Texas Motor Speedway conducted its annual media day on Wednesday to preview its three race weekends in 2018, but put on display from the dais of the Speedway Club was time and change.
At the lectern accepting 80-year-old birthday wishes and a cake designed in his famed yellow No. 4 open-wheel vessel was Fort Worth racing icon Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indy 500 winner whose eyes have seen everything inside and outside a race car.
At his far right, sitting, were two drivers – Austin Wayne Self and Christopher Bell – almost 60 years younger. Between the two, they haven’t consumed as much milk at breakfast over their collective 44 years as Rutherford has spilled in Indianapolis.
“It was really cool to be in his presence,” said Self, an Austin native, only days from his 22nd birthday, who is about to start in earnest his third season on the NASCAR trucks series with IndyCar ambition. “Just to be able to be in there as a driver, and he’s there as a driver as well, that was a big deal for me.”
Never miss a local story.
TMS’ first race weekend is set for April 6-8 with the My Bariatric Solutions 300 Xfinity series race on the calendar for April 7, featuring Bell, the fast riser and 2017’s truck series champion. The NASCAR Monster Cup O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 is the next day.
Self won’t return to race until June’s Rattlesnake 400, the same weekend as IndyCar’s stop in Texas, the newly renamed DXC.technology 600.
Sitting in between the most junior members and Rutherford were 39-year-old NASCAR veteran Kurt Busch and 31-year-old James Hinchcliffe, who has done more than his share of living on the IndyCar circuit.
Growing as a professional athlete often requires defeating adversity, most often of a personal nature.
Unlike the youthful Self and Bell, Busch and Hinchcliffe have both “made it.” But it has been rocky at times. Both have had their share of pain, emotional and physical. Each has triumphed through it.
Busch had a well-documented, very public and oftentimes bizarre breakup with his girlfriend a few years ago. In a court proceeding over a protection order filed against him Busch testified that Patricia Driscoll was an assassin.
Busch today is happily married – to a different woman – and a Daytona 500 winner a year ago, though his professional future is up in the air. He re-signed with Stewart-Haas Racing after the season but only after a lengthy delay and for only one year.
He spoke Wednesday of how deeply personally affected he was by the mass shooting in his hometown of Las Vegas in October. Busch and his wife participated in fundraisers there and paid tribute to the victims at with a monument in the garden of their North Carolina home.
“You read about and see things all around the world, the country … when it hits your hometown that’s when it really pierces your heart,” Busch said.
Busch remembered fondly his sibling rivalry with younger brother Kyle early in their careers. It has faded, though, he said … with time.
Hinchcliffe, the Canadian a five-time winner on his circuit, has the charm and good looks of Hollywood and has left an imprint on pop culture. In November 2016, he was the runner-up in "Dancing with the Stars."
But that was after the long road back from a near-fatal crash at an Indy 500 practice session, a near-tragic experience that can’t help but result in a changed life.
“The biggest thing was learning an appreciation for the little things in life,” Hinchcliffe said. “A lot of people think an accident will affect you as a driver. The answer is no. I woke up in the hospital, had a tube down my throat, could only talk with a pen and piece of paper, and my third question was ‘when can I get back in a car?’
“Personally, though, that type of thing changes you a lot. You learn a lot about yourself and the people in your life. You reprioritize what’s important in your life. I was incredibly lucky in a lot of ways to surive that and still drive Indy Cars for a living.”
To Rutherford, who looks 60, and A.J. Foyt, 83, one of a number of IndyCar personalities to deliver birthday greetings by videotape on Wednesday, having “made it” takes on a different context as octogenarians.
Said Rutherford, who added that he planned to be back at media day in 2038 for his 100th birthday: “A.J. and I today, if he were here, we’d laugh, and he would say, 'Rutherford, we made it.’ So many of our friends over the years didn’t make it.”
Rutherford said he sees a little of himself in all of the younger guys on stage on Wednesday. It’s the shared experiences. When Rutherford was 21, he was racing modified stock cars in Dallas.
He wouldn’t give any advice to any of the guys; the times, he said, are so different from his days.
The only constant is change. But, no matter how winding that journey might be, he added, it’s worth living it.