Injuries from 2001 crash can't derail Hamilton

INDIANAPOLIS -- Davey Hamilton's participation in the 91st Indianapolis 500 is not just a remarkable story about a man overcoming unimaginable injuries to step back into a racing car. It's a victory for the initial vision of the Indy Racing League.

You remember the the "original" IRL, don't you? The one founded by Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George to preserve the tradition of open-wheel oval racing while cutting costs and providing opportunity to American short-track drivers.

Davey Hamilton was tailor-made for that IndyCar Series. The Idaho native tore up the nation's dirt tracks in sprints and supermodifieds and had a burning desire to race at Indianapolis like his heroes. And when the IRL lined up for its first race, Hamilton was driving for one of those heroes -- A.J. Foyt.

"I don't think we're making heroes anymore. I can't think of anyone in the series who is a hero right now."
-- Davey Hamilton

He never won an IndyCar Series race, but Hamilton earned seven podium finishes and twice finished second in the IRL championship, coming within six points of beating fellow former short-tracker Tony Stewart to the 1997 title. Then it all went wrong at Texas Motor Speedway in June 2001; oil from another car's blown engine snapped Hamilton's machine into a spin, the car got airborne and the catch fence literally shredded the driver's feet.

Hamilton endured 21 operations and was off his feet for two years (two years!), but intense physical therapy finally enabled him to walk again. He remained connected with the IndyCar scene by serving as the driver analyst on the IMS Radio Network, and he regained his driving chops by piloting the IRL's two-seat show car.

And he never abandoned his dream to compete again at Indy, to the point that he returned a substantial six-figure sum of the insurance settlement from his accident to get permission to drive this year. With backing from HP Computers, Hamilton landed a seat at George's Vision Racing team for the month of May.

Needless to say, Hamilton is delighted to be a racing driver again. But more than anything, he hopes that his return to an IndyCar cockpit inspires a few short-trackers to put aside dreams of NASCAR and make Indianapolis their goal.

"I've worked really hard to get here -- two times now," Hamilton said. "And I think that may be something our short-track guys are missing a little bit. I know I had to fight for it -- I had to come here and polish wheels or sweep floors while continuing to race at the same time. It demanded a lot of my time.

"Now I think some of the younger guys see a door through USAC, or short-track racing, to go stock car racing. They just think that's automatically where they are going and that it's easier to get in over there than it is here. I don't see the fight from the short-track guys to get in over here. There are some good, deserving race car drivers that we are overlooking. Unfortunately, they are going stock car racing instead of coming this way."

It's a long list, which aside from Stewart includes names like Jeff Gordon (the modern-day USAC-to-NASCAR trail blazer), Kasey Kahne and Jason Leffler.

"I remember Kasey Kahne's first ever pavement race was in a midget I had been driving," Hamilton recalled. "I couldn't make a race in that thing, and look where he is today. Tony Stewart and I were teammates when we were young, but they went that direction and look how good they are. Same with Jason Leffler, Mike Bliss and a lot of other guys I raced with.

"We miss those guys, who are guys who I think could have helped build this series up because of their notoriety. Billy Boat and I raced all over this country together. Back in the days when Billy Vukovich was still alive, we raced from corner to corner of the United States. We met all these people and that created fans, so when we came here they came too.

"I think we're finding that out again right now with me. I can't believe how much attention I've gotten, which is really appreciated. It's kind of a tearjerker really to know how many people are behind me, and they all came from the short tracks."

Hamilton says he understands why the IRL has seemingly embraced the modus operandi of its former sworn enemy. But he also believes the IndyCar Series needs to rebuild from the ground up and find a way to attract America's short-trackers again.

"As a series owner, sometimes the direction that you foresee or plan on taking has to go the other way, whether politically or just to make it work," he remarked. "What would I rather see here? More cars, more opportunity for our short-track guys to come out of sprints midgets and supermodifieds to get here.

"The best thing they could do is get the costs back under control," Hamilton continued. "I know the motors are very expensive and the cars are very expensive, and if safety costs money, you can't take that away. But it would be nice to see that combination of the Tony Kanaans and Sam Hornishes racing the Dan Wheldons and Josh Wise, or whoever the next guy is who wants to come in."

In short, Hamilton believes, it's about creating heroes again. He grew up idolizing Rick Mears, but doesn't see any polarizing characters in the current IndyCar Series field.

"I don't think we're making heroes anymore," Hamilton asserted. "I can't think of anyone in the series who is a hero right now. Guys like Sam and Dan are breaking records, but they're not becoming household names and heroes. I can tell you we need to get it done, but I don't know how. It would be great to see short-track guys get a shot."

Some might argue that by making his own personal comeback against overwhelming odds, Hamilton is a bit of a hero himself. What makes his story even more amazing is that he harbors no resentment about his circumstances, or the fact that his buddies like Stewart and Kahne drive their stock cars to the bank every day.

"I did have opportunities to go south, but I'm an open-wheel guy," he said. "It was hard to turn down money and opportunities down there -- way more money than I was making here. To be honest, I'd like to try one of those cars now, just to see what it's like. But my heart is here.

"Right, wrong or indifferent, I have no regrets. I ended up getting hurt in one of these cars, but everything happens for a reason and I probably would have gotten hurt in one of those cars too. It was my time to get hurt, I guess. Sheet time is sheet time! I'm a true open-wheel fan and I have been from the get-go."

Hamilton doesn't expect to win the 91st Indianapolis 500 -- he acknowledges that it would be incredibly difficult for a driver who is not an IndyCar Series regular -- but he is holding himself to a high standard.

"I feel like if I was in Wheldon's car and I didn't do the same speed he did, there's something wrong with me," Hamilton said. "And I'd find a way to do it. I think teams like Ganassi and Penske are so good that, not anybody could get in there and win, but with a good guy like [Juan Pablo] Montoya, it could happen again.

"I'd love to be the fastest guy out there, but that's not reality," he added. "I don't want to hang it out and hang it on the fence again, and these guys at Vision Racing are really good with me. They know I've been out of the car for six years. They have three good drivers who can share information with me and they know my biggest deal is just getting into the race. But with this being a one-off with no testing, I have to be realistic about what I can do."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.