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NASCAR's Jack Roush is a survivor

SUNDAY DRIVER -

July 28, 2003|by JASON STEINWheelbase Communications

More than a year later, he still calls it a bump in the road, a minor blip in the life of someone who thrives on difficult days and lives for close calls.

"You've got to move on," race-car owner Jack Roush says on a gorgeous Friday in southeastern Michigan's Irish Hills, the blue hue of a June sky reflecting off his sunglasses under that trademark Panama Jack hat.

"I feel great now. No question. Just great. Healthier than I've ever been, actually."

The "Cat in the Hat," as he's affectionately known around the greasy garages, just smiles that Cheshire feline smile.

"Almost didn't make it," he said. "Ah, almost."

So close. So far. So good. So Roush.

If NASCAR's biggest team owner and most famous name had indeed died that day last April when the experimental twin-engine plane he was flying plummeted into that Alabama lake, chances are not everyone would have believed it.

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Roush? Checked out?

"Jack just seems to love the dangerous life," said Jeff Burton, one of his drivers. "I don't think there's anything he couldn't get out of alive."

In his heart, Roush knows he's lucky to be alive. The pins have been pulled from his leg. The hardware in the rest of his body is gone, too. The memory doesn't fade.

It was Roush's 60th birthday. A short flight near Talladega seemed to be a good idea. Roush, an avid flyer, was only interested in a little afternoon jaunt in a plane designed by the National Geographic Society to shoot aerial photos. He ended up in a whole lot of trouble.

During the solo flight, the plane clipped a set of power lines and somersaulted into a small lake near Troy, Ala. Upside-down and submerged in mud, Roush was wedged in, unconscious and fading fast. He would have drowned had a former marine sergeant not been sitting in his living room nearby and watched as the plane went down. As Roush's luck would have it, the sergeant happened to be an expert in search-and-rescue operations.

As the marine's wife called 911, the 52-year-old rescuer dove twice through a pool of jet fuel, to no avail. On the third attempt he pulled Roush from the murky waters of the wreck, breathed life back into his lungs and took him to a local hospital in critical condition. Roush was a mess. His left leg was fractured, his head was injured, his spleen was ruptured, a lung was collapsed, his jaw was smashed and he had about a dozen cuts and bruises.

"Not a great way to spend your birthday," Roush says now. "But we all have our moments."

He lived, of course, to tell about it in only the way Roush could. He's a survivor. Always has been.

"Maybe it was a little divine intervention," he said with a laugh, which is fitting, considering Roush has always been the one intervening in the lives of others, pulling some racing careers from the fire, building empires one drive at a time. He is a hands-on owner who attends every NASCAR event and helps pack up the trucks at the end.

He's still alive and he's definitely still kickin'.

"He had to work pretty hard to become successful," said driver Mark Martin, who has more than 30 victories in more than 15 seasons driving one of Roush's Fords. "He loves underdogs."

Roush got his start working and earning everything from the ground up. Born in Manchester, Ohio, he earned a mathematics degree with a minor in physics and was immediately hired as a Ford engineer in charge of car assembly and tooling. But, five years later, the pull of racing engines took him away from Ford to a group of local drag racers where he built engines and equipment. Soon he was building engines for other teams, then began his own engine development company, then buying his way into racing cars - first in the Sports Car Club of America in the early 1980s and NASCAR by 1988.

Today, Roush Industries employs more than 1,800 people in five states and two countries. Roush Racing has nine teams in NASCAR's top three divisions.

But, 15 racing years later, he's a mystery to many. He has built a fortune that is worth more than $1 billion, but he's known for being extra thrifty. In a sport known for its simplicity and simple talkers, he is an intellectual, an engineer and a guy not afraid to dive into a few theories on macroeconomics.

"He keeps everything very functional," Burton said. "He puts everything back into the race program."

He puts a little into other things as well. He owns three World War II fighter planes. And, accidents aside, he still loves to fly.

He has no recollection of the plane crash. He likes it better that way. He calls these days his "extra days." And what great days they are. His teams are leading the NASCAR points standings, and on this June day, driver Kurt Busch has made Roush the only three-time winner of the season.

Life is good.

"I guess if there hadn't been an improbable set of circumstances . . ." Roush said, opting not to finish the thought.

"You just have to be surrounded by the right people and have the right circumstances for surviving. I certainly had that."

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbasecom.com.

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