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Racer Guerrero Revs Up for Indy Comeback


It was a birth like most others, but for Roberto Guerrero it was another opportunity to celebrate life.

When you've been as close to death as Guerrero has, the birth of a daughter carries a little extra meaning.

For Guerrero, once one of the brightest young stars in auto racing, the arrival of Haely in late March coincided with his own rebirth in a sport that has been both kind and brutal to him.

The 34-year-old driver from Medellin, Colombia, is looking to make a strong comeback on the Indy car circuit this season after a near-fatal crash in 1987 and five years of virtual obscurity with ineffective racing teams.

"Things are going really great," Guerrero said. "We are getting this car running well. By the time we get to Indianapolis, it'll be really, really good."

The car that has Guerrero excited is a Lola-Chevrolet with a V-8/C engine in its maiden racing season. It belongs to his new employer, the Budweiser King Indy team, which is owned by drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein.

Guerrero knows the Indianapolis track well. Last year, he set the Indy 500 qualifying record at 232.482 m.p.h. to win the pole position but crashed during the parade lap before the race began. In 1984, he finished second to Rick Mears and followed that performance with a third, fourth and another second, this time to Al Unser. Then came disaster.

While testing a car at Indianapolis in September, 1987, Guerrero smashed into a wall and was hit on the head by a wheel that flew off during the crash. He remained in a coma for more than two weeks and his promising career appeared over. His wife, Katie, stood by and waited.

"Nothing that I have ever done in a race car can compare to the courage that Katie maintained during that time," Guerrero said. "I know I had great medical care, but she's the one that I have to give the most credit to for my recovery."

The couple, who also have two sons--Marco, 7, and Evan, 5--live in San Juan Capistrano. They met in 1981 in Monte Carlo when Guerrero was a budding Formula One driver, and the two moved to Katie's Southern California home area in 1984. That year, Guerrero became the driver for the Master Mechanic Tools team and quickly established himself as a rising star in Indy car racing.

His early success came to a jolting stop with the accident, an event Guerrero says is a blur in his mind and one he won't allow to interfere with his work.

"I still don't remember anything about the accident," Guerrero said. "I think the day I start worrying and thinking about it, that's the day I'll quit. Racing has been my life. I would be a very unhappy person if I couldn't race again."

Guerrero returned to racing surprisingly fast and took second at Phoenix in the opening race of 1988. The following year, he left the Vince Granatelli team for a new Alfa Romeo team, but that association lasted only two seasons and was marred by mechanical problems and what Guerrero says was constant turmoil. The company fired Guerrero.

"That really set my career back," Guerrero said. "Alfa had so much money and so much racing experience, but they never got things rolling. The project became too political. The team manager (Johnny Capels) or myself couldn't make a change (in the car) without going through many people. When the car didn't work like (Alfa management) wanted it to, they fired Johnny. Then they put the blame on me.

"Alfa left me out at a time when there weren't many teams looking for drivers. It was very hard for me to get a ride. I feel like I'm starting my career again."

Guerrero competed in only three races in 1991, the year team owner Bernstein signed him to replace team driver Jim Crawford during road races in Detroit, Denver and Laguna Seca. When Bernstein decided to go with two cars last season, Guerrero joined Crawford full-time on the team. Now, he's aiming at another pole position and the elusive victory at this year's Indy 500 on May 30.

"It's really the biggest race in the world," Guerrero said. "If you win that race, you become famous overnight. But you are also going for the points (in the Indy car series) . . . But Indy is the one that has the most pressure. You put a little extra into that race." To Guerrero, that's what life is all about.

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