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Why's That Duck Racing Cars in Finland?

Hockey: Anaheim star Teemu Selanne is an off-season daredevil.

July 08, 1999|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIRKKONUMMI, Finland — It is a splendid summer day in Finland and Teemu Selanne, wearing olive green shorts and a polo shirt with a Mighty Ducks logo, is talking about his cars. And so, it seems, is everyone else.

Selanne opens a Finnish tabloid-style newspaper and shows a picture of a Toyota Corolla with a smashed front end.

It is Selanne's car, the one he crashed four days earlier while practicing his second favorite sport, rally car racing.

Selanne, a native of Finland and star forward for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, is one of the best hockey players in the world.

The crash is huge news here in Finland, a country of 5 million people and 70,000 lakes but very few superstars.

Selanne is superstar No. 1 right now, having recently received the inaugural Maurice "The Rocket" Richard Trophy, awarded to the NHL's leading goal scorer.

Selanne's drive for speed off the ice as well as on, and the inherent danger in that pursuit, is underscored by the crash--one in which he was not injured, but the driver of the other car was. That Selanne is a daredevil both on and off the ice is a fact Ducks management has learned to live with.

"I'm just happy he didn't get hurt," said Ducks General Manager Pierre Gauthier by telephone. "People do all kinds of things. . . . You just hope everyone comes back OK at training camp."

'He Loves Speed. He Loves to Drive'

Hockey is the sporting passion of Finns, more popular than soccer or cross-country skiing or even auto racing.

But racers do come in a close second, Selanne says, and indeed there do seem to be a lot of pictures of Formula 1 racing's leading driver, Mika Haakinen, around town.

So when Selanne was taking his brand new race car off for a test, to get a feel for its speed and turning radius and general quirks, word filtered out.

"There is a news organization that pays people $200 any time they call up with a tip," Selanne says. "This sometimes causes some problems. People are looking for things." Some of those people also brought cameras along when they came to watch Teemu drive. Some good money was made.

"It was a silly accident, my fault, I just wasn't concentrating," Selanne says as his 3-year-old, Eemil, spills a Pepsi on himself and 20-month-old Eegu sleeps soundly. Teemu is eating a salad and laughing at Eemil. His wife, Sirpa, produces a change of clothes for Eemil and also a slice of pizza, ham and pineapple.

Rally driving consists of traveling over plotted courses, through forests and fields, mostly on gravel paths. There is the driver and a navigator, who has a precise map and whose job is to tell the driver exactly where each twist, turn and bump will come.

On a test run about 130 miles north of Helsinki, Selanne was on the course and forgot there was another car behind him. "I was talking, I forgot, I turned around to go back and, boom," Selanne says.

At a speed estimated by police as 80 to 90 miles an hour, Selanne smashed into another rally car driven by Kalervo Kummola, president of the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation and a member of parliament.

Kummola was briefly hospitalized and Selanne will probably be ticketed for unsafe driving.

"It was stupid," Selanne says. "It shouldn't have happened. And it shouldn't have become such a big story here."

But Selanne is always a big story here. He is a hero--proof that Finns can leave this beautiful but isolated country and thrive. Selanne's reputation is that of a good guy. He signs every autograph. He also is the target for a seemingly endless stream of advice from his countrymen.

"You tell him to give up that racing now," Petri Siimes says. Siimes has just sold some note cards. His advice is free. "Teemu needs to grow up and think about his future. This accident, it is a warning. Taking such chances, it cannot end up well."

Timo Markkanen, a taxi driver, shakes his head, blows out a puff of cigarette smoke and says, "The wife should put a stop to this driving. They've gotten a warning. Teemu should stop and think about this. Everything he does, it is not just for himself. It is for all of us."

The wife would laugh at this. Sirpa, whose family and the Selannes are lifelong friends, knows she cannot keep Teemu from his cars. "It is part of him," she says. "He loves speed. He loves to drive. It makes him better in his hockey, I think."

Summer of Soccer, Tennis--and Hockey

In the summers, Selanne, who turned 29 on July 3, comes home and drives in one or two large rally races and maybe a couple of smaller ones. For the big races, more than 200,000 Finns line the courses. Top drivers can earn more than $200,000 a year, Selanne says.

But Selanne doesn't race his cars for the money. He plays hockey. So during the off-season he also finds the time to drive the 15 miles to Helsinki to work out and give a clinic at a hockey rink.

Teemu, Sirpa and family spend their summers in a simple white house made of stone and wood situated on a glorious piece of property at the top of a small hill that runs down to a little beach and then to the Baltic Sea.

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