I was sitting in a doctor’s office this week,
reading a 24-year-old copy of the long-dead Open Wheel magazine I’d taken with
me. (I knew it would probably be a long wait. It was.)
Open Wheel was a great book, heavy on oval-track midget and
sprint car racing with a dose of romantic nostalgia (Bill Vukovich at the 1954
Indy 500, the day Rex Mays was killed – that sort of thing). I actually wrote a few features for it in its early years.
The magazine had an underlying theme. It was for and about "real racing" and "real racers," as distinct from the wine-and-cheese crowd the “real racers” were convinced had taken over CART and Indy car racing. There were frequent references to "ride-buying;" how “somebody with a rich uncle” had landed a prized Indy car ride ahead of somebody who had "real" talent.
In the January, 1986, issue I was reading, columnist Bruce Ellis (the announcer at Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania) had written a good-news piece about U.S. sprint car star Sammy Swindell’s bucking that trend. Swindell had landed a ride with Patrick Racing for the `86 CART Indy car season and Ellis had written about how wonderful this was.
Now, at some point between the time the magazine
came out and the actual start of the `86 CART schedule, somebody – whether it was team
owner Pat Patrick or one of the sponsors – decided that Swindell had better have a
little more seasoning, so he was spending the year in the minors in what was then
called the American Racing Series, the forerunner to Indy Lights. It was a good series to be in because it was on the program at all the CART races and the owners of that series could keep an eye on all the up-and-coming talent.
In 1986 – the first year of the Molson Indy Toronto – the CART cars and the ARS cars were housed inside the Automotive Building at the Exhibition grounds, where the race was – and is – held. All the famous teams and drivers of the day were pretty accessible, as a result.
On the Saturday morning of that first Molson Indy weekend, I happened to be standing on the interior second-floor balcony of the Automotive Building and talking with one of Canada’s richest men, the late Ken Thomson, who'd wandered in from the suites. He always attended the Molson Indy and liked to hear about the drivers and the teams and on this particular day he was listening to me ramble on about the economics of big-league auto racing and how some people had access to serious money and others didn’t and yada-yada-yada.
I mentioned Swindell as a guy who was on the verge of making it on talent alone. "That's interesting," said Mr. Thomson. "I'd like to meet him." So off we went down the stairs into this big, indoor, paddock to seek out Sammy Swindell.
We found him, alone beside his car. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, just standing there, hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet, looking around, that sort of thing. So I approached him and said, "Sam? I’d like you to meet . . ." and before I could say Ken Thomson’s name out loud, Swindell snapped, "Can’t you see I’m busy?" He turned on his heel and walked away.
I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. Sammy Swindell had just blown off a guy who might - might - have been interested in helping him pursue his career (although, to be fair, I never heard of Thomson sponsoring any racing or racers outside of his immediate family).
It was an awkward moment, for sure. "What can you do?" I said to Mr. Thomson. "A lot of these folks are preoccupied."
Sammy Swindell never did make it in Indy cars and he’s been grinding away on the sprint car circuits ever since. I’ve often wondered if there was a connection?
Those guys might have been “real” racers, all right. But, who knows? It might have helped some of them if they’d also been “real” gentlemen.