May 20, 2008
THE SPIRIT OF A RACER
They say he was the
most popular guy in Florida. Racing legend Herby Tillman recalls
that “he was always cheerful. His spirit was incredible. One in a
Close friend Brian
Sharp concurs. “He was totally handsome. He had a rack of teeth
like Rex Mays. Everyone remembers his smile. It was stuck on his
face his whole life.”
When you hear what
happened to him, you wonder how that could possibly be.
Al Powell served on
the battleship Iowa during World War II and bounded home at
age 25, full of vigor and hope for the future. Son of an uptown
family, Al went to the University of Miami for a degree in business,
then took a job in machine tool sales.
But Al seemed to
have that restlessness shared by so many veterans of the time. His
off-hours became increasingly adventurous – off-shore boat racing
and taking on all comers with his Cadillac-powered ’32 Ford
As the fifties
approached, Florida was teeming with stock cars, and smiling Al slid
easily into the cockpit. He was fast right from lift-off.
His father wanted
no part of car wars, though. Nor did his uncle, who was mayor of
Miami Beach. They looked at oval racing as “a dark sport, populated
by ne’er-do-wells.” Undaunted, Al simply assumed a new name for
racing purposes. He would be “Jack Duncan” – the “Jack” for Jack
McGrath, among the most brazen big car idols of the time, and
“Duncan” for Len Duncan, the marquis midget gasser on the East Coast
Al raced often and
well. One weekend in 1953 the record shows, “We didn’t race. Got
married.” That followed a courtship with a teacher named Betty
Ruth, a gorgeous Doris Day look-alike.
By 1954 Jack had
secured the seat in Harold Wilcox’ beefy modified. That summer
Hialeah Speedway opened for business and was pulling in massive
crowds. It was the same summer that American newspapers were awash
with stories about an insidious new health threat, a disease called
Al was part of a
group promoting a major race to benefit polio research on a Thursday
night at Hialeah. This was just before Jonas Salk released his
vaccine, which would in the future help to prevent so much paralysis
Al was red hot that
night, winning his heat easily. Before the feature, however, the
Wilcox crew gambled on a right front tire that didn’t work out.
Herby Tillman cruised by Al for the win.
When it was over,
all according to plan, Herby loaded up his stock car with thousands
of dollars of cash and motored right down the city streets to the
polio association’s office.
turned out that there was more wrong in the Wilcox/Ritter/”Duncan”
pit than just that faulty right front. Al hadn’t felt well during
the race, complaining of a terrible headache. When he pulled in, he
couldn’t move. He was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed, and
immediately put into an iron lung. He had been stricken with polio.
community supported the newlyweds as much as possible. Herb Tillman
and his helper Bill Godfrey built a concrete ramp up to Al’s house
for wheelchair access. In a horrible coincidence, in the process,
Bill, too, fell ill with polio. Bill had not known Al Powell
personally until they ended up in the same hospital room.
Bill was able to
recover fairly well, but not so Al. He was quadriplegic and was
given a prognosis of five years to live.
The medical team
must not have understood the energy source that was Al Powell’s
spirit. He never complained, never gave in. He never even stopped
smiling. And Betty Ruth, whom racing historian Marty Little calls
an angel, never stopped loving him for a second. Despite incredible
physical and financial hardships, the two went on to have – and
raise – four children.
situation for the Powell family did improve around 1980 when Al
became involved with the county as a disability consultant. It gave
him a salary and some insurance.
Along the way, he
became known in much wider circles for his enthusiastic writing
about motorsports. “It was something to watch him,” says Brian
Sharp. “It was remarkable what he could come up with poking that
keyboard with a stick in his mouth.” Al’s work appeared most
frequently in Phyllis Devine’s journal, The Alternate.
By 2005, some 50
years after his predicted demise, Al’s general health began to
deteriorate. A diaphragm problem meant that he could hardly even
sit up. Despite everything, Al joined Herb Tillman and thousands of
others at the final night of racing at Hialeah. It was the track’s
last hurrah, and Al’s as well. Slumped in his wheelchair, he
couldn’t speak, but his indomitable smile lit the entire facility.
In February of 2007,
Al Powell slipped quietly away. True love Betty Ruth, by now also
debilitated with disease, followed within 24 hours.
© 2008 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181