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Flat Spot On: The Amazing Mr. Pruett

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 28 2013

Scott Pruett has had a long and interesting career in American motor sports. (Photos courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Series)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Has there ever been an American race car driver with a career as distinctive as that of Scott Pruett? At Daytona on Sunday, he clinched a fifth over-all victory and tied Hurley Haywood for the most outright victories in what is currently known as the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

It’s not the statistics that make Pruett stand out as much as the variety of victories and the sheer single-minded toughness of his career.

When he limped out of the Chip Ganassi team’s Riley-BMW on an ankle surgically repaired long ago, Pruett looked as gimpy as he was valiant. “I didn’t want to get into a situation where to avoid a problem I really had to stand on the brake pedal hard,” he said of the decision to give up his seat to co-driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who went on to clinch the victory for his co-drivers.

Pruett has never been inclined to giving up easily. A pre-season accident while testing at West Palm Beach for TrueSports in 1990 left him with more hardware in his back than some drivers have in their trophy case. Shortly after his return from that incident, Pruett ran out of brakes (again) and clouted Armco, loosely shielded by tire walls, in the East Horseshoe at Daytona on board a TWR Jaguar during practice.

Clearly neither of these two accidents shook him up. After virtually a year off for rehab in 1990, Pruett came back to win the IROC race at Daytona in February of 1991. Not many guys beat the good ol’ stars on the oval at Daytona. Pruett did it with surgically repaired knees and ankles, plus a metal jack that holds his vertebrae in place.

That was 22 years ago. And Pruett was just getting warmed up. He went on to three Trans-Am championships

Scott Pruett helped drive the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing car to victory at Daytona on Sunday.

and a CART victory at the ultra-fast Michigan oval as well as on the tight confines of Surfer’s Paradise. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Pruett has also been a member of the winning Corvette squads in the rain at Le Mans, truly a dangerous track if there ever was one. Plus, he was the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500.

Following two GTO championships in IMSA prior to his testing crash, plus the Trans-Am titles and IROC victory, Pruett, a member of the World Karting Hall of Fame, finally found his niche in the Grand-Am prototypes at the beginning of his third decade as a professional driver.

That brings him to Daytona each year for the circuit racing icebreaker once known as the 24 Hours of Daytona. Whatever the vehicle or race, throughout his career Pruett has made Daytona his oyster. In addition to five over-all victories, he has three GTO class wins, two in the Fords of Jack Roush and one in a Jaguar. He started this year’s Rolex as the pole winner.

After his fifth over-all Rolex victory, Pruett, who won this 24-hour in 1994 on board a Nissan 300 ZX Twin Turbo, acknowledged that the pain from his testing crash at West Palm Beach – a high-speed straight shot into the barriers – begins from the moment he wakes up each day. Having covered his early days in sports cars, I frequently crossed paths with Pruett as he fought back from his injuries. “The only time I don’t feel the pain,” he said at the time, “is when I’m in a race car.”

There’s many a driver who spends most of his waking moments trying to find a way to get into a competitive race car for the sake of the glory, the income and the sheer joy of racing. It’s a pursuit sometimes compared to addiction. For Pruett, the pursuit of racing falls into a more spiritual dimension. He’s literally not free unless he’s at speed. “Racing is not a career choice,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle.”

I have known race car drivers whose driving careers have been ended by reliance on pain pills as well as an addiction to speed – clearly not the path chosen by Pruett, who relies on proper nutrition and exercise to minimize the pain after initially using over-the-counter pain killers. Closing in on 53 years old, Pruett belongs to that by-gone era when risking life and limb were part of the game, before the safety introduced by soft walls, head and neck restraints, stronger tubs in road racing and vehicles like NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow.

It was a touching moment when Haywood, who served as the Grand Marshall at this year’s Rolex race, greeted Pruett following the Ganassi team’s victory. Haywood himself walks with a slight limp from a crash at Mosport. It was after his injury that Haywood clinched a fifth victory in the Rolex 24 in 1991 when the Joest Porsche 962C beat a TWR XJR-9 co-driven by Pruett.

Racing is in a transition phase, where the young guns, such as the up-and-coming drivers now populating the GT ranks, are expected to give their all metaphorically but not physically. It doesn’t diminish the sport to greatly reduce that macabre aspect of putting one’s self in harm’s way when it comes to fan appreciation of what race car drivers do. It’s still plain to see what they do is extraordinary.

Perhaps the new era takes the edge off from an individual perspective. A driver no longer gets out of the car and regularly imagines having cheated death or serious injury. Or, should they be more philosophical and fatalistic, that a game of Russian roulette has been survived.

It’s the love of racing that prevails these days with a carnival atmosphere that isn’t just mascara for the carnage. Yet, guys like Haywood and Pruett remind you of how we arrived at the current scene.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 28 2013
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