    Post-Watergate journalists however have a different view of themselves. For better or worse, they consider themselves as a sort of public conscious, like little Jimminy Crickets, to hold the world accountable. There are still a few crusty old timers out there, that maintain a personal, as well as professional relationship with the people they cover. Robin Miller is one that srpings to mind. Which is why his recent column supporting Al Jr. is not one bit surprising to me.

  2. I chose #5, nobody cares. It’s colder-sounding that I mean it, but let’s face it, open-wheel racing (including F1) is a niche sport in the US. Michael Schumacher said in an interview once that he likes travelling in the USA because nobody recognizes him.

    I think one of the secrets of news organizations is that they’re acutely aware of who their audience reacts to. It’s why the tabloids feature certain people every week and others of equal stature and popularity are never mentioned at all.

    Whether we like it or not, few people outside our fan circle know any of the drivers (much less the owners) except for Danica. Yet in Tennis, Golf, NASCAR (and other sports I don’t follow), I can name a number of the major players, not just the top. And that means that when Mark Chimura lays the wood to his babysitter, it causes a firestorm. If an Indycar driver did that, most people would shrug and say “who?” And if you’re a news director and your audience is wondering why you’re boring them with this penny-ante stuff, you worry that they’ll flip the channel and check out the new weather-hottie on the other station–and not come back.

    – My opinion on Al is for a different time, but I’ll say this. I have a relative who I thought was a write-off. He spent a huge portion of his life addicted to one thing or another, in and out of jail, in and out of marriages, in and out of rehab. But finally it took. Some time in middle age he was finally able to kick the booze and the pills, and reclaimed his life. So for a racing analogy: he’s finally back on track and at speed, but he went into the wall several times before he finally got it fixed. So I’m not going to write off Al Junior. I just hope that this time it sticks.

    • Do most people know who Mark Chmura is? I’d never heard of him before this, and was that really that big of a headline? He’s not one of the big NFL stars. I probably don’t know a lot about football now, and when I consider that one of the biggest racing headlines this year involved Jeremy Mayfield, who was basically an average NASCAR driver, maybe you have a point.

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