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Taking a Back Seat : Firestone Moves From Starting Field to Living Room

May 31, 1986|MIKE KUPPER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — Dennis Firestone has been cleared as a relief driver for today's Indianapolis 500, but any car owner or crew chief with an urgent need for one will have to look more than a little west of the garage area to find Firestone.

Pomona, to be precise.

When starter Duane Sweeney drops the green flag, Firestone will not be among the thousands here holding their breath as the 33-car field charges into the first turn.

He will be at home in Pomona, watching the telecast that is the reason for the race being run six days late, instead of only two. It will not be a great day in his life.

Ten days ago, Firestone was going to be one of the 33 starting drivers. Then, during what was to have been the final practice session, he crashed, wiping out his car, his starting spot, possibly the team he was driving for, maybe even his racing career.

Had anyone known that rain was going to wash out the race last Sunday, and that it wouldn't go until nearly a week later, things would have been different. Firestone's car would have been rebuilt and he would have stayed in the field.

But of course, nobody knew that, and faced with what seemed an impossibly short time for the rebuilding of the car, Firestone's car owner, Pat Kehoe, withdrew it, accepting an offer from alternate Dick Simon to share purse money.

That got Simon into the race and relieved, at least slightly, Kehoe's financial pain. All it did for Firestone, though, was get him a quick trip home.

"As it turns out, the hindsight is 20-20," Firestone said Friday from Pomona. "If we had known there'd be a rainout, we'd be racing.

"By this time, I'm sure we could have had the car professionally fixed. The main problem was the tub. It literally would have had to be remanufactured. And then all the other pieces would have had to be brand new. Done properly, and with the right amount of time, it would have been as good as the original race car."

Simon realized the Kehoe team's predicament as soon as he knew the extent of the crash, and was eager to make the deal from the start. That thought had also occurred to Firestone.

"I think I suggested the transaction to begin with." he said. "Clearly, we had limited alternatives available to us at the time. I thought that (Kehoe) should at least begin some discussion with Dick. I don't blame Pat for doing it. He was in a heck of a bind, financially. It was a ticklish spot to be in."

Firestone's hope in the deal was that he would be allowed to drive Simon's car. Simon balked at the deal, though, when Kehoe suggested that.

"That was my hidden thought. It would have been, in my opinion, a great PR move on his part," Firestone said of Simon. "We talked about that subsequently two or three times. Unfortunately for me, Dick is a real competitor and loves to drive and feels like he needs to be a part of it.

"But as I told him, I think he probably could have gotten the sportsmanship-of-the-year award for offering something like that. I think it would have been a popular move."

Firestone's long-range future in racing is murky, but then, so is his immediate future. He will be 42 in July, which is a little old for a driver still establishing himself.

"It was just a ride for the race," Firestone said of his deal with Kehoe. Still, there was a possibility of more throughout the season. "(Kehoe) asked me if I wanted to do, at least, Milwaukee (the first race after the 500). The ovals (races on oval tracks for the season) were open on that particular car."

Now, though, it is doubtful that the car will ever be rebuilt.

"I think the crash probably put the team out of business," Firestone said. "I haven't seen anything official on it, but I've heard from the car owner that it's all over. It was just a devastation (financially)."

So far, Firestone has heard from no other car owners, and although he would like to, doesn't necessarily expect to hear from any. "No nibbles," he said. "I'd like to drive, but it's hard to tell. I have no plans.

"It was quite a month. I was feeling very good about it and I was feeling good about the people involved. All in all, there were lots of things I and the team did real professionally. I think we did as good as we could with the cards that were dealt to us. It was just a sad ending."

Firestone said that to his knowledge the cause of the crash has not been specifically determined. "Maybe someone has, but they haven't told me if they did." he said. "I've only heard the two or three possibilities, the one being tire failure, the second being a broken brake rotor. I know something broke before the tire blew. I think it was probably the brake rotor."

Firestone wants to continue racing, but if he can't, he has a trucking business to occupy his time. Still, racing has always been special to him.

"My main gain from racing has always been the competition and being a part of the sport," he said. "I don't know how much time I have left in racing, but it's always been my private wish that I could have been involved with a big-name team, just to really get out of myself what I think potentially was there. As I've had to do it in the past, it's kind of hard to show your wares. On the other hand, it's hard not to look good when you're driving for (Roger) Penske. I wish I'd had the opportunity."

Since Firestone was 35 when he started driving Indy cars, that opportunity probably was never going to be there for him. At least, though, he had chances to drive in the biggest race of all. And, until 10 days ago, he had one more chance.

That's gone, now, and so is Firestone.

"I don't make a very good spectator," he said.

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