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THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever

May 06, 1985|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Still, that road was hardly an unfamiliar one to Prefontaine, who had run and driven the route hundreds of times during his years in Eugene, according to Pre's People.

Retracing Prefontaine's route in a five-speed subcompact hardly solves the mystery. If anything it only adds to the frustration because, yes, if that part of the road at night is unforgiving even to a sober, attentive driver, what would it be like for one with .16 blood alcohol?

But yes, too, if something or someone were in one's lane going around that curve, the tendency would be to swerve to the left--across the center line and into a rock wall, if you couldn't recover in time.

Even if one accepts the official version that he simply lost control of his car and crashed into the wall, there are some nagging points that persist:

--In the Eugene Register-Guard's account of the accident, skid marks 40 feet from the crash site are cited, yet the police report specifically states that no skid marks were found. It's an important point to Pre's People because skid marks suggest that Prefontaine was braking to avoid something or someone.

--There was also official supposition that Prefontaine had lost control of his car going around that curve while changing an audio tape. John Denver's "Back Home Again" was supposedly found on the pavement at the scene. Yet, Prefontaine's sister Linda said that she found Steve's "Back Home Again" tape while driving his van a month later.

--The driver of the so-called mystery car in the case was determined by police to have happened upon the scene after the accident--and was given a polygraph test which he passed--but Pre's People steadfastly believe otherwise.

They are not specific about that driver because without proper evidence, they'd just be opening themselves up to a lawsuit.

Although many questions remain unanswered, the public record in Eugene Police Dept. Case No. 75-9498 stands as follows:

"The victim was alone, driving his vehicle eastbound on Skyline Drive and crossed the centerline to the left side of the roadway. The vehicle went over the curb and hit a solid rock embankment and flipped over onto its top in the roadway. The victim was pinned partially under the overturned vehicle. The victim was dead at the scene."

About three months after Prefontaine's death, Kenny Moore was driving Bruce Jenner and another athlete to Hayward Field for a U.S.-USSR-Poland track meet. "You know, it's strange being in Eugene knowing that Pre is gone," Jenner said. Incredulous, Moore asked, "My God, do you know where we are?" after the car had sped around a sharp curve on Skyline Drive as it wound its way toward Birch. Jenner, who had been Prefontaine's roommate at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, would go on to set a world record in the decathlon over the next two days.

Eugene is now a bustling regional commercial and cultural center of 104,000 people, but it's still the kind of place where Mom and Pop can take an evening stroll without looking over their shoulders.

Most folks in Eugene are friendly to a fault, especially to strangers. That changes, however, when one says that he is in town to exorcise the ghost of Steve Prefontaine.

Then they react in a predictable two-stage pattern.

First is a wariness that another carpetbagger is doing a story on their guy. The second thought is then, well, if you're going to do a story on him, do it right, and they proceed to come up with their favorite anecdote about the time he started a sports club at a local prison or addressed the state legislature.

Which is why if you're visiting Eugene to do a story on Prefontaine, you're will get anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night inquiring as to the progress of your work.

Or to remind you not to forget to get hold of the tow-truck driver that night, a guy who'll swear that Prefontaine's car was in only second gear, and that he wasn't speeding after all.

All of this is because Pre's People believe--and rightly so--that it will be up to Kenny Moore to write the definitive "Pre, We-Hardly-Knew-Ye" piece because he is in the best position, having been a confidante of Prefontaine's, a Eugene resident, and a fellow runner.

At the same time, it would be misleading to attribute Prefontaine's ongoing cult of fame simply to his being the proverbial hometown-boy-making-good at the time of his death.

Critics of Prefontaine harp on the fact that he never won an Olympic medal or set a world record, but that is entirely the point.

That is, there are gold medal-winning athletes today whom most people wouldn't care to walk across the street to meet, yet here was a guy who got standing ovations just for warming up.

As Tom Jordan, author of a biography entitled "Pre!" and a senior editor at Track and Field News said: "I've seen four Olympics. I've seen track meets all across the country and in Europe, but I've never seen anything like when Pre ran in Eugene."

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