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Dicing With Death in the Tight Turns at Riverside Raceway

MIKE DOWNEY

April 28, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

RIVERSIDE — The Corvette was on the left. The Mustang was in the middle. The Jaguar was on the right. All three cars were doing at least 160 m.p.h. as they polished off the 35th lap. All three drivers had just thrown it into fifth gear as they crossed the START/FINISH line of the Times/Ford Grand Prix of Endurance and hummed toward turn No. 1.

There was room for one of them on the curve, maybe two.

Not three.

Doc Bundy, in the 'Vette, thought he had enough room, and thought he had enough varoom. He came up behind Chip Robinson's Jag on the straightaway. "I thought about taking him on the outside. Then I said, 'Well, that's a little risky move.' "

He looked for an opening behind Lyn St. James instead. Bundy knew her Mustang Probe very well. He used to drive that car, last year, before changing sponsors. And the year before that, he drove Robinson's Jag XJR-7. Even won the 1984 Miami Grand Prix with it.

Now they were virtually side by side by side. Three Sunday drivers. Three road hogs on pavement where honking the horn cannot help.

Bundy wanted by. "The Ford was coming slow off the corners," in his opinion. It also had bumped against his car three times in one turn alone, just before St. James relieved Pete Halsmer at the wheel, Bundy said.

His own car's momentum was considerable and Bundy was braking lightly with his left foot, reluctant to hold back. When the Jag kept to the right, Bundy believed he would rear-end it if he stayed in that lane. So, he veered the 'Vette to the inside.

He was below and left of the Mustang, in its blind spot. The turn was at hand. Bundy felt he had the speed and the space. "I'm through. Clear," he convinced himself.

As the cars banged together, the horror began.

The Mustang swerved wildly to the right, smashing into the restraining wall and bursting into flames. The Jaguar was airborne. It flipped completely, then thrashed on the track like a beached shark. The Corvette spun out of control and crashed into the guard rail. It, too, caught fire.

St. James saw a spray of dirt and fuel against the windshield, sensed the fire behind her as the car overturned, clutched the wheel, "closed my eyes and waited for it to end," she related to a Ford spokesperson later.

When the Mustang came to a rest, upside down, St. James unbuckled her belt and scrambled out, her wrists and ankles throbbing, her helmet and uniform charred. Bundy also got free quickly and ran to her car.

"Are you OK?" he yelled.

"Why did it happen?" St. James asked back. "Why did it happen?"

"I don't know," Bundy said. "I don't know."

It was over, and, in proper auto-racing fashion, it was over in a hurry. A track worker, Charlie Kuhlman, was rushed to a hospital with first- and second-degree burns from fighting the fires. St. James, said the Ford spokesman, Kevin Kennedy, had a bruised foot and: "She's sore and shook up."

But all three drivers walked away.

More than once Sunday, the murmur of "worst crash I've ever seen" could be heard in the pits and bleachers of Riverside International Raceway. This had been an accident for the ages, or for the 11 o'clock news shows, at least, or for the more gruesome opening moments of "Wide World of Sports."

To see it in person was to feel not only the thrill of danger, but the chill of violent death. You saw those explosions and you told yourself you had just seen somebody die.

You rushed to the scene of the accident, inspected the hole in the wall, examined the twisted wreckage of the three machines and cringed. You saw the metal intestines of the Jaguar dangling over the sides, and the front left tire dislocated to the steering wheel's right. In the garage, six mechanics covered the Jag gently with a sheet, like assistant coroners covering a corpse.

Having seen all that, you could hardly believe it, 70 minutes later, once this arduous six-hour race had resumed, that the driver with whom you were sitting did not have an ache or a pain.

Bundy, 38, a Vietnam veteran from Gainesville, Fla., said almost nonchalantly: "When I hit the wall, I was already on fire. It seemed like it took me 10 minutes to get out of the car, but it was only a couple of seconds. In racing, we're so used to speed that a fraction of a second seems like a long period of time."

Bundy said he still was not sure who hit who first. He sensed that St. James saw him in her blind spot at the last instant, tapped his car, then caromed into Robinson's.

"If you've got to lay fault, well, I'll accept the fault because I took the riskiest move," Bundy said. "But I thought I had a clear lane, especially with the speed she was traveling . . .

"It's easy to say in retrospect that I should have waited. And those two could have dealt with whatever they had going. But in racing, when there's a hole, you're paid to make the move to the hole. I don't want to point a finger at anybody, because to me, it's just a racing accident."

You wondered if Bundy happened to recall an old, popular song in which a Corvette and a Jaguar sped together into a turn.

"Hey, that's right," he said. "'Dead Man's Curve."'

That one was just a racing accident, too.

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