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Jim Murray

A Rude Way to Treat a Treasure

April 11, 1985|Jim Murray

You're pretty sure no one consulted the eligible bachelors of America the day they put Kathy Rude in a race car.

It was like putting Christie Brinkley in a barrel and sending her over Niagara Falls.

Not since the days when they threw Mayan maidens into volcanoes has there been a more callous misuse of a work of art. Only the guy who chopped the arms off the Venus de Milo might be presumed to understand.

First of all, there are those green eyes. Then there is the peach and apricot complexion, the shy smile, the straight teeth, the wind-blown hair bob. Why this face isn't selling toilet soap or French numbered scents or even waving credit cards stepping out of a chauffeured Rolls on TV is something for Madison Avenue to explain, not me.

A guy who would put this woman in a 200-m.p.h. race car would put Sally Field on a shark. What she's doing in anything that rolls over and burns, or hits walls, defies belief. What she's doing with a limp should be extraditable.

Except that the person who put Kathy Rude into this mode in life is Kathy Rude.

If she went on "What's My Line" in full makeup and designer clothes, the panel would guess her as a race driver some hours after they had guessed that she had climbed Mount Everest or worked homicide for the LAPD.

Bobby Unser never looked like this. Kathy just doesn't look as if she spent a day under a lube rack in her life.

The funny part is, Kathy was just as much a race driver as A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti or any of the knights of the roaring road until one July day in 1983 at Brainerd, Minn.

She used to gypsy around the country, stacking up rides at fair grounds, dirt tracks and sports-car circuits from Ohio to Florida. When she took first in her class in the Daytona 24-hour race in 1982, the first woman to win a professional road race in the U.S., and later became the first woman to set a lap record at Charlotte Motor Speedway, not even an Indy career was outside the realm of probability.

That all came to a shuddering halt that afternoon in Minnesota. Kathy's career did a cartwheel down the main straightaway along with her Porsche 935.

When it came to rest, Kathy had a broken neck, ankle, pelvis and elbow. Her hand was burned, as was 20% of her lower body. Her liver was cut and her kidneys were bleeding.

She had come out of a road-course turn and accelerated to 140 m.p.h., failing to spot a disabled white BMW against a white guard rail in the shimmering heat. Race course temperatures soared above 100 that day.

Her eyes were burned shut by the flames that shot across the shattered Porsche, and the ambulance crews that arrived at the wreckage expected to find more of a char than a person.

Kathy lay in a coma for five weeks. She looked more like something you might find in an Egyptian tomb than a St. Paul hospital. She remembers only recurring nightmares in which she saw herself as a swaddled infant in a cradle during those weeks.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that Kathy still looked like a Vogue cover when she left the hospital four months later.

Her injuries were so severe that the International Motor Sports Assn. and Sports Car Club of America race insurance limits were exceeded almost before they got her through the admitting office. But the racing industry rallied to her side, not only making up the difference in money, but promoting the installation of catastrophic clauses in the new racing policies as well.

And so much blood was donated in her native state of Washington that it saved not only her life but that of a young girl in an adjoining bed, for whom there had previously been no supply. "I had so many units of blood that there was a complete change of blood eight times," Kathy said.

The injuries so lopsided her posture that the doctors cut an inch and a half off her right leg to make her symmetrical again, then hung a metal rod from hip to knee. Kathy likes to joke that when someone hits a garage-door opener in her neighborhood, she rises five feet off the ground until they close her back down again.

The interesting news is, Kathy is getting back into a race car again this weekend at the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix.

Personally, I would not climb into anything more dangerous than a tutu if an auto had done to me what one has done to her, but Kathy will compete in Saturday's pro-celebrity race portion of the Grand Prix weekend at the beach city.

This is a sporty little 10-lap dash in which such pro drivers as Kathy, Al Unser Jr., Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones will spot head starts to such TV and movie types as Tony Danza and Lorenzo Lamas, and sports personalities such as the New York Jets' Mark Gastineau, and then race them for the $50,000 purse.

Kathy , who will wed race driver Ludwig Heimrath in October, is going into the race for the same reason downed World War I pilots went back up in their rickety Sopwith Camels. She's testing herself for nerve and determination.

The only thing realistic about it is, the boys will be chasing her. After they get a look at her with that helmet off, you can't blame them.

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