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He's 91 and still racing cars. Really

IRWINDALE, Calif. -- When Richie Zimmerman was 75 years old, he set the track record during a qualifying race at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, Calif.

That was 16 years ago.

Back then, he was known as R.C. Zimmerman. He started going by Richie -- a tribute to modified racing legend Richie Evans -- when he decided to start racing again at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale in March.

At 91 years old, Zimmerman is the oldest driver by three decades racing at Toyota Speedway. He's older than NASCAR by three decades.

He drives a Ford Pinto in the NASCAR Mini Stock division. The number on his car matches his age, 91. He recently was awarded "hard charger" for passing the most cars in a recent race and earned a $91 bonus from the track.

Zimmerman is not as spry as he once was. He took a couple of years off from racing after he broke his hip and needed surgery on his knee. He has had cataract surgery on both eyes and wears a hearing aid. He doesn't go to the driver autograph sessions at the track before races because he says it's too hard to get in and out of his car.

"It's amazing that he's out here," said Jacob Rogers, a 21-year-old driver from Riverside in the Mini Stocks division at Irwindale. "It gives me a little bit of inspiration. It's really cool that he's out here. It's fun to be around him."

Zimmerman started his racing career late by today's standards. He didn't get in his first race car until after World War II when he was in his mid-20s. He bought his first race car with a friend almost 70 years ago. When asked how much longer he will continue racing, Zimmerman said, "You take one race at a time. You don't know what's going to happen. That's the way it is. Que sera."

Que sera, sera -- what will be, will be.

That's the way Zimmerman approaches life. Racing cars has been a part of his life since he returned from Europe after World War II and settled in the Midwest.

"It's the thing I do best," Zimmerman said. "I tried golf and tennis and bowling. This is what I do best."

Formative years

Over the years, Zimmerman has raced against some of the legends of open-wheel and stock car racing. He has raced against Parnelli Jones, Troy Ruttman, Eli Vukovich and Lee Petty. He narrowly missed a chance to race against Rodger Ward, but he got to drive his car.

The way Zimmerman tells the story, Ward was late for a race at Soldier Field in Chicago. Zimmerman was at the track, but he didn't have a car for the race. The owner of Ward's car asked Zimmerman to prepare his car for the race.


"The owner of the car, he let me warm it up on that beautiful Soldier Field track," Zimmerman said. "Oh boy, that was beautiful. I had to get the oil warm. I couldn't step on it. I wanted to, but I couldn't."

Zimmerman has a glove compartment full of stories about racing midgets and sprint cars at tracks throughout Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Northern and Southern California. He has raced stock cars and modifieds, Formula Vs and mini stocks. He has raced on dirt, asphalt and pavement. He has raced in stadiums like Soldier Field and on tiny converted horse tracks like the one at the old Pomona Fairgrounds.

One of his fondest memories in racing was at Pomona Fairgrounds, which was a half-mile dirt track. He had a 1951 Ford and he was racing against Troy Ruttman, who went on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1952. It wasn't a particularly good race for Zimmerman -- he said he was the eighth fastest in qualifying and finished seventh in the race. But he was able to pass Ruttman during the race.

"I passed Troy Ruttman, but anybody could have passed him," Zimmerman said. "He had a Plymouth coupe and second gear must have been too low and third gear was too high. [My car] just ran so beautifully, otherwise I'd have never been able to pass Troy Ruttman."

The passion

Zimmerman was born in Michigan on Dec. 17, 1918. He served in World War II and was stationed in Italy near the end of the war. When Berlin was captured by Allied forces in 1945, Zimmerman was on his way back to the United States and off to the Pacific theater.

"I was a rifleman, 87th mountain infantry," said Zimmerman, who saw his share of combat. "Luckily, I was only in 13 months. We were sent back to the States and we were passing through the stockyards in Chicago. We had blinds on the train. People were shouting and honking horns and somebody finally pulled a shade up. The war was over with. They had dropped the bomb. We were on our way to the West Coast. We were going to invade Japan."

After World War II was over, Zimmerman and a friend decided to buy a midget race car and start racing in the Midwest, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and eventually ended up in California.

"I paid half and half for midget with a fellow named Dean Preamer," Zimmerman said. "He moved to Hawaii. I was running in a trophy dash at a track up north near Fresno somewhere. The race ended and I was watching the guy in front of me. He took his foot off the gas and I went up over his wheel. I went end over end. I put my head down. Every time I would bump myself, I would say, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.' I got a scar up here. Destroyed the car, but we rebuilt it."

Zimmerman went from racing midgets to stock cars and modifieds. During the 1950s, he raced against Petty and Jones at tracks from California to Pennsylvania. One particular race against Petty in Pennsylvania stands out for Zimmerman.

"We were out practicing at Langhorne, Pa., a mile dirt circle track," Zimmerman said. "It was actually a circle. I caught up to him during the practice, not the race, the practice. I couldn't pass him. Later on, after the practice, he came over and he said, 'You were on my bumper. I pulled over and let you go by to see if I could pass you.' He says, 'I couldn't pass you.'"

Zimmerman considers that a moral victory. But it was far from satisfying. He would rather be winning races, not holding off drivers, even of the caliber of Petty.

Acceptance

He realizes his days of winning races are far behind him. His best finish in three races at Toyota Speedway has been a 10th place out of 13 cars. His competitive nature has yet to wane, though. He might not win a race, but he'll keep up with the leaders.

"He's bada--," said Mike Johnson, a driver from Covina who races in the NASCAR Late Model division at Irwindale. "He can still work on his car. Everybody wants to help him. He got back in it when he could get back in and out of the car. He's all right, that old guy."

Zimmerman drives to the track in an old Ford pickup which has a handicap placard.

"I do some exercises," Zimmerman said. "I got a new hip, new knee joint. I've got cataracts surgery, a lens in each eye. One is bigger than the other one."

When asked how well he can see, he said his eyesight is "pretty good, I guess."

"I got a beautiful mirror on the race car," Zimmerman said. "When I see the fast guys come up, I pull over and let them go. Give 'em room, what the heck. I'm not going to hold anybody up. I try to catch them in front of me if I can. Every lap I push as hard as I can."

Zimmerman at 91 years old still pushes as hard as he can. And whatever will be, will be.

Tim Haddock is a freelance journalist who writes for nascar.com and is author of the blog haddockinthepaddock.com