The sporting world was agog last week, proclaiming Tiger Woods’ victory in The Master as the greatest comeback of all time. Now make no mistake, it was a remarkable recovery from all his surgeries and a story worthy of great praise, but let’s get serious. Greatest comeback of all time? It might not even be as dramatic as Ben Hogan’s triumphant return from his near-fatal car crash in 1949.
And speaking of cars, we in the motorsports community get a little testy whenever people start throwing around comeback plaudits and never mention a race driver. Maybe it’s because racing still isn’t accepted as a sport by the mainstream, but please don’t try to compare a gifted athlete with a golf club to this list of tough guys who played through the Grim Reaper.
NIKI LAUDA: From last rites, to back in his Formula 1 cockpit in six weeks: there’s never been anything to rival Lauda’s great escape in 1976. Pulled from his flaming Ferrari by fellow drivers at the Nurburgring, the Austrian suffered severe burns to his head and face while inhaling hot toxic gases. Listed as very critical when he got to the hospital, the priest was summoned for a religious farewell, but the little fighter known as The Rat didn’t die. He missed two races, but was back for the Italian Grand Prix where, amazingly, he finished fourth sans his left ear (which had been burned off) and soaked in blood from the raw skin on his head. The championship came down to the season finale in Japan, where Lauda qualified third but pulled out after two laps in a torrential rain because his eyes were watering excessively – his damaged tear ducts would not allow him to blink. James Hunt claimed the crown, but there was no denying who the real champion was.
JIM HURTUBISE: Running nose-to-tail with Rodger Ward and A.J. Foyt at Milwaukee in June of 1964, Herk rode over Ward’s suddenly-slowed car, hit the wall, and his roadster burst into flames. He was knocked out and lying in a pool of gasoline. Burned over 42 percent of his body, Jim’s hands got the worst of it. They were basically charred stubs, and the surgeons told him they needed to place pins in each finger so he could try and function. He opted for both hands to be permanently fixed in a claw so he could grip a steering wheel. Nine months later, he finished fourth in his IndyCar return at Phoenix – wearing a smile and his gloves soaked in blood.
LEE KUNZMAN: The hottest thing in USAC midgets and sprints, the handsome native of Guttenberg, Ia. had his sprinter’s throttle stick in Odessa, Mo. in June of 1970. The car climbed the wall, wrapped itself up in the fencing and caught fire. His neck was broken and he was horribly burned about the face, neck and arms. Nine months later he asked USAC to reinstate his license for a midget race in Cincinnati, but was denied because they said he wasn’t physically ready. So he went to Tri-County Speedway, borrowed another driver’s helmet, kept it on all afternoon through his heat race, and won the 40-lap feature. Kunzman was so tired he couldn’t get the car out of gear when he pulled up to receive the checkered flag at the start/finish line. But when they took off his helmet, the USAC officials got quite a surprise.
MEL KENYON: His second IndyCar start in 1965 was nearly his last, as he was seriously burned at Langhorne, Pa. after spinning in oil and being knocked out on impact. Fellow driver Joe Leonard, helped by two fans, pulled him out of his burning roadster and saved his life, but there was no saving his left hand. He lost all five fingers, so brother Don designed a special glove with a rubber grommet sewn into the palm. The glove fit on Mel’s hand and hooked into a peg on the steering wheel. The next May he finished fifth at the Indianapolis 500, and racked up seven more starts at Indy plus four more USAC midget crowns.
PANCHO CARTER: The USAC champion was ascending up the open-wheel ladder when he suffered crippling injuries while testing Dan Gurney’s Eagle at Phoenix in December of 1977. His pelvis was shattered and internal injuries made it touch-and-go for a while. But four months later he limped into a sprint car at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Now the nerves in his back that made his foot go up and down were smashed, so owner/builder Steve Stapp made a plastic brace that allowed Carter to push the throttle down – not ideal conditions for a fast joint like IRP, but the second-generation star looked like his old self as he won the 40-lap main event and resumed at IndyCar career that lasted until 1991.
GARY BETTENHAUSEN: The dirt-car crash that cost him his ride with Roger Penske in 1974 at Syracuse, N.Y. also cost our stubborn hero the use of his left arm for the rest of his career. Unemployed, he took the family midget to Fort Wayne for the 1975 USAC season-opener. With his left arm taped to the steering wheel since it was just dead weight, Bettenhausen captured the 100-lap feature and a couple months later qualified at Indy (where he finished third in 1980 with one arm).
MERLE BETTENHAUSEN: The middle brother of Tony’s brood made his IndyCar debut at Michigan in 1972, but it was short-lived and painful. He crashed on lap three and his car caught fire. The shield on his helmet popped open, and as flames engulfed him, Merle tried to bail out with the car still moving. Unfortunately, the Armco guard rail chopped off his right arm. After spending the summer in the hospital, his arm was replaced with a hook. Brother Gary rigged up a steering wheel to accommodate him, and in the summer of ’73 he won a pair of USAC midget features in dramatic style, and was second in the point standings in 1974 when his brother got hurt and he quit on the spot.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Minding his own business going through Turn 3 a few days before the 2015 Indianapolis 500, Hinch pounded the wall when his suspension failed. He damn near bled to death in the minutes following, but great response from IMS, IndyCar and Methodist saved his life. He lost weight and strength but not his desire to go fast, so he came roaring back next May and captured the pole position.
KUNZMAN II: After finally scoring his first good IndyCar ride, Zoom was testing at Ontario in October of 1973 when something broke and send him into the wall almost head-on. Listed in very critical condition and on a ventilator for a long time, his motor skills were destroyed and it took more than a year to learn how to walk, talk, read and write again. He was somehow back in an Indy car by May of 1975, but missed the show the next two years in inferior equipment before finishing seventh in 1977. In 1979, he was hired to drive a top-shelf Parnelli chassis and came within one car length of beating Johnny Rutherford on the wicked-fast high banks at Atlanta. He retired in 1980 but there’s never a tougher competitor, except maybe for his buddy A.J.
A.J. FOYT: Breaking his back and ankle and rupturing his aorta in a violent flip in a stock car race at Riverside in 1965 and being on the IndyCar starting grid at Phoenix three months later was mighty impressive. Ditto for getting burned in June of ’66 but only missing one race before he was back at Atlanta. But his last comeback topped them all. When his brake pedal failed at 180mph at Road America and sent him rocketing into an earth bank, A.J.’s feet, ankles and knees were pulverized. That was September of 1990, and at 55, we were all hoping he could walk again some day, but he vowed to walk to his car at Indy in eight months. He busted his butt for six months in rehab and qualified in the middle of the front row at IMS in ’91 to make good on his vow and complete another remarkable chapter in his story.
RICK MEARS: His ankles and feet were crushed under the Armco at Sanair Speedway in 1984 a few weeks after winning his second Indianapolis 500, and there was talk of amputation until doctors Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey took charge. The Rocket suffered mightily with the pain, but was back testing in the winter of ’85 at Phoenix and back in the starting lineup at Indy that May, albeit getting around on a scooter because walking was still much too painful. His comeback was complete in August when he pulled into victory lane at Pocono.
DOUG WOLFGANG: One of the Big 3 in the World of Outlaws heyday, Wolfie nearly died in April of 1992 when his sprinter caught fire. He suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, a broken neck and a brain bruise, and was told he likely wouldn’t walk again because his lower body had been ravaged by the fire. But in July of 1993 he won the Jackson Nationals for 360 sprinters to prove to himself he still had that desire to go fast.
ALEX ZANARDI: While he never made it back into IndyCar racing after his devastating accident at Germany in 2001 that cost him both legs, Alex’s comeback story is legendary – from winning touring car races to competing at the Rolex 24 to taking gold medals in the Paralympics. Probably the most inspirational sports story of all.
This piece has been updated since its original publication to include Rick Mears.