Roush reflects on luck, survival

Owner talks to reporters 8 days after near-fatal airplane crash in Alabama

Auto Racing

April 28, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

FONTANA, Calif. -Eight days after a near-fatal airplane crash, Winston Cup car owner Jack Roush was sitting up in his hospital bed taking part in a telephone news conference.

"I'd estimate less than five out of a hundred would have survived these injuries, let alone be on the phone for a press conference," said Roush's doctor, Samuel Wyndham, assistant professor of surgery at the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Division of Trauma, Burns and Surgical Critical Care, referring to the critical head, lung, rib and leg injuries Roush sustained.

Roush owns the cars raced by Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. Yesterday, while the Winston Cup cars practiced for today's NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway, Roush discussed his crash and the good fortune it took for him to survive it.

During the discussion, his voice wavered from strong to weak, from stoic to emotional. While explaining the circumstances of his survival, he choked back tears. Still, he sounded much like himself, reeling off long, detailed answers.

Roush, 60, was celebrating his birthday April 19 by piloting a twin-engine Air Cam, a lightweight plane designed for aerial photography, when he hit some power lines and crashed into a pond owned by former Marine Larry Hicks near Troy, Ala.

"I have no recollection of whether there was trouble with the airplane or whether I made a pilot error," Roush said. "I'll probably never know. But I ran into the wire and went into eight feet of water."

Roush tells the story.

"Larry Hicks is a retired Marine guy who now works for the Forestry Service as a conservation officer and his health hasn't been good. Life hasn't been good to Larry Hicks. He's suffering under nose and throat cancer most horribly in the last year. But, he did have this training in his military life - in his 33 years in the military, where he was trained to go down and get pilots out of airplanes that might go off the end of carriers or off the end of plane fields. And I dropped right in on Larry - how could that be?

"So Larry tells his wife that he loves her, said that he would do whatever he could and then he jumps in the water where this fool has just crashed his airplane upside-down in eight feet of water with no telling how much high-octane aviation gas in the water. Of course, that tends to float on the top. You've got to dive through it to get to things underneath. Larry Hicks dives down once and doesn't find anything. He dives twice. Man, that's a lot to ask. The third time he goes down and he finds Jack in a harness that he was familiar with from touch, I guess from his military background, and he pulls Jack to the surface. He supports him on the upside-down wing and executes timely and critical CPR."

Roush paused, tears choking his throat.

"If there hadn't been an improbable set of circumstances - I had to be right on time to have an accident like that and survive. I don't know what we're going to do for Larry Hicks, but we've certainly got to think about him in our prayers."

Wyndham estimated it will take from two to three months for the fractures in Roush's left leg to heal.

"Otherwise," said Wyndham, "I would suspect in four to six weeks he would pretty much be over most of the symptoms from the lung injury, rib fractures and the head injury."

Roush said he will continue to fly, but he'll be more careful. He recalled that when he was 30, he decided he would no longer drive race cars that were too fast for him to handle comfortably. When he started flying in his mid-40s, he said he would get good instruction, pay strict attention and assess the risks before leaving the ground.

He deviated from that path in Alabama when friends offered him the opportunity to fly the Air Cam, a plane he had wanted to fly for some time, as a birthday present. He said yesterday he would be slower to operate someone else's airplane or drive someone else's race car in the future.

Roush also said he is eager to get back to racing. He said he has been worried that by the time he is able to come back to his teams, they will have figured out numerous ways to do things better without him.

"Getting rolled over into the side of a ditch has been my worst fear," he said, as a laugh sounded over the telephone line.

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