Faith, hype & tragedy

Ex-biker Swede Savage divided opinion: the Next Big Thing or an accident waiting to happen. He was killed at Indy in 1973. Joe Scalzo tells his story — and reveals a startling driven-to-destruction parallel…

Charisma kills. Nobody can know for certain but it seems likely that having the captivating and swashbuckling moniker Swede Savage helped lead to the former bike racer’s death at Indianapolis. Similarly the demise a quarter of a century earlier at the Brickyard of Ralph Hepburn — another lion of the crotch-rocket who came pirouetting into motor racing — surely had something to do with all the powerful charisma that ‘Hep’ belatedly and lethally attained.

“Be careful” was the poignant, and last, message Savage relayed to his closest racing associate Eddie Wirth, another biker who later successfully got into racing cars. It was a highly unusual piece of advice which Eddie had surely never followed. But then nor had Swede.

Savage’s story started in the mid 1960s. Taking his motorcycle rite of passage at that Los Angeles hall of valour known as Ascot Park Speedway, announcers shouted his catchy name into the night. Dan Gurney heard the name and responded — first in admiration, later friendship. Dan was at this time among the hottest personalities America had going: Formula One and Le Mans winner, proprietor of All-American Racers, his very own Indy team and Eagle-building works.

Meanwhile, Swede’s own motorbike life was souring. On a street outside a ‘cycle emporium he ran dead-on into a car. Head injuries are tricky and his recovery was protracted. Next he got the opportunity that made his fame and radically shortened his life. He was on a velocipede trip across the Mojave Desert with Gurney and a posse of other cyclists that included a Ford press agent. The Blue Oval then was a corporation committed to car racing; discovering new talent and creating exciting headlines was a priority. So, upon observing Swede pulling the hot biker caper of standing a scooter on its back tyre and wheelie-ing through all four gears, this agent, not unnaturally, had a brainstorm: anybody blessed with the name Swede Savage, who could do mad tricks like that might one day become the greatest headline grabber of all.

Swede, still in his early 20s, had everything come together on a Saturday afternoon in summer when he and Wirth were preparing to travel to a flat-track match at Tulare. The phone rang, and out of it came a Ford voice telling Swede to forget about Tulare and instead to jet to Charlotte in the Carolinas. Holman-Moody, Ford’s NASCAR arm, had the ex-Freddy Lorenzen fastback-bodied Fairlane groomed and ready for him. So began Swede’s extraordinary car-racing career. By 1973, following brief, furious flings with stockers and open-wheelers, he qualified fourth-fastest for the Indy 500. An influential magazine fatefully guaranteed that within a couple of seasons he’d not only be the US’s greatest but the world’s. Heady prose, but how good was Swede?

There were three different insider opinions: he really was great; one day he’d surely become great; he was somebody who’d learned how to go fast without learning how to race (the same thing they said about the young Mario Andretti) and was dangerously over his head.

What’s more, his compelling name turned out to be somewhat spurious. Mild-mannered and settled, he was married with a young daughter. And his father was a veterinarian, among the most gentle of professions. He’d name his son, David Earl Savage Jnr, ‘Swede’ on account of his incredibly blond hair.

Swede’s dramatic swathe through the four-wheel wars hadn’t been free of potholes. Racing for All-American he won outright one of his earliest Indycar competitions. But it had been a fluke, marked by faster drivers falling out. Not long afterward, at a Formula Libre GP that All-American was skipping, Swede, feeling his oats, sidestepped Gurney’s objections and competed in another team’s car. He got into a wreck that irritated the old head wounds and brought on a case of amnesia. After the clouds had lifted, Dan raised the possibility of Swede taking a sabbatical, a suggestion that Savage rejected. This led to their parting of ways.

Savage’s 1972 employer was a middling team with a two-year-old Brabham, which Swede somehow managed to qualify among the top 10 in every race. The team also put him inside an Antares Manta, a huge folly that enjoyed the distinction of being probably the ugliest Indycar ever constructed.

But relief arrived in 1973 when the brilliant George Bignotti began running his own team and tapped Swede as one of its drivers. It was aboard a Bignotti-prepped turbo Offy-powered Eagle that he lined up on the inside of Indy’s second row; led the 500 for a dozen laps, and then suffered the cataclysmic crash that led to his tragically early death a month and two days later.

Accounts of what happened varied. The surface was oily and Swede had fallen behind because of a botched pitstop. He had also been glaring into his rear-views at Bobby Unser, who’d been derogatory about him in print, and who now was coming up fast. Or possibly the old head trauma returned and Swede had a blackout.

On the day of the crash Wirth was a couple of hundred miles away in a motorcycle shop, listening to the 500 on the radio. He was in Indianapolis within hours. He found Swede’s wife in the intensive care ward of Methodist Hospital, and stood vigil with her for four days and nights. Swede, who had inhaled fire, was unable to speak, but when Eddie at last had to depart, Swede scribbled his dire warning on a notepad and pointed to himself. Eddie would never see him again.


Ralph Hepburn…

Unlike Swede, who was gone before reaching 30, Ralph Hepburn didn’t find charisma until, by Indianapolis standards, he was a very old man — in his 50s. His great two-wheel period took place during the 1920s, when he wore a cloth skull cap and was Harley-Davidson’s star boardtrack trigger. His speeds were insane— in 1921 he was lapping the Beverley Hills boards at 107mph, faster than the Indy four-wheelers!

He was unlucky, too. The soaring boards had taught him racing but all his wipe-outs and narrow escapes altered his constitution. Hep fatigued early. He was a medical basket case who, in five different Indy 500s, had to be lifted out of cars so that younger and stronger drivers could take his place.

By 1946, time was running out for him and it appeared that Indy was a victory forever beyond his reach. Then he got assigned the chair of the notorious bull Novi. Its rolling horsepower and supercharged siren scream had first blown Hep’s mind back in ’41, when there had been no chassis for the fearsome V8 mill except an antique and ill-handling Miller front-driver. To make up for his lack of stamina, and to semi-control the Novi’s firepower, Hep’s solution had been to wedge a board beneath the throttle to stop it going clear to the floor. Even with just three-quarter pedal, the Novi was so fast it still finished a close fourth.

Now in 1946 there was a new and well-behaved Kurtis-Kraft chassis and no longer a need for a throttle board. Hep’s incredible qualifying time trial was 7mph faster than the old record and stood through the next five years. If only the Novi had not burned out its brakes he’d have won the 500 in a runaway.

A whole new career seemed to open for him. The Novi was itself charismatic and Hep was the monster’s charismatic pilot. And so 1947 seemed certain to be a Novi year, a Hepburn year — until the firebrands of the American Society of Professional Auto Racing asked Hep, the Brickyard’s ranking elder, to lead their Indianapolis wildcat strike. After it collapsed, he was apparently ineligible to compete in any more 500s.

He was home in LA leading a safe senior citizen’s existence when his past caught up with him in 1948. Back in Indianapolis Novi’s assigned chauffeurs were spooked and timid about getting their cars up to speed. Throwing up his hands in despair, Lew Welch, the owner/manager, canned both of them — and cried: “Bring me Ralph Hepburn!”

Hep duly reappeared: a stooped and scarred relic of 15 500s with a deathly pale face, a faded tattoo of a flat-track bike on his right forearm and a heavy limp, a lifelong souvenir of his big crash in a Miller on New Year’s Day 1932. But he still had those gleaming board-track eyes. And he loved the heavy charisma of being the only human capable of taming the behemoth Novi.

He stayed up all night adjusting everything to the identical chassis settings of 1946. And the following morning the Novi was out on the Speedway screaming the terrifying warwhoop that only Hepburn was capable of. But when he opened up to peak revs and got rough with it, the monster turned murderer and hurled itself onto the wall, annihilating Hep on impact.

The accident made the national wires, and none other than pulp magazine scandal-monger Walter Winchell took to the air calling for a homicide investigation. No such autopsy occurred, but this big crash marked the beginning of the Novi’s unbreakable reputation as a hoodoo wagon; a jinxed race car if ever there was one.

Just like Swede, Hep had paid the stiff cost of charisma.