I check my e-mail, and one inbox item in particular jumps off the screen and grabs my attention.
Mixed in among the tossed salad of information I do and do not care about is a message from the Indy car media office.
Drivers and well-known personalities from that genre of racing will be heading to some military bases in the Middle East and Asia on a goodwill tour.
Certain drivers are available for interview by appointment. I schedule with the Indy car driver’s name that I find most interesting.
Hamilton represents a segment of American motor sports that could have been. And could still be.
He is an open wheel short-track ace who got a shot at the big time, a super-modified pilot who made his way into the Indy Car Series and, most importantly, the Indianapolis 500.
The oft-documented professional open-wheel split which resulted in the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series going head-to-head for the same fan base resulted in the weakening of both arguing sides.
One sticking point trying to be fixed by Tony George and his new IRL was the feeder system of Saturday night grassroots drivers having opportunities to move up the ladder to Indy. Much like grassroots stock car drivers working up into NASCAR’s upper levels.
It was happening in Daytona. It wasn't in Indianapolis.
Hamilton was one of the few short trackers that grabbed the chance in the brief time the mid-1990s career window opened up in the IRL.
In 2010 he is still part of the Indy car world, despite suffering near career-ending injuries at Texas Motor Speedway nearly 10 years ago.
“I’m doing great. I really am doing well,” said Hamilton when I asked him how he was. “I get asked about it a lot and rightly so. It was pretty amazing I was even able to survive such a violent accident as that one.”
Hamilton crashed into the catch fence during a 2001 Indy car race in Fort Worth, which resulted in severe injuries to his feet and legs. After multiple operations, therapy sessions and a six-year layoff, he returned to the cockpit.
“I still have some limitations, some disabilities, but fought enough to get back in the race car and do what I love to do. To come back to the (Indianapolis) 500 was the crown jewel for me in 2007,” Hamilton said.
Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, and Hamilton are among the group of IndyCar Series representatives to visit the United States military bases. The contingent wants to show their appreciation and boost morale of the overseas troops.
This includes bringing Indy two-seater cars to give the soldiers rides. Bahrain’s Formula 1 course and military runways will be used to show the performance of Indianapolis car racing.
Some bench racing will be part of the goodwill program, too.
“All of us are going to get on stage and tell some stories and try to get some laughs and some fun for these people. I hope they get to come home safely and give thanks to them, the true heroes, (for) putting their lives on the line every second of the day.We may put our lives on the line a short amount of time. But while they are over there they are on the line all the time and give thanks for what they do,” said a humble and appreciative Hamilton.
Upon his return, Hamilton will be preparing for a busy 2011. He excitedly talked of his planned IndyCar schedule of the 500, and races at Texas, New Hampshire, and Las Vegas.
The anticipation in his voice rose further as he continued on about his new teammate Tony Kanaan at de Ferran Dragon Motorsports, a team partly-owned by Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy 500 champion.
Our conversation returned to the future of short track racers rising through open wheel’s ranks. The man at the helm of Indy car racing, Randy Bernard, is engineering a path for young American drivers from different racing forms to the Indy 500 grid.
“The ladder system he (Bernard) is already working on starting from go-carts and giving scholarships all the way through the ranks into (Formula) 2000,” said Hamilton. “From 2000s into Mazdas. From Mazdas into (Indy) Lights. Bryan Clauson actually is the guy with USAC that is getting an opportunity to race Indy Lights in an oval car.”
“The Champion of Mazda is going to have some scholarship funding to go into Indy car racing,” Hamilton said. “It’s good. It’s happening. It’s in place. It’s given more opportunity today for the short track racer than even when I came up. It is the first time ever there has been a scholarship for the USAC champion into rear-engined open-wheel cars.”
Hamilton spoke further of Bernard’s efforts to strengthen Indy car racing. “He is taking this sport to the next level. We have three engine manufacturers, we have a new car, we have new bodywork, more (sponsors) than we ever had. The weak points we have they are working hard to solve. The series is on the rise, big-time.”
Hamilton’s busy year is already underway with his Middle East visit. Later in 2011, he will also be steering a super-modified in Oswego, N.Y.; a winged sprint car in the Midwest; and talking behind a microphone with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network.
Grassroots racing stars rising up into professional levels are tales that many enjoy. When one of those accomplished few overcomes a serious injury, the story gains added stature. And when humility is retained and appreciation shown for our military, the driver is elevated to an elite level.
Davey Hamilton is an example of what thousands of Saturday night racers could add to America’s professional divisions if given a chance. Who would have guessed such a fine story would be found sorting through an email in box?
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