March 22, 2010
This time of the year, as that Indiana sun arcs higher in the sky, a
part of every racer’s soul turns to the Brickyard. Sure, the
shirt-sleeved daring of the roadster years gave way to rear-engine
wars, and the field became clogged with wealthy international
competitors – glamorous yes, but totally unknown to Hoosier fans.
But for the last 15 years or so, Davey Hamilton, out of Nampa,
Idaho, and speaking just plain American, has been right in the thick
of it, his eyes dancing for the joy of racing at Indianapolis.
Open-wheel racer Hamilton, now 47, has become the country’s beloved
“Racer Next Door.” Speedway Illustrated’s Karl Fredrickson says, “It
seems that every year during Indy time trials I am out in the garage
working on my car, listening to the proceedings. When Davey goes out
to qualify, all the work stops. We hang on every lap, every turn.
When he gets in the show, there is a communal comfort, a sense of
relief in a worried world. He is one of us. At least something is
Hamilton’s had Indy on the brain since the moment he first walked
into the place. That was back in 1981 with his USAC-driving dad Ken,
who was attempting to get in the show. At 19, Davey was already
racing, on his way to becoming the Canadian-American Supermodified
Series Rookie of the Year. Every day since has been focused on
Indianapolis, sprinkled liberally with innumerable short-track races
along the way.
When, in 1996, Davey finally strapped into an Indy car to race, he
felt one almost overwhelming emotion – fear. Though perhaps the most
accomplished Supermodified driver in the country, he had little
experience with rear-engine technology, down force, and all the
extreme physical demands of Indy. And he faced another rather
intimidating factor: his car owner, his former driving hero, the
crusty A.J. Foyt. Davey pulled out a 12th place finish.
Over the next few years, Hamilton continued his Indy and IRL events
along with short-track racing. Gradually, he became one of fewer and
fewer Americans in what was once an all-American sport.
Then, on June 9, 2001, Davey pounded the
wall in Texas in a horrific crash. The car broke, he was hopelessly
exposed, and both feet were all but severed, his legs severely
injured. It was a shattering experience in every way.
“It took a while for me to realize what had happened. I was so
secluded in that Critical Care Unit for a month. Then, when I got
moved to a regular room, they started bringing me buckets of mail,
mostly from the short-track world. I can’t begin to explain what it
meant to have all that support. It kept me together mentally to
answer individually every letter I got.
“I didn’t tell anybody this for three years, but, to be honest,
after that first month, when I was told it was likely I wouldn’t
lose my legs, I was determined to race again.”
The recovery was grueling. Twenty-one operations; constant rehab,
painful beyond imagination, over a full six-year period.
And, then, the other considerations. “I did have great insurance,
disability and all, and it kept me going through a real dark period.
I was deemed forever disabled. When I finally told people I intended
to drive again, the insurance guys were quick to tell me I would
have to pay back all the disability money. It was a big sum. A big
decision. But I just knew I had to do it. And not just for some
Modified race. I had to go back to Indy.”
Davey’s first return visit to Gasoline Alley was for the Brickyard
400. He was in a wheel chair. The IROC cars were lined up ready to
go, and Davey unsuspectingly wheeled out and down the grid, hoping
to say hi to Tony Stewart. “All of a sudden,” Davey says, “everyone
in the grandstands was up for a standing ovation. I’m not a crying
man, but, when I realized it was for me….”
Davey cried again in May of 2007. “The first lap I went out at Indy
that year was the first lap I had done in six years. I was just
plain overwhelmed by everything that had happened.” He must have had
windshield wipers. He hustled the Hewlett-Packard Vision machine
from 20th to 9th.
This year Davey is engaged in all manner of announcing,
entrepreneurial, family, and short-track activities. He’ll be back
at Indy in the Luczo Dragon de Feron Motorsports entry. He will be
the oldest driver in the field.
“I still have that burning desire to win. You know, it might have
been that six-year layoff, waking up every morning and all I wanted
to do was race. I know racing, and I would know when I became the
weak link. That’s not now.”
Watch Davey’s qualifying laps like Karl Fredrickson will, and send
him a little extra down-home psychic energy. After 100 years of
racing at Indianapolis, there are many, many tales of human courage,
of great triumphs, and gut-wrenching tragedies. But many a rail bird
will tell you that Davey Hamilton’s comeback was the greatest of all
Go get ‘em, Davey.
Davey, wife Tracy and father Ken before the 2009 500
(Nancy Cheadle Photo, Davey Hamilton Collection)
© 2010 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181