HOW I WON
THE LITTLE 500 IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM
|Memorial Day weekend in this
country is chock-full of tradition. For racing people, it's
the time of each year that motors bark the loudest, from the
Brickyard, to Charlotte, to special shows at virtually every
short track in the country.
Certainly among the most
famous events each May is the Little 500, that zany
500-lapper, starting 33 sprinters three-abreast around the
quarter-mile banked asphalt at "Sun Valley Speedway" in
Anderson, Indiana. Needless to say, there has been a slew of
drama in the 33,000 or so laps run over the last 67 years.
Near the top of the list, though, has to be Wayne
Reutimann's story of what happened back in 1979. He's what
he has to say:
"That race was always a big deal to
guys with pavement sprint cars. There were a lot of cars
from the Midwest, but some of us would come up from the
Southeast, too. I first went in 1969 when I was driving for
the Kash & Karry food chain. We loaded the car - and the
whole garage, it seemed - into a food truck and up we went.
It was some scene. That was before roll cages. It was kind
of a disaster for us. We broke a spindle, and, fortunately
for us, I guess, then it rained out.
The Kash & Karry Sprinter
(Randy Gilbert Collection)
"So, a decade later we went back. A fabulous Indy
mechanic, Charlie Alfater, was with us then and he built a
great little car that Frank Rise bought. We were winning a
lot with it down at Bradenton, Florida.
"I'm not a
big person, so I knew I had to get myself ready. I built a
seat setup with a steering wheel attached to a power
steering box so I could adjust the preload to work my arms.
I'd sit there on my back porch and count out the laps and
turns I would have to make at Anderson and I'd start
twisting that wheel and working up a sweat. The neighbors
thought this guy was gone!!!
"Charlie really didn't
do anything special in prepping the car, other than he tried
to make it more comfortable for me. He did a couple of
things like putting a real strong headrest on the seat. We
didn't really understand what was necessary that year. To go
that distance, you have to have the driver positioned
tightly enough such that all he has to do is move his arms.
For example, you have to have extra padding around the knees
so you can't slide down and have the belts loosen up, so
that you have to hold yourself up.
"One later year up
there in Anderson we tried to help out with the continual
strain of turning by duct taping my helmet to the roll bar,
so the laps would be a little easier on my neck. It's not
too pleasant to think about that now. Can you imagine going
into a pit stop with a sprint car, and the crew has the fuel
drum way up on some funky stilts with a hose to pour quickly
- and you are in the car with your head taped?! I don't know
what we were all thinking. You know, when you're a racer,
you always think it's the other guy that could get hurt.
"Anyway, the race began. Two locals, Butch Wilkerson and
Bob Seelman were real fast. They had set new one- and
four-lap qualifying records. They took off in quite a duel,
but I tried to stay in the hunt. It was a struggle. You see,
I was not a finesse driver. That would be more my brother
Buzzie's style. I didn't think to drive. I was in the
moment, on the hammer, doing things by instinct. I just
wasn't into finessing sprint cars. If you do, you usually
don't go. I later learned that in the Little 500 you had to
learn to relax your muscles and drive like you're cruising
down some highway. You just can't allow yourself to tense up
and get racy too early.
"Well, all I can say is that
when the rain came on lap 234, I sure was relieved. I was
totally worn out. When on lap 249, it was postponed until
the next night, I hurried off to get some sleep.
we expected, the next night Wilkerson and Seelman took right
off again, with me chasing. Then on lap 420 Wilkerson
retired with a broken torsion bar. I was continuing along in
second, when 50 laps later Seelman pitted. I was suddenly in
"The scorers were in the stands back then,
and there were no radios. I had no idea where I was in
relation to the rest of the pack, except that I could see
from the leader board that I was up front. So, I was driving
just as hard as I could, and it bit me. With just nine to
go, I came across a couple of lapped cars, and I was in too
much of a rush. They took me up to the wall, and I flipped.
It was a mess. I do remember crawling out of the car, but
not much else. I must have conked my head on that head rest
that Charlie put in. Instantly, I knew I couldn't see and
later I knew I had quite the concussion. On the way to the
hospital, my sight gradually came back. You know, it was
just like an old television when it started up. A circle in
the middle and then lines coming out until you got focus.
"The car was toasted. The shocks were broken, the brake
lines ruined, the steering wheel was up against the dash
board, the torque tube was torn loose. At the same time,
Charlie could see that with all the spilt fuel and gear oil
everywhere, it would take the track crew quite a while to
clean up, so he got to work.
"It must have been
quite a scene. Wrenches flying. The seat had to come out to
weld up the torque tube, and in that process there was even
a little fire. But, they got it done, sort of.
Smith, 21 at the time, happened to be standing nearby, as
his car gave out earlier with a spun bearing, and he joined
in with repairs. When it was almost ready, he got his helmet
and jumped in. The seat wasn't even bolted in. He used the
seat belts to secure it - and him.
"I am sure Charlie
told him just to take it easy, but I am told that Danny put
his leg right in it, bouncing off the walls. And nine laps
later that battered Rise #68 took the checkered.
"Meanwhile, I was on a stretcher in the emergency room at
St. John's Hospital with my wife, Anne, all bummed out that
we had lost. Then the crew arrived and told us what had
happened, and we were cheering and carrying on. Those
hospital people then knew how wacky we really were.
"So, it was pretty neat. I did meet Danny Smith once over
the years. Charlie divided the $6000 purse and paid Danny
well for nine laps of racing. That was proper. Danny was one
brave kid to stand on it with a car with all those parts
Here’s Danny Smith collecting the Little 500
shown here at DeSoto (FL)
in 1983, continued racing sprint cars and
stock cars into his sixties. (From
Motorsports Pictorial, Vol. 2,
by Eddie Roche, Bobby Day Photo)
© 2015 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181
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