Updated: May 7
Fifty years ago this year, in 1973, Indianapolis 500 race fans endured the most brutal and tumultuous traditional running of the Indianapolis 500. It was the 57th running that year, and by the end of that race which lingered into its third day and was finally called out for rain, Gordon Johncock pulled over the finish line to the checkered flag for his first of two Indy 500 victories.
Some people called Johncock the 'Jinxed' winner. But, unfortunately, that is just one of the narratives that has to flip about 1973. Johncock is an Indy Champ and a fascinating racer.
After the finish of the '73 Indy 500, hundreds and thousands of people must have cleared their seats in the stands- and wandered to their cars in confusion, questioning why anyone would keep attending such a trauma-filled sport.
They must have wondered what racing is really about. What is the purpose for racing? How many bad things can happen to one group of fans? What happened to Swede Savage, whose car had disintegrated after a mysterious crash? How did Johncock return to his car and continue the race after such a month-long roller coaster ride of injury and death and go on to finish his race- for the win?
Some people only remember the morbid of that day and can't shake off the darkness. Sometimes it is difficult to chase that 'silver lining' in tragic stories.
How did people overcome the shock and trauma of that year's events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? What happened to those who didn't overcome it? And if we could figure that out, would it change anyone's life for the better?
Some people hunt for the plot twist.
Two people have flipped the darkness on its head- and discovered healing and hope for living.
One Savage fan, Ted Woerner, who was 11 years old in 1973, has spent much of his life answering these exact questions and has a book about his discovery. The other Savage fan, along for the journey, is someone who had not even been born yet- in May of 1973.
"Johncock told people that he thought about quitting the race that day, but he got back in the car," Woerner, a lifelong Indy 500 fan who introduced me to the story of Swede Savage, told me recently, opening my mind to a layer of racing history I had somehow glossed over until May 2023.
Fifty years after the death of Swede Savage, race fans, young and old, still have a "Swede Savage" story of their own to discover. That is part of the racing legend's legacy. Woerner is ready to introduce readers to the twisting and turning tale- as he did for me, in the most surprising way I could have imagined.
Woerner's tactic to bring people in begins with the tragic crash of a brilliant race car driver. Then he introduces a baby into the story, which evolves with rescuing hurting people with otherwise barely known trauma studies on women and children done by foremost medical leaders.
Except he is a brilliant storyteller- so it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
He titled the book Savage Angel.
This story of Savage Angel has all of the twists and turns of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). It is done all against the backdrop of our love of racing and then, enter- Swede's little daughter, Angela Savage, who had yet to be born at the time of her Dad's death.
The "Savage Angel" is about Angela's recovery from the in-utero trauma of the death of her Dad. It is quite literally the rebirth of his spirit.
Race fans who are honoring the life and career of Swede Savage talk about how this one young racer's career and his death left them feeling like they are on pins and needles; that is good and bad of being emotionally connected to motorsports. Swede Savage, in his short life, gave them the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Swede Savage's story is so beautiful you can't look away from his triumphs and so tragic you can't help but feel like you have been punched in the gut- harshly and may never recover.
And Woerner's book brings you to the same places learning about the child the racing hero never saw.
It is so bittersweet that Swede was a "Dope Soul." A California dream boy with wavy blonde hair, a brilliant smile, and someone who represented the ultimate racing spirit to many fans. A 26-year-old who was known for daring greatly, pushing mightily, and overcoming brutal battles.
We have yet to learn why he accepted the racing risks as he did.
Sports announcers called Savage the "bright hope of STP."
Even to this day, everyone knows the iconic STP, and many know Savage was the driver who had told the media that he felt 1973 was going to be "his year at the Indy 500":
A DOPE SOUL
I discovered from someone who played golf with Savage in the 1973 Brickyard tournament a few days before the race that Swede did have hesitations about the race, saying that he was concerned about the wings and the speed. But, in addition, he thought about the fact that he was a young Dad and had another child on the way.
In 1973 concerns were profound over newly designed cars and rapidly increasing speeds, even more so as driver Art Pollard was killed in testing during pole day. That had to have played on Swede's mind even as people saw him as the brightest and one of the most capable young drivers on the track.
But that is also what he was racing for to make it to the top of his sport - out of his love for racing.
In fact, Savage was leading the Indy 500 and shuffling around for position with one of the most historic racers of all time, Al Unser Sr, as he was climbing to the top of his game and leading the Indy 500 that fateful day.
Swede's golf partner was sitting in turn four and said that Swede had told him he would wave to him when he went by. That sort of thing must have been hard to get over because suddenly, in turn, four, Savage had a mysterious crash shattering his car into pieces and setting himself into flames.
The crowd had already experienced so many devastating events up to that point.
After five weeks in Indianapolis Methodist Hospital- Swede Savage died, and medical reports differ about the cause of death, leaving the racing world reeling, traumatized, and changed forever.
Swede's golf partner was in his residency at Methodist Hospital at the time and told me that he had felt very connected to Swede from their time spent together over golf and then later at the golf banquet.
Swede's death greatly impacted the Golf partner, an OBGYN. One of the first things he asked was what happened to the child?
Because the child represents hope.
Sadly, Savage is highlighted in this video, leaving a traumatic sense of irony for anyone who understands what happened to Savage in the months after this was released:
The irony in this story is so complex.
Race fans who remember that era in American history say the whole month of May 1973 was traumatizing because of the number of deaths. The first racing death happened to Art Pollard, as referenced above in the video.
After the death of Pollard, there was so much more to come.
Then there was a near-death crash of Salt Walther on the second day of the race in 1973, leading to many changes at the track. A team member was also killed on the same day as Savage, Armando Teran, by a first responder who accidentally hit the man in a fire truck trying to get to Savage to extinguish the fire.
And then Savage died five weeks later.
Three major crashes, two drivers died, and one team member.
The tragic deaths at the Indy 500 for 1973 are listed HERE.
However, as heartwrenching and tragic as all those deaths are, race fans continue to be pulled into their sport and eager to participate. They are driven by motivations that are most assuredly complex.
Scanning tribute pages by his fans, many people talk about their hope that the tragedy of their hero's death will lead to rebirth and legacy.
That is why Woerner weaves Savage's child into the narrative of his memorial to his childhood hero- giving some closure to the heartbreak and also a new life to his legacy.
Swede Savage's wife was watching, and she was five months pregnant with Angela at the time she watched her husband crash and ended up with injuries that would lead to his death.
The brutality of the 1973 Indy 500 stretched out until the middle of the Summer of '73 as Savage passed away on July 2, 1973, offering no answers about what motivates race fans to move past the tragedies and continue to love this sport- in our souls- as we do.
Why do we risk anything?
That question remains one of many three in our race against time to figure out. Woerner's book is an epic tale of highs and lows, tear-jerking memories, and brilliant, inspiring stories about Swede Savage with a unique and relevant account of the survival of his loved ones that continues to unfold today in the most compelling ways.
And for some, like Swede's daughter who was left behind, the traumas now have a new purpose- because with the help of the medical tests Woerner uncovered- understanding her trauma can help other people understand their trauma.
This part of the story appears almost as crucial to Woerner as embracing Swede himself. Woerner is chasing that silver lining, and in the process, he is ensuring Savage's legacy lives on.
And little would Swede Savage have guessed that his story starting as a Race Car driver would result in helping rescue people from dying in their trauma.
Savage's story is still those pins and needles, even 50 years after his death. Check out the website for the book, read about Savage and his life, and about the life of Angela and why she had so much trauma as a result of her Dad's tragic crash:
TWISTS AND TURNS.
This story takes the most unexpected turn that anyone can imagine. Check this out:
DEATH AND REBIRTH AT THE INDIANAPOLIS 500 BY TED WOERNER
Here is what a reader wrote:
“A captivating account of a savage angel…Swede Savage’s shortened journey through racing’s most dangerous times. Haunting and beautiful memories take the reader along to explore the consequences of living on the edge and how it affects those left behind. Swede was one of a kind..a hero, a warrior, a friend. The tragic event of 1973 was the beginning of a courageous story with a happy ending. God bless you, Angela," Ken Speck wrote in reaction to Woerner's book.
"Here is a slide from the library presentation that Angela and I will make next week here in Carmel. This is a graphic depicting the ten adverse childhood experiences that appear on the ACEs survey and the mental and physical health outcomes in later life based on a high ACEs score. This is a revolutionary study that was done in 1996 by Kaiser Permanente Health Care, headed up by Dr. Vincent Felliti, based in San Diego," Woerner told me about his upcoming May event.
The race for these two is now to help others who have experienced trauma and who- as a result- have a higher risk of committing suicide or harming themselves:
People have spent five decades looking for the answers to the question of why people seek risks in racing and motorsports. Why do fans watch? It might be because we are all looking for the edge in our way.
We are all looking for answers. We love to see victory.
Searching for that risky edge and trying to find ways to be victorious over those risks- in life- is what took this raceway in Indianapolis from this in 1945:
To this in 2022:
(Photo by Kari Donovan: Morning of the 2022 Indy 500, Pit Row)
It is like Hunter S. Thompson said: "the problem with the edge is that only the people who have gone over it know where it is."
And Swede Savage tested those limits and sought out those risks. So 1973 was a year of learning about risks and rewards.
The 1973 500 was only a few years after July 20, 1969, when millions of people gathered around their televisions to watch two U.S. astronauts do something no one had ever done before- land on the moon. The Sears Tower in Chicago is finished as the world's tallest building. The first space station was launched, Watergate was first televised, Led Zeppelin broke the Beatles record of gathering 57,000 fans, and 350,000 people gathered on the second day of the Indy 500 to watch a race that ravaged the hearts and minds of fans.
Life is about taking risks and doing things. Sometimes the consequences are not what anyone anticipated.
Of course, all of these events were set at a time of significant national trauma- the Vietnam War, when 58,220 young American men and women died fighting Communism. That is larger than the record-breaking rock concert.
From the book and interviews with Savage and Woerner, we learn that May 1973 in Indianapolis left people on edge for many reasons, worried, skeptical, and with a feeling that the Spirit of Death was hovering over the speedway and invading their lives of every single race fan who had been drawn 'back home' to Indiana for the race.
And what they witnessed was tragedy upon tragedy.
Of course, new generations continue to be drawn to the speedway, dreaming of racing and embracing IndyCar for the thrilling speed and just magnificent spectacle of it all. Some go for the traditions and history.
But somewhere in our hearts and souls, all of us who grew up watching racing at the IMS and who dreamed of the Indy 500 and our unique role in the Greatest Spectacle in racing know for a fact that something extraordinary and different is going on here that we can not explain away easily.
FUTURE OF RACING
It is essential to revisit the mistakes from 1973, a year that could have ended IndyCar racing. Because we know that the temptations to push forward, to find the edge, to push the limits, the need to be victorious is always within the men and women who are attracted to the sport of racing.
The risks are always with us and with the drivers. And the consequences we can not always control. And our reactions to the results are not always pleasant.
Choices are made, and chances are taken. It still happens. For example, just last week at the Alabama Grand Prix, we saw two drivers knock their tires:
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
So - really- how are we any different now, 50 years later? Are fans still drawn to the risks? Watch the following race footage. You will see that, in many ways, we haven't changed. The fans are still emotionally attached to the sport.
And in many ways, we have changed. The Pace Car rules, the wing size, the fuel and safety requirements, and so on...
Sometimes the announcers sound the same. For example, Jackie Stewart, who was announcing the '73 race, described the start of the race on the second day, when there was a brutal near deadly accident, as very messy, and he pointed out how out of control the rows were.
Doesn't that sound like 2022 at Barber?
The sport is always going to be about being close to the edge and being risky. But the racers still want to drive, and the fans still want to watch.
Most of us look for ways to make that world of racing more meaningful than just watching cars go around in circles.
It is a 106-year-old tradition to chase and find the meaning of racing.
Watch the 1973 race:
The 107th traditional running of the Indianapolis 500 will be held Sunday, May 28th, 2023.
This year I will be asking people what draws them to racing, what it means to them to be at the speedway, and what they have learned about -along the way- that keeps them running that race.
Look for more of my stories from 2023 Indy 500 here at Patriot Sports Now.
There is much more to our sports and what they mean to us than a simple pass time; this isn't just the case for racing. In general, our national sports have been impacted and changed in ways that many fans are miserable about.
I question whether losing connections to our sports is actually traumatic for people.
For me, thinking about Swede Savage, as introduced to me by Ted Woerner, has inspired me to find a much deeper meaning to my own Indy 500 obsession. I'll bring you some more of those stories as I head to Indy for ten days of coverage. Along the way, I hope to meet Angela, the Savage Angel, and many other Americans who are making a pilgrimage to Indianapolis- and get some solid answers about the meaning of this iconic American race.