Motor Racing: Scotsman with a will that proved stronger than the wall: Richard Williams, in Indianapolis, talks to Jim Crawford, the other Briton who is taking part in tomorrow's race

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE OTHER Brit at Indy is a 45-year-old deep-sea fisherman with a Lancashire accent and a pronounced limp. Unlike Nigel Mansell, Jim Crawford knows what it feels like to lead the Indianapolis 500. He knows, too, what it can cost.

You do not have to spend long among the concrete garages of Gasoline Alley, as they call the paddock area of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, before you notice the walking wounded - victims of the concrete wall that runs around the edge of this two-and-a-half mile oval track. These are the fellows who went into the wall, feet first, at 200 mph.

Nelson Piquet and Jeff Andretti, Mario's youngest son, are two of them, returning to the scene of last year's accidents at Turn Four and Turn Two respectively, both of them back in the cockpit after a year's worth of surgery and convalescence. It happened to Jim Crawford in 1987, only a few hundred yards into his first qualifying lap for that year's race.

His crew had come up with the idea of taking the lap in fifth gear, rather than sixth. 'They figured it might be quicker,' he said, 'although they'd never tried it. At the time I was getting into Turn One at about 230 miles an hour - you could just do it without lifting your foot. So at the start of the run they said, 'Go for it, stick it in fifth and see if you can put it on the pole.' Well, my rev counter quit just as I left the pits. They tell me that one of the radar guns showed that the car went into Turn One at 236 miles an hour. There was no way in hell it was going to go round the corner. I was the last to know.'

He rubs his legs, just above the knees. Yes, he says, he went in feet first. 'Straight in. My knees were pinned behind the dashboard, and everything else just kept on coming.' He makes a concertina movement from knee to toe. 'Mashed.'

The car rebounded off the wall and flew along the back straight 15 feet in the air. After it had come to rest, he spent the next nine months in an Indianapolis hospital, but the following Memorial Day he was back at the track for the 1988 race. And that, he says, was a bit of a fairy-tale.

'If I hadn't done the race that year, I might never have got back. So there I was, hobbling into the circuit on a stick, and I found myself leading. It didn't last, but I was still second with about six laps to go. Then I had a puncture. I went into the pits, and they couldn't get the wheel off. I sat there for nearly two minutes. From second to sixth in one easy move.'

What was the difference in terms of prize-money?

'A quarter of a million dollars.' Pause. 'Ruined my whole day.'

Jim Crawford has made a few detours on his way to career earnings of dollars 1,038,739 (about pounds 700,000) from IndyCars (dollars 877,463 from his seven starts in the 500). Born in Dunfermline, he moved to Bolton in infancy, gave up a career as a quantity surveyor after a year to bum around America, came back home and helped a friend with a Formula Ford car. 'As an annual perk, he let me drive it. Then I did a race up at Croft, and won.' Formula Atlantic, Formula Three and Formula Two led to a testing contract with Lotus and, in the middle of 1975, to a seat in Colin Chapman's grand prix team, alongside Ronnie Peterson.

'I did two grands prix, the British and the Italian. It was a complete waste of time. I got into Formula One way too quickly. What I knew about racing cars, you could write on half a sheet of paper. When I started the British Grand Prix, that was only the 25th race I'd ever done. It was a joke.'

A damaging joke, too. After Lotus dropped him, he could not get a ride of any sort. 'So I went to Switzerland for two years, working for Toyota, developing their cars, and with the money I made I came back and bought a Formula Three car.'

He was back where he had started, rebuilding his reputation through the lower divisions, and turning himself back into a consistent winner.

The big move came half-way through the 1982 season, when he got tired of dominating the British Formula One series and took his car to America, fitting it with fenders in order to take part in the CanAm series.

'We put the car on a plane, rented a truck and a trailer, and did five races - Montreal, Toronto, Las Vegas, Riverside and San Francisco. I finished in the top four in all of them, made a whole bunch of prize-money, and thought this was the place to be.'

Those days in CanAm remain his happiest time in racing. 'It's the excitement of getting in a truck and driving across America. Just getting from race to race was an adventure.'

He settled in Dallas and entered his first Indy 500 in 1984. He did not qualify that year, but in 1985 he started in 27th place and finished 16th. 'I thought the place was a bit strange, the first time I saw it. You walk down to take a look at Turn One, and you think you'll be hard on the brakes and changing down about three gears. Then somebody says no, you do it flat out. You think they must be crazy. But they're right.'

His big accident put paid to a full- time racing career. After the 1988 race he and his wife moved down to St Petersburg Beach, Florida, where they found a house on the water and bought a fishing boat, which he charters to tourists chasing the Hemingway dream.

He will start his maroon Budweiser Lola-Chevrolet from the back row tomorrow, but it will be the only sight of him race fans get this season. The condition of his legs means he can no longer take part in road races, with their sterner requirements of braking and changing gears. So nowadays he just does the Indy, which he loves.

'I don't think I'll ever make a conscious decision not to come back here,' he says. 'The decision will be made when nobody gives me a car to drive. I'll come back until it quits me. It's the whole atmosphere. It's pretty impressive. I'd say you could take somebody who's been dead for a couple of days, and they'd still stand up to watch the start of this race.'

(Photograph omitted)