THE LAST RACE
June 26-27, 1999
Note from Rick:
The idea had been kicking around my head for some time. After twenty-eight years, 300 races, twelve wins, one championship and -- most importantly -- no serious injuries, why was I still racing?
I was almost forty-five years old. All the eighteen-year-old kids were eating my shorts on the track. I hadn't won a race in almost a year and a half.
This conversation was taking place a lot:
Me (as I lay on the garage floor in a pool of transmission fluid trying to bolt a Hewland transaxle back into the car): "You know what I love about racing?"
My Lovely Bride, Elaine: "I'll bite. What do you love about racing?"
Me: "Nothing. Not a damned thing."
MLB, Elaine: "So why do you keep doing it?"
In late April, my father died unexpectedly. With the exception of my father-in-law, that made me the oldest male on either side of my family. Suddenly, it seemed a little silly to spend so much money and time driving long distances to do ridiculously dangerous things. It dawned on me that I should start thinking about how I was going to end this career of almost three decades and move on to the next great adventure in my life.
The tipping point came on the back stretch at Lowes Motor Speedway at Charlotte, on June 26th. I was blowing down the straightaway, at something like 145 miles per hour, and I was thinking about where I'd rather be.
This is a really stupid thing to do in a race car.
I missed my turn-in point for Turn Three and, almost before I knew it, the nose of my car was headed for the concrete wall. It took all twenty-eight years of my experience to save it, and even then it was probably the ugliest corner I've ever driven.
I headed for the paddock, parked the car, climbed out, and started thinking. It occurred to me that, if I was out there thinking about where I'd rather be, maybe I should go there instead. I made the decision at that moment that it was time to hang up my helmet.
The second sign came in the race, when a Formula Vee car hit me from behind, and spun me out in the carousel on the first lap. The radiator hose came loose in the spin, and doused me with extremely hot water. I was lucky. Two laps later, and the water would have been superheated, and I'd have been looking at skin grafts on my back and chest.
I went home, and told Elaine that it was time to quit. She was very happy.
She brought our kids Alex and Rachel to the track the next day to watch me run my very last race. Alex took most of the pictures on this page.
Here's the face of a happy man. I'm strapping into the Reynard, and I know that it's for the last time. Getting into a Formula Car could be an Olympic event. There's barely enough room in there for you, and you still have to fasten a six-point safety harness, make sure you can get hold of your helmet, and secure the steering wheel so that it doesn't come loose during the race.
"Okay, let's do the checklist: safety harness fastened and cinched tight, headsock on, helmet secure, got my cool racer's Ray-Ban shades on, butt's properly puckered. Yep, everything's ready. Let's go racing!"
The front stretch, just past the start-finish line, the fastest point on the track. I'm doing close to 150 here, just before grabbing down a couple of gears and standing on the brakes to drop down to about 60 to get into the infield road course.
That black smudge on the nose of the car was courtesy of the Formula Vee that hit me the day before. After he hit me, I spun toward him, and he ran over my nose with the left rear tire of his car. Putz.
Leaving the grid to go out on the track for the pace lap. This is the most anxiety-provoking part of the race. Once you get rolling, your mind has plenty of things to keep it busy. Just before heading out onto the racing surface, though, you have plenty of time to do nothing but sit and stew in the car.
I'd like to thank Frank Hammette of Ruptured Duck Racing for this picture.
Shot through the fence at the carousel in the infield. I had missed qualifying due to a fuel pump problem, and so I had to start at the rear of the field. The first five or six laps were spent playing catch-up. I'm really hauling here, after working my way through a pack of Formula Vees (smaller, slower, Volkswagen-powered cars that started in front of me), trying to catch the tail end of the Formula Ford field.
My last several seconds in a racing car, driving back to my space in the paddock. After catching the Formula Ford field, I was able to work my way up to third place, and was about a lap and a half away from picking up second, when the car went all squirrelly in Turn Three of the speedway, at a little over 120 miles per hour. At first I thought I had a flat left rear tire, but I was just four laps from the finish, so I decided to try to tough it out and salvage third place.
No such luck. The car just got worse and worse, and I barely made it to the finish with a fourth. When I got to the weigh-in station in the paddock, I discovered that the entire left rear wheel had come loose, and I was about a half lap away from driving a tricycle. If the wheel had come off on the banks in Turns Three and Four, it would have turned me right into the wall.
I can take a hint. I packed everything up and took it home, my racing career over. I sold my entire garage out - car, trailer, tools, everything - at my price less than a week later. Clearly, it was time to get out.
I still get the bug from time to time. Sometimes I go to a race at Concord Motorsport Park and come away saying, "I could still do that."
Elaine and I had an agreement when we got married, though. She couldn't tell me to quit, but she had the right, if I ever decided to quit on my own, to refuse to let me get back in. I think this agreement has stopped me from making a stupid decision several times. Besides, with racing out of my life, I have lots of time for all my other activities.
Life goes on.