The Ruttmans are an American family that drives race cars. Joe is the one driving now.
They have built them, run in them, won in them, died in them, and they believe in them. "When someone you love is killed on the track, it can't make you mad at auto racing," Troy says, "because one thing racing tells you right away: if you can't accept death, then it isn't the type of thing for you to be in." This does not mean the Ruttmans play around with death, or with speed, or with driving. As a matter of fact, the only thing they play around with is winning. That is why they are so good at living. But, oh, if only the damn cars didn't break all the time! The Ruttmans forgive them, though, because cars are, after all, assembled by humans. So they get back in the cars and race.
Troy Lynn is the most famous Ruttman. He is the oldest brother, too, ahead of Jimmie Ralph, Jerry Max and Raymond Joe. Joe is the one driving now. Jim raced some as a kid, and at age 40 he still has his own stock car that he takes out now and then to race, and he is the one the other Ruttmans consider the most sensible—"just like an old German," says his father, Butch, the 73-year-old patriarch. Butch worked in the pit crew this summer when Joe won the USAC Miller 200 in Milwaukee. Jerry was a race driver, too, like all the other Ruttmans, but he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1953, the year after Troy won the Indianapolis 500. Troy was only 22, the youngest Indy winner in history—still is—and his father was in the pits with him and all his brothers were wide-eyed kids who worshiped him.
Troy hung it up in 1964, when he was 34. Then his only son, Troy Jr., drove. And now Joe is the Ruttman racing. He didn't start driving full time until he was 30; now he is 35, just coming into his prime at about the age his older brother quit, almost a generation ago. It confuses people. They think Joe must be Troy's son, not his brother. But Joe knows exactly who he is. In fact, this is his strength. Still, he drives just like Troy, that stiff-arm style; and he can tune a car like his father—Troy never could do that. And Troy Jr. is always there with Joe. It was supposed to be the other way around. Joe dedicated his life to helping. Junior be a driver. But now, after all these years, Joe is the only Ruttman driving, and his father and his brother and his brother's son are all so much a part of him that if Joe didn't know exactly who he was, he couldn't possibly drive as fast and as flawlessly as he does.
What Joe wants most of all is an Indy car. Four years ago, when he took up racing full time, that seemed like the foolish dream of a frustrated nobody—a shy, chubby fellow whose only talent in life was being good at being somebody's younger brother. "All my life, I thought if you just give me one of those first-rate cars, I can whip the world," Joe says, "but I never thought it would happen, I never thought I'd get a chance. I just figured I'd race the little circuits, make a living for my family and get as much satisfaction as possible. Still, I kept dreaming I'd get an Indy car to drive. I'm not trying to surpass Troy, but if you're good enough, you should be able to handle any kind of car. But who's going to give a rookie in his 30s a chance?"
This was all very logical, except it failed to reckon with exactly how good Joe would be at driving race cars. He and his wife, who's called Harpo on account of her curly hair, would look in the racing newspapers and see which race offered the most money, and then Joe would go wherever it was, never mind what kind of cars would be raced, what kind of track he'd be driving on. It didn't matter. He can come in as low as anybody on the corners, and up high, they say Joe dusts the walls. What Joe's cars do is swoop. By 1978 he had moved out of the bushes and was rookie of the year on the USAC Stock Car circuit, and last summer, running his "obsoleted" boxy '77 Pontiac Phoenix against the bullet-sleek '79 Camaros, Joe moved right to the top, challenging the preeminent A. J. Foyt himself.
Foyt was the one who showed how good Joe is. Good drivers don't care to run alongside unknown quantities. They might be what is called "squirrelly," and that can be big trouble, especially if you're the one running outside. As Joe explains, "Tap you one time and you've bought the wall." The second time Foyt hooked up with Joe last summer, at the USAC Miller 200, he came right up outside of Joe's No. 70, and he sat there, and they ran side by side for seven laps, till a caution flag came up. Mary Ruttman, Joe's mother, says, "Why, it was tit for tat. You kill my dog, I'll kill your cat." Joe might have left a little yellow paint from his car on A.J.'s fenders, and Foyt might have put a little red paint on Joe's, but they ran honorably, never doing a dangerous thing to one another, and when they slowed down under the yellow, A.J. looked over at Joe, and then the great man raised his left hand, fingers closed in a fist, but with the thumb up high.
The people who know Joe best say that meant even more to him than the fact that he beat Foyt for the first time, in that race, the biggest event on the USAC stock-car schedule. Joe won't say anything, he just keeps chewing on his Twinkies, but he knows now he deserves an Indy car, no matter how old a rookie he is.
But Joe won't speak up for himself. Tom Beaty, his sponsor, the president of B & K Machine & Hydraulic Co. of Livonia, Mich., says, "Joe's got the greatest natural ability, and he'd race you from here to China for 30¬¨¬®¬¨¢, but he's too nice, and he gets walked on." After one race, he signed autographs for better than two hours; it was an hour and a half before anybody thought of getting him a chair. Last year, when Joe was really struggling to make a living, a driver named Sonny Easley was killed in practice for a race at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway. Joe finished second in that race and, without a note of fanfare, turned over his entire share of the purse, $2,000, to the widow and her four children. Joe merely allowed as how the Easleys could use the money more than his family could, and that was all there was to that.
There is sort of a Lindbergh quality to Joe, even some physical resemblance. His hair is always aw-shucks ruffled; he wears little schoolmarm glasses when he's driving; and because he has just lost 40 pounds, his jeans look like droopy drawers. Joe's only vice is sweets—some of his fans call him the Cookie Monster—and he never raises his voice. He's a real nice-looking man, but you could miss him. Unfortunately for him, the one characteristic shared by most drivers who get Indy cars is that they don't hide their light under a bushel. "I tell Joe, 'Joe, you got to lean a little,' " Butch says. "Now Troy, Troy knew how to lean."
Troy! Always Troy! He is all of 49 now, distinguished, remarried, settled down, a businessman in horn-rim glasses who never drinks anything stronger than iced tea. But the enthusiasm still pours out of him. The world has always been a livelier place when Troy has been around.
And nobody knew that the whole time Troy was hurting. At 18 he started getting ulcers; a year later he was hemorrhaging. He never let on, except to the doctors, and they didn't know how to fix him. It was only a couple of years ago that they at last operated successfully; 30 years of pain. No wonder it all came apart for Troy. "Momma," he said after the operation worked, "I had forgotten how you were supposed to feel."
But he kept that to himself. He drove the cars. He was always up, always the life of the party. From the start, the girls loved him—"Here comes Troy Ruttman, the pride of the bobby-soxers!" the P.A. would cry out—and he was a man's man, who could stay up all night and drink with anyone. And a salesman! Troy could always sell himself a good ride. At 19 years old, just 19—lying about his age—he finished 12th at Indy. Salesman? "Troy could sell you this stadium," his mother says.
After Troy quit driving, he and Joe got themselves a motorcycle and snowmobile dealership outside Detroit. Before long, World of Ruttman was the largest motorcycle and snowmobile dealership in the nation. This is how well Troy could sell: "The ones that didn't even speak English were coming from Tokyo to see us," Joe says. But in the winter of '74, the first gas crisis made cycles very popular, so Yamaha started rushing its stock to where it was warm enough to ride bikes. Came spring in Michigan, the World of Ruttman couldn't get enough motorcycles, because they had all been sold in the Sunbelt months before. This was Joe's chance; this was his excuse. He gave his half of the business to Troy and went out, at last, to drive race cars—a grown man of 30 with a wife and three kids starting off in a thing like that.
Of course, Joe should have been in it all along. When he was 19, he had a good chance, too. That was in 1963. Troy had not yet retired, and he had an old stock car, which he gave to Joe. Joe refurbished it and towed it out to Riverside for a big race against the best drivers, including his famous brother. Troy told him how to pace the ride, and Joe came in 10th—now remember, he was a kid in his first big race against the country's best drivers, with better cars, lots better. Quite properly, Joe figured, "I'm off and running," and he took off cross-country to the next major race, in Daytona, Fla. He was towing the racer across New Mexico one night, and at a place called Tucumcari a car came drifting across a solid line. It totaled both the tow car and the racer. The insurance company would only pay off on the tow car. A race car is a very expensive machine, and young Joe had neither the wherewithal to build a new one nor the self-assurance to sell himself a ride.
So he just went back to Michigan and started working for his mom and dad in their go-kart and minibike shop. And he met Harpo at Daly's Drive-In, and pretty soon they were married, with a family. "I really gave up all hope when I turned 25," Joe says. "Realistically, for anybody to start after that, it's nuts. So you see, that's how my life got derailed.
"Then too, there was Troy Jr.—J.R., six years younger than me. What a neat guy! And I thought, well, my chance in life has backfired, but maybe he'll get the chance I never had. And soon I had all my goals, my dreams, I had my whole life tied up in Troy Jr. I said, 'Here, J.R., I missed it, but I want you to have the opportunity I'll never have.' I couldn't give him enough. As long as he had the desire, I would have taken Troy Jr. around the world 10 times."
Joe and Troy Jr. grew uncommonly close because of what had happened to Troy. He was not only the oldest of the brothers and tall, at 6'3", but he was also rawboned, wavy-haired and good-looking. And Troy has always been the sort of person who is in the center of things—same as Joe is always a guy over there—or was just here a minute ago, one or the other.
It's not just that Troy is 15 years older than Joe, either; he comes from a whole different time and place. Troy was born in the Oklahoma outback, on the cusp of the Depression: conceived before it began, delivered after it had hit. But his father was such an extraordinary mechanic that even in the worst of times Butch was lured about the country by better job offers, first to Texas and then to Southern California, where Troy grew up.
Cars were always part and parcel of the family. You won't believe this, but Troy received his first speeding ticket at the age of nine in South Gate, Calif. He had got the car, a broken-down old Chevy roadster, by trading seven laying hens for it, and then he had managed to get it running well enough to speed. In his first race, Troy, then 15, led wire to wire, $25. The pickings were so easy he dropped out of school, and soon he was running six, seven nights a week at tracks up and down California. Here comes Troy Ruttman, the pride of the bobby-soxers! At 18, he was passing himself off as 23. A flagman at one track introduced him to a pretty girl named Beverly, and soon they eloped to Yuma, Ariz. Within the year, a daughter, Toddy, was born; a year later, Troy Jr.; and a year and a half after that, Roxanne.
Troy had only sat in a championship car once before he came to Indianapolis, just after he turned 19. He could drive anything. His legs were so long they had to alter midget cars around Troy's outsized dimensions. "But he'd make any car sing," Butch says. "Make it sing." Troy could do anything with a car. People remember him dropping two wheels down off a track and onto the dirt infield and shooting rooster tails for the fun of it, like a water skier.
Joe, the little boy, watched his big brother in awe. "If there was ever a natural-born anything, that was Troy Ruttman driving a car," he says. "I'm not saying this because he's my brother, but because he was the greatest race driver. You take someone like A.J., and he's a great driver. But he's also a great manager, a great setup man. Troy wasn't interested in those kinds of things. He had his father working on the car, and he knew it was going to be in perfect shape. He was spoiled. His only idea was: let me in that car and I can beat the world. And he could. He'd win or he'd break down. He was the best ever."
He was so young. It all happened as fast as he drove. He whipped Bill Vukovich to win Indy in 1952, driving a Kuzma-Offy for J. C. Agajanian. Only 22, the Speedway winner: his eyes sparkled, he wore red gloves, and Arlene Dahl was the movie star who kissed him in the winner's circle. Agajanian allowed as how she ought to kiss him, too, because he was the owner, but Arlene Dahl wouldn't. Just Troy. Troy Ruttman was 22, the Indy winner! He had a pretty wife and three babies. He took 40% of a $61,743 winner's share (Butch got another 5%), and he splurged on fancy jewelry. "Troy was queer for watches," Joe says. Even now, Troy wears an expensive watch, a gold chain around his neck and a ring with the initials TR formed in diamonds. Joe won't wear any jewelry at all. If you gave him a watch, he wouldn't wear it. It is as if the jewelry were symbolic of what happened to Troy.
A couple of months after he won Indianapolis, Troy had a freak accident during a race at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (The Ruttmans only seem to have freak accidents; the normal, predictable accidents they manage to escape.) His right arm was badly broken, and it took 18 months for it to heal well enough for him to drive again. While recuperating he had a lot of time on his hands, and he increasingly took to filling those idle hours by drinking whiskey. Soon Troy was starting the mornings off with a shot or two. The only time he didn't drink was when he drove; he kept right on winning.
"He went through a million dollars and four women," says Butch.
"Two women," says Mary.
"I'm not just counting the marriages, Momma."
And nobody knows how many rings and watches. He also didn't see much of his kids, Troy Jr., Toddy and Roxanne.
Soon he wasn't even good drinking company, and drinking is what he was doing. "Drinking, Troy was the opposite of what he was all the rest of his life," Jim says. "He was a nasty drunk."
"I'll admit I gave up on him," Butch says. "Only Momma didn't."
She would hunt him down and go right into the bars after him. She was the only one who could appease him when he was mean drunk. Troy would tell everyone in the bar, "Hey, this is my sweetheart," and buy her a Coke, and finish his drink with her, and then they would leave. But often as not, Mary would be at it again the next night, tracking him down again. All the whiskey didn't help Troy's stomach. He hurt a lot. Only the cars helped him survive the pain in those bad years. But some things were lost for good. He was rarely there when his only son, Junior, grew up.
What happened to Troy tore Joe apart. He was baffled. There had never even been any liquor in the Ruttman house; Joe had never seen any social drinking. "I look upon liquor as a monster," Joe says. "Can you understand? Your older brother is perfect, and he's famous, and then liquor...."
But Joe never stopped loving his big brother. He made himself into a big brother himself—or a father—for Troy Jr. Even before his own career had ended in Tucumcari, Joe was teaching his nephew. By eight or nine Junior was driving go-karts for Joe, and a few years later Joe coached the kid to the national go-kart championship. Troy Jr. had become determined to be a race driver.
"At an early age, you could see Junior had excellent driving ability," Troy says, "and I tried to explain to him that he was heading into a dangerous thing. And he said, 'Well, Dad, you're still alive.' " But you could also say that Troy was lucky to still be in that particular category. "I know how many accidents God spared my dad from," Toddy says.
By 1964 Troy had recognized that he was an alcoholic, and had pointed himself down the first road to recovery, recognition. At the time the rear-engine Indy cars were coming in, and "to accelerate the story," as Troy often says, he could see that no competitive auto was likely to be available to him for maybe a year or more. He was only 34, but he had been driving professionally for almost two decades. And his stomach hurt more, and he was worn out some from the drinking.
Then, that year at Indianapolis, he started in the sixth row, on the outside of Eddie Sachs. It was a busy start, there was trouble almost right away, and in front of Sachs and Ruttman, a gangly rookie from the sports-car ranks named Dave MacDonald got loose and clipped the wall in Turn 4. Troy had an instant to make a decision. He guessed that when MacDonald hit the wall his car would ricochet back out onto the track, and that he might just squeeze by on the outside. Troy aimed for the wall. Already the crash had turned into an inferno, and just as Troy, hugging the wall, passed the burning wreck, Sachs piled into MacDonald, the impact shoving the drive shaft of Sachs' car through his body, killing him instantly. The pyre roared higher, 70 feet or more, as the surviving cars came all the way round the track before stopping in the turn, just short of the holocaust.
"It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life," Troy says. "The flames were shooting up all around him, but somehow MacDonald stayed alive, begging for help. It was horrible. He kept calling for his mother. Mother, Mother, please, Mother, help me! And we couldn't do anything. Nobody could even get close."
Troy has never forgotten that grisly vision. It came only a few weeks after a race at Trenton, N.J. in which Troy's own car was turned end over end, and somehow he skidded along on his helmet as the car disintegrated. Soon after that, Troy decided to stop racing cars. It wasn't that he was scared all of a sudden; it was just that none of this was worth it if you weren't competitive, if you couldn't win. At one time or another, just about all the Ruttman drivers have had about the same thing to say on this subject.
At the age of 23, Troy told his mother, "If I die, don't you grieve, Momma, because I've already done more in my lifetime than most people who live to be old." Joe has already told Harpo that if he is killed, she is to tell the children, "This is what I wanted to do. If I die, know that I went with a smile on my face." And Troy Jr., when he was 17, wrote a high school theme about what he planned to do when he grew up. He listed three things: 1) graduate from college as an engineer; 2) win Indianapolis before my death; and 3) retire by the time I'm 30, and get married after that.
It was 1968 when Troy Jr. wrote that. By then Troy had retired and had become a salesman, getting on with the rest of life, away from a steering wheel, and Joe had given up all hopes of ever driving seriously. Everything was on Junior. He and Toddy, an exceptionally close brother and sister, were living together at Butch and Mary's in Michigan. Junior had been given his father's last Indy car, the Jim Robbins Special, an old upright Curtiss, and was making it completely over into a super modified, with which he would start another Ruttman racing career.
Unlike most automobile racers, the Ruttmans are large people. Joe is more than six feet tall—though, typical of him, he has no idea exactly how tall he is—and he is the smallest of the brothers. Jerry stood 6'7".
Butch, the father—his square name is Ralph, but if people don't call him Butch, they call him Pappy or some variation of Granddad—is a big-boned 6'2", a giant for a man born in 1906. Mary is a year older, but both she and her husband are jaunty, young people. At the races, Mary favors shorts, and she clambers up onto the roof of her mobile home to see the track better. Butch prefers a blue jump suit with a bright yellow cap. They were married 50 years ago this past St. Patrick's Day.
That is a coincidence. They are both of German stock, both Oklahoma-born. She was Mary Rittenhouse from Mutual, and Butch's father was a grain and livestock dealer over in Mooreland, 20 miles of back roads away. Butch was interested in cars from the first; for that matter, he practically spans the history of automobiles. "Butch always had speed on his mind," Mary says, "and I sure ought to know, because he dumped me." On this occasion, Butch wrecked a roadster he had built, the impact throwing his girl friend out onto the road and knocking her silly, while the car rolled over on him. Butch and Mary both chuckle at the memory of this episode. The Ruttmans laugh about such hilarious automobile accidents in the same way other families chortle at the memory of the roast getting burnt on Uncle Harry's birthday.
Butch raced himself—he was active as late as 1951, when he was 44—but he was more renowned for his mechanical abilities. He is a man of infinite patience, quite prepared to take cars completely apart. And while he doesn't make any to-do about it, it seems that roll bars and shoulder harnesses were Butch's inventions, the harness being first installed for Troy when he "was runnin' them high banks in Indiana in '48."
The father's special heritage is twofold. First, the patience he brought to fixing cars seems to have been transmitted to the Ruttman boys as drivers. Patience may appear to be an odd attribute for a man of speed to possess, but the sense of waiting, of striking at the right time, is as crucial to a driver as being able to move. Second, because the Ruttmans came to driving by way of the cars their father crafted, instead of having stumbled upon driving as merely a convenient way to get high on speed, the whole family evokes a special attitude of love for the sport—a love founded on confidence. The Ruttmans have an abiding faith in their machines.
As a teen-ager, Troy Jr. astonished racing experts by taking that Robbins Special apart and rebuilding it, shifting the engine from centerline to the side. That was an original concept. But, after Butch, Joe is the most mechanically uncanny of them all. When he works on a car, he just about talks to it, like Dr. Dolittle palavering with the animals.
These dual talents of driving and tinkering are critical assets for Joe, because not only must he fight the bias of age, he also works at a tremendous economic disadvantage. The sport, as Joe says, requires "cubic inches and cubic money"—witness the Foyt juggernaut, which includes a score of precision-tooled minions all decked out in red-and-white-checked uniforms and job descriptions, all scurrying about, radio-connected with their great-shouldered, jut-jawed leader whizzing around the track. By contrast, Ruttman's crew, such as it is, consists of a bunch of friends and innocent bystanders recruited for the occasion. Somebody or other's child is usually an integral part of the crew. Senior citizens are also welcome.
"Who's the guy with the tire in the white beard?"
"Oh, I think he's that other guy's father-in-law."
The Ruttman race tool chest consists of a little box of wrenches and ice scrapers and whatnots that Butch keeps in his mobile home in case it breaks down out on the Interstate. To cart tires about, Joe uses a child's little red wagon. Minutes before the Milwaukee 200, with Ruttman's car sitting on the pole beside Foyt's, an official glanced down and noticed that Joe had the wrong tire on his right-front wheel. The wrong tire! Joe didn't get mad at anybody. They got it changed in time, didn't they?
Foyt, of course, is the big star on the USAC stock tour, and he is a no-nonsense fellow who does not like to get beat, especially by a Raggedy Ann operation and an antiquated tugboat of a racer. But he adores Joe Ruttman, as everybody does. Nobody laughs harder than Foyt when Joe plays practical jokes on A.J. One day, for nothing better to do, Joe stole the little bicycle Foyt uses to get around the infield. Just stole it, put it in his truck and watched while a desperate red-and-white-checked army searched all over Robin Hood's barn. When Foyt tries to sneak out of obligatory drivers' meetings, Joe raises his hand and tattles on him. He climbs into Foyt's car or pretends to find loose parts under the hood, while the red-and-white-checked array turns apoplectic. And Foyt roars. Everybody, A.J. included, seems to be in a good mood when they get around good old Joe.
And everyone can see how happy Joe is. If you have to wait a long time to get to do what you long to do, and what you know you can do, it means all that more when at last you're granted the opportunity. In an age of instant gratification, Joe feels a reward that other people can't conceive of. And it is the one thing that belongs strictly to him. Even as close as Troy and Troy Jr. have been to Joe, they would never understand this part, because they did not have to wait for their chance to drive.
TROY JR.'S RACE
During the late '60s when Joe was Troy Jr.'s surrogate father, the young man grew to his real father's size, 6'3", 180. And like his father, Troy Jr. quit school to go racing, but Vietnam was on and there was the draft, and not only did he return to school, he also came out a straight-A student. Those were tumultuous times for kids, but Junior was not swept along. Drugs? He didn't even smoke or drink. He devoted himself instead to girls and cars, with both of which, like his father, he was proficient.
He lived with Toddy, his older sister, who herself was growing into a full, dark and beautiful young woman. Toddy took two jobs so Junior could throw all his energies into the car. He was pointing for twin 50-lap races at Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania on May 4, 1969, just a few weeks before his high school graduation. Junior got the car ready just in time; he was too rushed to paint it and could only stick No. 14—his father's old number—on the car with black tape.
Troy, Joe and Toddy could not get away from work, so it was Jim who accompanied the kid to his first race at Pocono. And Jim was amazed: Junior had built the car so well and drove it so well that it was like "a storybook" in Pocono. The only problem, a slight one, was that they were racing on a new track—a three-quarter-mile oval set inside what soon was to become a larger two-and-a-half-mile track. The two tracks were designed to share a common stretch, and coming off one turn, the drivers kept dipping low, dropping two wheels off the pavement onto the infield dirt. So the track officials put out some soft pylons—witches' hats, the drivers call them—along the turn, and late in the first race, Junior bumped a couple of witches' hats and somehow this slight impact ruptured the left front brake line and forced him into the pits for quick repairs. Still, he finished fifth.
Between races, he and Jim double-checked the brake line, fueled up and were ready for the second 50-lapper. Troy Jr. was only 18½ years old then, this, was his first race of hundreds to come, and so Jim told him to "cool it" for the second race, run it easy, and then they could take No. 14 back to Detroit and shake it down. The next time out it should be able to beat anything.
"I'll tell you what," Junior said when he came into the pits late in the second race. "I'll just hold my position till you give me a sign to move up."
"Yeah, O.K.," Jim said. Junior pulled out about sixth or seventh, but he soon cruised into fifth, and when Jim could see that the car running fourth was struggling to stay ahead, he waved Junior on, and the kid breezed into fourth place. He ran that way, going through the motions, for a few more laps. Then Troy Jr. began to beckon to Jim each time he came down the straightaway. "You know, it was the hand out, palm up, like, 'Hey, what's the point of this?' " Jim says. Junior knew he could fly by the third-place car, and he wanted the green light.
So the next time by, Jim shrugged and gave him the O.K. Junior tried to sneak by on the inside through a couple of turns, but he couldn't quite make it, so both times he backed off. The Ruttmans weren't forcing anything this day. Then, at the next corner, coming toward the grandstand, the guy running third dropped two wheels down on the dirt, and Junior, following closely, did the same.
Jim was nearby, watching from the top of a mobile home. He had a clear view. When J.R. moved onto the dirt, his car skidded a little and he lost control for an instant, and No. 14 fishtailed, the rear end heading up toward the wall. But Junior was so good. In a split second he corrected—overcorrected really—because Jim now saw the car turn around, with the front end heading toward the wall. But the kid had everything. He worked that out, too, got the nose pointed the right way, and all the car did was bump sideways up against the wall. Because of the minor damage caused by that tap, the car sort of idled there up high on the track, and Jim, cursing the luck, started to head back to the pits to meet Junior and see what would have to be patched up.
Suddenly, Jim heard the sound and looked up. Without warning, No. 14 had sprung out, full throttle. All out. Jim watched in shock. The car was going right for the guardrail. Right straight at it. It hit the guardrail dead solid, full-bore and tore out a section maybe 50 feet long. "It was that wrinkled metal, like on the Interstates," Jim says. He was running by now, trying to catch up with Junior.
Jim could see that the rollcage had gotten under the guard-rail, lifting it up enough that the car could pass beneath it, and that No. 14 had roared on, going through a chain-link fence another 20 feet or so farther on. The front of the car, like the top of the rollcage, had been torn off, and the engine had split. The car had spun around after the second fence and had finally come to a halt, pointing backward.
Jim ran toward the car, but he stopped about 10 feet away because he didn't see any movement. He asked somebody, "Is he intact?" Jim says, "I meant, was Junior in one piece? And they nodded, and so I went on the rest of the way. Troy Jr. was slumped down there, with his hands in his lap." There was no agony upon his face, and he had come to his rest facing back toward the racetrack. Troy Jr. had not been able to win Indianapolis before his death.
They lifted J.R. out of the car and carried him to the ambulance. Jim forced his way in with the doctor and took Junior's helmet off and wiped the dust from his handsome face. The doctor opened his uniform, made a perfunctory examination and then he shook his head. Jim closed the boy's eyes, and he thought to himself, "Well, Troy Jr.'s troubles are over." That was all, because right away he had to start worrying, as much as he could, about what he could do for the rest of his family.
Toddy heard the news while she was in the backseat of a car, returning from the auto races in Toledo. Her first thought was to jump out of the car and kill herself. She was serious about that. "Troy Jr. was all I had," she says. But she contained herself until she got back to the house, where Joe was waiting. His first thought had been to tear down the garage, destroy the place where Junior had built No. 14. Now he was over that, and he tried to soothe his niece. He told her, "Well, one thing, Toddy, Troy Jr. was doing what he wanted, so he died with a smile on his face."
And Toddy says, "So after Joe said that, I felt I had to go on." Shortly afterward, she became a born-again Christian.
It has been 10 years now, but Toddy still can't talk about her brother's death without starting to cry. The same with Troy. Joe, the most emotional, breaks up completely. "You'd think it would get easier," Toddy says, "but it doesn't. Somehow it seems even worse, 10 years later. Junior was the only son, and I guess it's toughest for Dad, because he must feel guilty. He knows he missed the chance to spend more time with Troy Jr., and he let Joe be more of a real father. But all of us still miss Troy Jr. so much."
She carries an old snapshot of him, when he was 14 or 15. It is black and white, and he has a crewcut, something of a flattop, and a very thin tie. It's a real period piece. But when you see the photograph, he is so nice-looking, so innocent—he never drank a drop—there is the sense that the boy in the snapshot must always be real, and it is everything else that has been lost.
What makes it especially difficult is not merely that it was so tragic, that Troy Jr. had such youth and promise, but that none of the Ruttmans can understand what made it happen. When Jerry died in 1953 on his motorcycle, he was hardly much older, and it was just as hard to take, just as much a waste, but at least it was explicable. Jerry rode down the street, and there was a construction site on the corner and a blind intersection and a car was coming and....
But Junior? What made the car start up and run into the wall?
And he was untouched. "I mean literally," Jim says. "There wasn't a mark on him."
Before he went to view his son's body, Troy came up to Jim and he said, "Brother, please, what am I going to see?"
And Jim said, "Troy, you're just going to see Troy Jr. looking great."
Junior looked just like the snapshot in Toddy's wallet, only a little older.
Jim could have asked for an autopsy, but he is the most sensible Ruttman, and what was the point? It could not tell what made No. 14 lurch forward again. Jim told them at the hospital, "No. Close up the goddam box."
So none of the Ruttmans can ever know what made it happen. Mary and Butch think Junior must have had a heart attack. It was a hot day and he was in his fire suit. Jim thinks that when No. 14 slapped up against the wall it must have been a harder collision than it appeared from a distance, and that Junior's head must have snapped back against the headrest, just enough to knock him out (there were no marks on his helmet). In any case, concussion or heart attack or whatever, then his foot, a dead weight, somehow pressed down on the accelerator, carrying him into the wall, breaking his neck on impact. But still it doesn't make any sense. A decade later, Troy can't help every now and then but to ask Jim to repeat the story, to pick at his memory, in hope, somehow, this time, there will be one little clue that will surface, after having lodged in Jim's mind all these years.
But Jim doesn't really think that will ever happen. He doesn't think there is any more to what he saw. "I do think this," he says, "that if Junior'd been afraid of what was coming, he might have braced himself more when he slapped up against the wall. But you see, he was trying so hard to save his car. That's all he was thinking about—and he was doing a great job, too."
So that is why Troy Jr. is always riding with Joe now. Joe has with him the ghost of Troy's memory—what really was—and the ghost of Troy's son—what might have been. Joe doesn't have any sons himself. He has just the three daughters. Harpo once told him she was sorry about that, and Joe replied, "No, I had my boy and I lost him. I don't want no more. I had my son."
Toddy has a little boy who is six years old. This is where the legacy is now. She almost surely wouldn't have met and married the Reverend Billy Lewis if Troy Jr. hadn't been killed, if she hadn't turned to Christ then and gone to Billy Lewis' church when she moved to California. So there must be something of Troy Jr. in his nephew, just as there was much of Joe in J.R.
Toddy Lewis' boy is named Joshua Troy, and he is so uncommonly good-looking that Mary tells people: please, don't mention that, lest the boy hear it and let it go to his head. His favorite pastime, when he is sitting in the mobile home at the racetracks, is to play a computer racing game. It is a reflex exercise. He wins most times.