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 Florida’s Al Powell  (Marty Little collection)

May 20, 2008


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 million.”

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 roadster.

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 circuits.

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 “infantile paralysis.”

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 and death. 

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.

Meanwhile, it 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.

The racing 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.

The overall 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

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.: Previous Tearoffs :.

5/1/08 - Bobby's Blues

4/15/08 - Thinking About Rene Charland

3/26/08 - Carl and Corey

3/4/08 - A Cool Track with Cool Racers

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1/25/08 - Frankie Schneider

1/7/08 - When Drivers Can't See

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12/1/07 - Ride Along with Erica Santos

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10/15/07 - That First Race

10/1/07 - Racing Nicknames

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