Jack Clark believes that struggles and hardships have taught him more than success ever will. One of baseball's most feared power hitters in the mid-1980s, Clark walloped 340 home runs in his 18-year career, earning the nickname Jack the Ripper. But the four-time All-Star also struck out 1,441 times in 6,847 at bats. And then in 1992, in the middle of an $8.7 million, three-year deal with the Boston Red Sox, Clark found himself nearly $7 million in debt, the result of lousy investment advice from financial advisers and his capricious spending habits. Flat broke, Clark filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. "With all the achievements I've had, I've learned more from the strikeouts than I ever did from the home runs," says Clark, 38, who left baseball in 1993. "To be a champion, you have to be willing to go to the bottom to come back out on top."
Last weekend Clark stepped up to the plate once again, in an entirely new arena. As the rookie driver of the Taco Bell Express, a Top Fuel dragster owned by his Jack Clark Motorsports, he became arguably the most famous athlete to try his hand at competitive drag racing. Making his National Hot Rod Association debut in the Mile-High Nationals at the Bandimere Speedway outside of Denver, Clark had a best time of 5.566 seconds in his four runs on the quarter-mile track, with a top speed of 210.13 mph. Engine problems kept Clark from advancing to Sunday's finals, but, typically, he wasn't discouraged. "I got more out of this weekend than if I had qualified," said Clark, who earned his NHRA license two weeks ago. "There's so much vibration in a Top Fuel dragster, it's hard to imagine what it feels like. It's not scary, just violent. You've got to get through the violence to feel the car. That's what I'm starting to do.
"I got frustrated one day and my crew chief said, 'Jack, you once had to teach yourself not to swing at pitches in the dirt.' The same is true for my car. You don't learn from the outside looking in, but from the cockpit, like you learn from a batter's box, one step at a time."
Getting behind the wheel of a Top Fuel dragster, a 5,000-horsepower, nitromethane-burning machine that can rocket from zero to 100 mph in less than a second, has always been Clark's dream. Growing up in Covina, Calif., Clark followed the Southern California drag strip circuit. In high school his best buddies were the guys driving low-riders. Right before his 1975 rookie season with the San Francisco Giants, Clark bought his first car, a '74 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. His passion for automobiles soon became legendary. He owned everything from a Rolls-Royce to a vintage collection of '50s muscle cars, and in 1990 he started his Top Fuel team. Clark pumped more than $2 million of his own money into Jack Clark Motorsports over the ensuing two years. When he declared bankruptcy in the summer of '92, court documents listed among his possessions a fleet of 18 vehicles, including a $717,000 1990 Ferrari F-40. Clark's passion had clearly become a dangerous compulsion.
Claiming that material wealth is no longer important to him—he lost his $2.4 million dream house and the fleet of cars—Clark now focuses on his wife and four children and his drag-racing career. Today he's just a guy who drives a Chevy Suburban away from the track. "With free agency, baseball lost its human element, its connection to the community," he says. "In drag racing, the fans can walk up and shake your hand. I've found a niche I'm comfortable with, a challenge I'm ready for. I wake up early every day, because I'm so excited I don't want to sleep."