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MY LESSON WAS THAT DEAD MEN WRITE NO POETRY

June 25, 1973
June 25, 1973

Table of Contents
June 25, 1973

Battle
Mound Of Trouble
The Poet
Weight Lifting
Crew
Harness Racing
Sahara
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

MY LESSON WAS THAT DEAD MEN WRITE NO POETRY

First came the racing smashup that left him shattered. Then came the deaths of several friends. And gradually came the realization that the poet is no less happy than the hero

I am certain that my memory of the crash has been influenced by the four photographs I saw on the front page of the sports section of the Riverside Enterprise. The first picture shows a racing Mustang compressed and looking like an accordion, sliding sideways down the pit straight inside a cloud of smoke, pit crews scattering. The second photograph shows the Mustang spinning in the opposite direction after being hit by a Corvette. In the third photograph the upper torso and helmeted head of a man can be seen behind the burning wreckage of the Mustang—which is being hit by a Lotus. The caption identifies the man as me.

This is an article from the June 25, 1973 issue Original Layout

What is the man thinking? Is he looking at his burning car, hoping that no one else will hit it and move it over on top of him? Yes, that's precisely what he is thinking. Clouds of CO[2] from the fire extinguishers fill the fourth photograph, but just below the white vapor we can see the prone body of the driver in white coveralls and a dark helmet, and four legs that will later be identified as those of Richard Caldwell, a racing mechanic, and an unnamed doctor.

Now a replay from the driver's seat. This was the American Road Race of Champions, bringing together the top three drivers in each class from each of the Sports Car Club of America's six geographical divisions. There were 36 cars in the race, Cobras, Corvettes, Lotuses and Shelby GT350s, the big-bore production cars.

Riverside Raceway is a fast, fairly flat and fairly dangerous circuit. It is dangerous because in those spots where the drivers are most likely to get into trouble there are hazards: concrete walls, overpasses and loose desert sand. And in all of those places they are traveling rapidly enough to do considerable damage if they hit something. I was rolling along at approximately 90 mph when I lost it and hit the wall.

It was about the third lap. I was running third or fourth and had just passed a white Corvette going into Riverside's parabolic Turn Nine at the end of the long straight. The Corvette fell in behind me and we swept through the long curve like the Panama Limited, drifting wide to the edge of the wall. I was dropping down off the slope of the turn when it happened. I felt a nudge, as if someone had touched my shoulder.

The white Corvette filled my mirrors. I was going sideways. I reversed the steering wheel but nothing happened; then I was spinning and the end of the pit wall was coming up fast. It was exhilarating for a moment, then, magically, everything slowed. I could see the wall moving slowly toward me; the concrete was porous, that's all I remember. At the time I couldn't tell if I was hitting the wall head-on or sideways, but I could see the little holes in the concrete. I stopped breathing, my face shot forward into the steering column and my hands ripped the steering wheel rim off the spokes. My nose spread to cover one eye like a patch, and the air was full of glass and fire, the engine against my right shoulder. I was sailing backward. I felt another impact and I was spinning in the opposite direction. Now all I could see was fire. I don't know how I got out of the car, but there I was, lying on the track thinking, "Oh God, I've really done it this time," and hoping that no one would hit me again—though at that moment I was convinced it wouldn't matter.

As I lay in my hospital bed I amused myself reading the accounts of my crash in a number of newspapers and sports car magazines. The reports of my condition ranged from "facial lacerations and a possible broken nose" to "dead on arrival." Both inaccurate. The total damage came to two broken legs, two broken arms, numerous broken ribs, a displaced spine, a fractured skull, several lacerations and contusions and one broken nose. The nose was easily the most obtrusive of my injuries. It almost obscured the vision in my right eye, and while I was still lying on the asphalt the blood from it ran down my throat and made me fear I was drowning. My mechanic was the first to reach me after the car had come to rest on the start-finish line directly in front of the pits. He held my head up and I was able to breathe until the doctor arrived and ordered him to put my head down. Then I began drowning again. I was convinced I was going to die. There wasn't any particular panic about it: "You're going to die," I thought. "That's too bad. I'd really planned to live longer. It's a stupid way to have killed yourself." A doctor in the ambulance stuffed tubes up my nose and into my mouth and put a needle in my arm.

I woke up in the emergency room. It was just like a scene from a movie, the cliché shot up at the operating room lights and the encircling faces of all the doctors looking down. It was quite similar to the shot from the center of the huddle in Saturday's Hero. A policeman was trying to break into the circle, insisting that he had to ask me some questions. I remember the doctors putting their hands over the policeman's face and pushing it out of the circle. The doctors looked so grim. I couldn't bear the intensity of all those faces staring down at me so I said, "Don't anybody laugh." No one did. I had apparently said it in my mind; no words passed my lips and I felt panic for the first time.

I began to believe I was dead and they were going to cremate me. They wheeled me into the operating room and I woke up hours later to see my wife and my mechanic at the foot of the bed talking with stock-car racing celebrities David Pearson and Paul Goldsmith, who were in Riverside to do some tire testing. They autographed the casts on my arms and Paul told me about his motorcycle racing accident and how well all his bones had healed. I realized I'd been given another chance.

That was Nov. 27, 1966. I had been racing for a little more than five years in various kinds of cars and in races ranging from SCCA Nationals, the so-called amateur series, to Daytona, Sebring and the fall pro races which later became known as the Canadian-American Challenge Cup. I'd had moderate success, winning a few and blowing a few, so that at the end of the season I always wound up near the top in the point standings—but never first. I began racing about the same time as such then-unknowns as Mark Donohue and Peter Revson; in fact, Donohue and I were both driving Mustangs for Shelby American in that ill-fated race at Riverside. By that time I knew that drivers like Donohue and Revson were going to make a far greater mark in racing than I ever would, because they had something that I didn't have anymore: dedication.

It had been my ambition to become a racing driver since I was 12, when Billy Vukovich, the Fresno Flash, became my boyhood hero. "Just don't get in my way," Vuky was quoted as saying to the other drivers before the start of each race. I was convinced that sheer determination had taken him all the way to the top and would do the same for me. I would be the glamorous and awe-inspiring speed merchant who would win or crash but never settle for second place. The death of Vukovich in the 1955 Indianapolis 500 was the first sense of human loss I had ever known. Later the flamboyant and mysterious Marquis de Portago took Vuky's place as a hero. But he died in the Mille Miglia.

By the time I was 21 and could begin racing, I had discovered something else I had to have: poetry. But being 21, I didn't really concern myself with the relationship between the two. Recently I discovered a statement from Johannes de Silentio which seems to me to define it well:

...as God created man and woman, so too He fashioned the hero and the poet, or orator. The poet cannot do what the other does; lie can only admire, love and rejoice in the hero. Yet he too is happy, and not less so, for the hero is as it were his better Nature, with which he is in love....

At first racing and poetry didn't conflict. In fact, my romantic sense of what racing was all about was nourished and complemented by my romantic concept of poetry in which John Keats, dead at 26, was my idol. I won my first four races because I drove hard, had a fast Austin-Healey 3000 and was lucky enough not to go off the road. I was voted the outstanding novice driver at the Marlboro, Md. Driving School in 1961 and began to believe I was a gift to the world of sport. I was living in a dream, or rather, living out a dream. It was like being awarded the Nobel Prize for one's first book of poems. I also started to believe I was immortal. My balloon burst when I went to a tiny racetrack near Wilmot, Wis. and finished fourth. I really didn't believe it could happen to me.

My method of learning a track had been to go through a corner faster and faster until I went too fast and spun out. I was applying William Blake's axiom that "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough."

When I was driving on or near the limit on a familiar course, I knew nothing could happen to me. I was insane, of course, but it was the sort of insanity bred by false confidence that sometimes carries a novice beyond what could be reasonably expected of him—beyond what he could have possibly expected of himself had he understood the situation and the difficulties involved. It was as if I were watching myself driving in a movie and the movie were slowed down so that I could savor each corner and what I had or had not done correctly getting through it. I also had time to anticipate the corner coming next, to think about what I was going to do in it and to watch myself doing it. It was like driving in a script in which I had no real apprehension about injury or defeat. It also was probably the most dangerous racing I ever did.

I would become almost mesmerized by the unmuffled sound of the engine running through the gears, with trees, grass, rocks and people passing rapidly and my ideas of how I must look and sound to them, with the sensations of the car moving sideways through a corner, the scrub of the tires, the necessity and thrill of getting past the car ahead of me. I seemed always on the edge of laughing with delight. This envelope of tyroeuphoria began to erode when I saw my first racing fatality, an upside-down Porsche alongside a fast bend at Elkhart Lake, with the realization that a familiar face would not be seen in the pits anymore.

In April 1963 I began driving a new kind of car, the Shelby Cobra. Phil Hill had called it "the car that put guts back in racing," and it was one of the first to make use of an American V8 engine in a lightweight aluminum body. The speeds were much greater than those of the Austin-Healey and the consequences of a spinout were usually far more severe. I had to learn all over again.

As my skill and success in racing increased, so did my dedication to and need for poetry. They were beginning to conflict. Poetry demanded that I cultivate and live by my imagination, racing demanded that I suppress my imagination. No man is going to get into a racing car and drive really fast, fast enough to win, if he is also capable of too vividly imagining what could happen to him if he should have an accident. I found that I could suppress my imagination during a race when I was forced to concentrate, but I couldn't suppress it between races. I had known a driver named Dave MacDonald who seemed to me, in my romantic period, the epitome of what a racing driver should be. He was lean and confident and always drove over his head. He was hard on cars, but when they didn't break he almost always won.

Dave and I were both driving Cobras at the time, though he had also established himself by winning The Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside in the fall of 1963 and several races in the United States Road Racing Championship series the following spring and was offered a ride at Indianapolis. I watched a closed-circuit television broadcast of the 500, mostly because Dave was driving. Though he was only a few years older, he had become another hero, and we were due to race together in the Player's 200 at Mosport, Ontario the following weekend.

I saw Dave on the TV screen, standing by his car waiting for Tony Hulman to tell him to start his engine, and though he must have been nervous he was smiling. He had qualified near the middle of the pack. I knew he'd move up fast, and he did—but near the end of the first lap the TV picture was filled with smoke. Flames completely obscured the track at the exit of Turn Four. They stopped the race.

Maybe it was because I was watching the race on television, and on television everything turns out all right. I looked for Dave as the broadcasters called out the names of the drivers they could identify as being clear of the fire, but they didn't call his name. They announced that Eddie Sachs had been killed in the crash. There were what seemed like hours of confusion and nobody seemed to know where Dave was. Then they announced that he had been taken to Methodist Hospital. The track was cleared and the race restarted. Parnelli Jones and A. J. Foyt were battling for the lead, wheel to wheel. Several hundred miles went by, and then they announced that Dave was dead. I didn't watch the rest of the race.

The next weekend at Mosport, Bruce McLaren told me that Dave's car had been handling erratically, and he had advised him to go withdraw it from the race. But Dave saw Indianapolis as his big chance to make it as a first-rank professional. He didn't feel that he could afford to pass up the chance. Meanwhile, Ken Miles, another good friend who also had been a teammate of Dave's, won the Mosport race in his Cobra. I finished third. In 1966 Ken Miles won Sebring and Daytona, finished second at Le Mans and then was killed testing an experimental car at Riverside.

Still, my own mishaps didn't seem to affect me until one day when my car caught fire at Indianapolis Raceway Park and I had to bail out at about 60 mph. Fortunately, it had been raining and the ground by the track was soft and spongy. Nevertheless, it earned me an ambulance ride and a collection of bruises and contusions that would have done justice to the Minnesota Vikings' defensive line. I began to realize that it could happen to me, and that realization was reinforced with pain. I developed an obsessive fear of fire, and when my car hit the pit wall at Riverside, all I could think about was getting away from the flames. I crawled out of the car and took several steps on my broken legs before I collapsed. Consequently, I was in the hospital several days before they even thought to X-ray my legs. After all, a man doesn't walk on broken legs, not unless he has a powerful inspiration.

There also was a rainy afternoon in Bruce and Pat McLaren's motel room near Watkins Glen a few days before the Grand Prix. Bruce had just begun developing the first McLaren racing car and had finished second—inches behind Jim Hall's Chapparal—the previous weekend. I had won the G.T. race in a Cobra (Bruce pronounced it coob-ra) and Bruce had invited Tom Payne, another Cobra driver, and me to watch the U.S. Grand Prix from his pits. He introduced us to his teammate, a young Austrian driver named Jochen Rindt, whom Bruce called Jo. Bruce, Pat, Jochen, Tom and I had dinner with Jimmy Clark that evening. I don't remember what we talked about, except that Bruce was explaining "coob-ras" to Jochen and telling Jimmy Clark how Jim Hall had developed into a first rate driver.

I remembered thinking that these three men had reached a level of expertise so great that they really did not have to take chances anymore, that they were beyond making mistakes. And I was almost right. Then the following year I read of Jim Clark's death in a crash in Germany, apparently caused by a blown tire. In June of 1970 Bruce McLaren was killed testing one of his cars at Goodwood when a body section came loose, and the following September Jochen Rindt died in a crash undoubtedly caused by a mechanical failure while he was practicing for the Italian Grand Prix. Jochen won the World Drivers' Championship that year, the first man to win it posthumously. Bruce was the only one of the three that I knew at all well, but I took each death almost as if it was a death in the family.

I have not raced since that November Sunday at Riverside. I made a promise to my wife and I also made a promise to myself. I realized that dead men don't write poems and that there was so much more I wanted to do. I still follow racing avidly. I read the racing magazines and religiously watch for telecasts of Daytona or Trenton or The Grand Prix of Monaco. My palms still get sweaty before the start. And at least once a year my wife polishes the one or two silver trophies that aren't packed away in barrels in the basement, and I am especially delighted when I read that another driver has retired after a successful career. "He's made it," I say to myself. "Now what's he going to do?"

I have never been to a race as a spectator, though one May afternoon while spending a week in Indianapolis giving lectures on poetry to high school students for the Indiana State Arts Commission I drove out to the Speedway to watch practice for the 500. I talked to Carl Kienhoffer, an old friend who had been a Cobra mechanic when I was driving. Carl had made it to the top: he was the crew chief for Mark Donohue's car.

We talked through a chain link fence. It was an odd and uncomfortable feeling. It was the first time I had been on the outside looking in, but for the first time I understood that I had never really been on the inside, that for five years I had played at racing because I hadn't been willing to give it everything, to make all the mental sacrifices it required. Carl asked me why I wasn't racing anymore. I tried to explain about being a poet, but it seemed just too remote, so I settled on a simple, "I'm teaching school." That didn't seem to make any more sense than poetry, a race driver teaching school. He let it pass and told me he would say hello to Mark for me.

Then I watched the cars flash past the pits and disappear into the first turn with some misguided sense that I should have been out there. I saw another Billy Vukovich, the son of my boyhood hero, lounging on the grass, waiting his turn to go out, and I realized that these drivers—even the ones I had known as friends—were still heroes. I got into the six-cylinder Ford sedan the Arts Commission had provided for me and drove back to another life.

ILLUSTRATIONBERNARD FUCHSTHE CAR WAS sliding sideways in a cloud of smoke; the driver was thinking of survival.ILLUSTRATIONBERNARD FUCHSCOMING OUT OF THE TURN, IT HAPPENED: 'I FELT A NUDGE. THEN I WAS SPINNING. THE END OF THE PIT WALL WAS COMING UP FAST'ILLUSTRATIONBERNARD FUCHSBOYHOOD dreams were fired by two heroes, the Marquis de Portago and Billy Vukovich.