RETRO: Lee Kunzman beats the Grim Reaper

Image by John Mahoney

RETRO: Lee Kunzman beats the Grim Reaper

Vintage Motorsport / Historic

RETRO: Lee Kunzman beats the Grim Reaper

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It was June 5, 1970 at a USAC sprint race in Odessa, Mo., that Lee Kunzman first bitch slapped the Grim Reaper. At that point in his career he was not only a rising star in the toughest open-wheel racing in the country but one of the most versatile drivers since A.J. and Rufus.

A year earlier he’d won the first USAC midget race he entered against the likes of Kenyon, Tattersall, McGreevey and Wente and run second or third 10 times in sprinters. He passed his rookie test at Indy in ’70 but neither car he drove had a chance to make the show so he wound up winning the Night Before The 500 midget main at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

A week later he was fighting for his life at I-70 Speedway – broken, battered and engulfed in flames.

“It’s been 50 years?” says the 75-year-old Kunzman when informed of that fateful night. “Damn, I am getting old but I remember all of it — I never lost consciousness.”

He’d gone to buy his pit pass for the USAC sprint show that night when informed he’d been fired from his steady ride. So he hopped in a strange car and was making the best of it. He started last in his heat race and was passing Gary Bettenhausen for the lead when the throttle stuck.

The car hit the wall, then climbed it and tore down a 10-foot fence before bursting into flames. Kunzman had no way of knowing but the impact broke his neck, his right arm and fractured his right wrist while his left arm was tangled in the fence.

“I knew I was on fire and soaked with fuel and I kept saying, ‘Stay conscious, don’t breathe or you’ll die.’ When I finally crawled away from the car I tried to run to a fireman to have him put me out and that’s when I knew my neck was broken because my legs went one way and my head went another.”

But in the midst of this ghastly accident, an angel emerged. Dr. Ward Dunseth, who had sponsored Lee’s sprint car in 1969 (pictured above, with Kunzman in the cockpit), thankfully was at the track that night and his quick thinking likely prevented paralysis.

“Doc held my head up and soaked my body with damp cloths, which probably saved some third-degree burns,” recalled Kunzman. “Then he found one of those tanks at state fairs where they kept apples and it was full of water, so he got some help and they laid me into the tank for buoyancy while he held my head and neck as we drove to the hospital. He’s the only reason I’m not paralyzed.”

The handsome 25-year-old from Guttenberg, Iowa suffered second-degree burns on his face and neck. His nose was nearly burned off along with his eyebrows and he couldn’t shut his eyes for long periods of time. After six weeks in the hospital, he was released and began thinking about 1971.

“I knew I’d be scarred but I also knew I could still race and that helped motivate me all winter,” he reasoned. “A bone specialist told me I’d never race again but I was happy to prove him wrong.”

On April 25, 1971 at Cincinnati’s Tri-County Speedway Kunzman made his comeback in a midget and it was spectacular. USAC would not grant him a license because they said he wasn’t physically recovered, so he borrowed another driver’s helmet for practice and qualifying.

Even though he looked like hell (think Phantom of the Opera) that’s also how he ran in the feature as he captured the 40-lapper. When he pulled into victory lane, he was so tired he couldn’t pull the car out of gear and damn near ran over a couple USAC officials.

“But you should have seen the look on their face when I took off my helmet,” says Kunzman with a laugh. “Then they said I could have my license back.”

A.J. Foyt with Lee Kunzman at Indianapolis in 1973. Image by David Phipps/Motorsport Images

Of all the tough guys in racing, only A.J. Foyt rivals Lee for setbacks, comebacks, broken bones, burns and that amazing ability to erase bad memories and go speeding back into life.

From 1971-73 he was brilliant on the high banks at Salem and Winchester, always formidable at Terre Haute, Williams Grove or Eldora and lost the ’73 USAC sprint title by a few points. It was so obvious he was a special talent and finally Bob Fletcher gave him a first-class IndyCar ride halfway through ’73 — he was on the front row with Mario in his first start.

But Kunzman would face his biggest challenge that December when he was critically injured while testing Fletcher’s car at Ontario. He had to relearn how to read, write, walk and talk after a severe brain injury. It took nearly two full years to recover but he was back in a race car in 1975 and almost won the 1979 IndyCar race at Atlanta.

He missed three of his prime years with injuries yet still scored 14 USAC sprint wins and 16 midget victories in what totaled about five full seasons. He never complained or moaned about bad luck, inferior Indy cars or all his challenges. He doesn’t move too fast these days but he’s always got a smile or a story at team lunch.

And 50 years ago he crawled out of an inferno in Missouri and never lost that fire to stand on the gas.

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