Off-Track Injuries Through The Years

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Although he can make light of it now, Dan Wheldon took quite a tumble a couple of weeks ago when he fell off the back of a two-man bobsled in Lake Placid, N.Y. He laughingly described his “black and blue butt-cheek” on Trackside With Cavin & Kevin last week. Although he is extremely sore and badly bruised, it appears he will be ready for the season opener in Brazil.

A longtime regular reader of this blog, Tim Nothhelfer, sent me an e-mail over the weekend regarding Wheldon’s incident and suggested a blog topic of off-track incidents that have injured drivers. There aren’t any books or web sites that track such things, so I’m having to rely strictly on memory — which at my age is a scary thing, but I’ll give it a try.

Usually, when a driver misses time out of the car, it is due to an on-track injury. You don’t have to look hard to find out the last time that happened. Three Izod IndyCar drivers missed time out of the car this past season due to injury. Vitor Meira was sidelined after his horrendous crash at the Indianapolis 500, when he broke his back after sending his AJ Foyt Dallara into the turn one wall and then rode backwards in a vertical tilt into the short chute. Will Power also broke his back after colliding with Nelson Phillipe at Sonoma. I would say that Phillipe caught the worst of it as he suffered major foot and leg injuries.

None of those three drivers drove anymore in the 2009 season. Meira and Power should be ready to go in Brazil. Quite honestly, I haven’t heard a recent status report on Phillipe’s condition, but over time he should be fine.

But those injuries were all suffered while in the line of duty. Over the years, there have been some drivers that suffered injuries away from the track that kept them out of the car for quite some time.

The most recent and significant off-track injury occurred in 2003. Dario Franchitti had just made the jump with Andretti-Green from CART to the IRL. After only two races at Homestead and Phoenix, there was a three-week gap before the next race in Japan. Franchitti thought this presented a great opportunity to go home to Scotland and visit. Unfortunately, he chose to ride a motorcycle while visiting. The result was a broken back and a lost season. Wheldon filled in for Franchitti in the #27 car at Motegi; then Robby Gordon took the ride for Indy where he started third, but a gearbox failure ended his day on lap 169 where he finished twenty-second. After Indy, Bryan Herta took over the ride for the remainder of the season. After winning the race at Kansas and doing an excellent job as Franchitti’s replacement, Herta was retained for the 2004 season as AGR expanded to a four-car effort upon Franchitti’s return.

Not all of these stories have such a neat and tidy happy ending. The late Greg Moore was hit by a car in the paddock area, while riding his scooter on the grounds at Fontana on the weekend of his fatal crash. He suffered a broken hand and missed qualifying. The doctors fashioned a driving cast so that he could race on Sunday while starting from the back. We’ll never know if the cast somehow delayed his reflexes and caused him to lose control of his car in turn two during the race.

On a lighter note, my failing memory is preventing me from remembering exactly who was involved, but I somehow remember a driver tripping over his dog and breaking his wrist. I want to say it was Patrick Carpentier, but I can’t be sure. It seems that it was, because I also recall that the car owner of the driver in question was none too pleased and seriously doubted the story. That sounds familiar enough to me to think it was Carpentier’s owner, Gerry Forsythe. If I’m wrong on this, my apologies go to those that I smeared.

Probably the most embarrassing injury suffered off the track occurred at Indianapolis prior to the 1969 race. Al Unser, whose brother Bobby had won Indy in 1968, was still a relatively unproven commodity even though he was coming off of a third place finish in the USAC standings for 1968. He had demonstrated smoothness on the track, but had exhibited some wild and unruly behavior off the track. He had yet to win any of his four Indy 500’s and had a reputation for being a little goofy…especially when there were women involved.

Legend has it, that prior to qualifications for the 1969 Indianapolis 500, there was some down time at the track. Supposedly, Al decided he needed to show off on a motorcycle for some young ladies who happened to be nearby. He failed to make the desired impression as he ended up with a broken leg, withdrew from the race and had to miss the next two months of the season. As the story goes, the incident served as a wakeup call for Al. He seemingly got his priorities in order and won the next two Indy 500’s on his way to becoming only the second four-time winner of the race.

I’m sure there are many more that I am either forgetting or never knew about. If anyone thinks of any others or feels the need to correct my fleeting memory, please feel free to post in the comment section. Thanks to Tim for the topic suggestion. I’m afraid I didn’t do it justice.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Off-Track Injuries Through The Years”

  1. Drayton Sawyer Says:

    Although it had nothing to do with their racing careers and happened well after their retirement Big Al and Uncle Bobby getting arrested on “Unser Blvd” in N.M. Technically they did nothing wrong (other than hurling obscenities at the cops for not letting them drive up their own driveway), but Uncle Bobby’s smiling mugshot is worth revisiting, it is a stark comparison to Big Al and Little Al’s sad faced mugshot. Unser’s………..you gotta love’em!

    • That’s an injury that kept a driver from racing?

      May I remind us that Paul Tracy broke his right scapula in October 2006 after he “was at a party and had a little too much to drink, and we thought it was a good idea to go out on a golf cart and try and jump some sand dunes with it.”

      PT missed the Mexico City race, and didn’t endear himself to Gerry Forsythe. Sebas may’ve been amused.

  2. I prefer my IndyCar blogs to focus on racing, race cars, or race tracks — not the tomfoolery & whatnot that goes on away from it.

    Good day, sir.

  3. H. B. Donnelly Says:

    i detect LIES from a certain Roy Hobbson.

    Did any of AJ’s various calamities occur off-track while he was still active? Can we count the laceration he got from the fence at Indy after that big wreck on the front straight? I also seem to remember hearing a story about him fighting a large herd of wildebeest off with a soup spoon, but I don’t recall any injuries resulting from it…

    From other forms of the sport, you can also count Jimmie Johnson falling out of a golf cart and Mark Webber having a bike accident.

  4. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I was thinking along the lines of mishaps off track or off season; I didn’t think it would go that dark…
    I’m just glad I didn’t bring up the subject of industrial accidents drivers had when they used to have to work a job in the off season or what could have really happened if Dan Wheldon had the accident as a passenger on a two-man luge. I still cant believe he didn’t talk them into letting him drive the sled.

  5. I once was out on the back of the property using a fence post pounder on 7 foot posts and managed to come up over the post and came down on my head opening a 4 inch gash in my scalp that required 25 stitches to close. I had to shave the rest of my hair and wear silly hats to work so that I didn’t gross out my co workers. Mrs JP makes me wear my bicycle helmet whenever I pound posts now. So what was the question?

  6. I think Chip Ganassi missed a test session at Indy in March of 1986, when he spilled some ketchup on his drivers suit, while eating lunch at Mug N’ Bun, and had to take it to the cleaners.

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