USAC short-track legend Jack Hewitt was excited when he got to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, excited while he was there in 1998 and is still excited now that he has participated in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
When he reached the Speedway in 1998, he was more than moderately on top of the world.
“I only grew up 100 miles from there,” he said. “When you set goals in life … I wanted to drive sprint cars, wanted to race in Australia, which I did for 11 winters, and wanted to run the Indianapolis 500. That was my final goal. The first time I drove around the Speedway, I was thinking, ‘I have to be blessed.’”
Hewitt, from Troy, Ohio, was the “purest” of race drivers. He would drive anything, anywhere, all the time.
“I probably ran 150 features one year,” Hewitt said. “That’s the most I’ve ever done in a year. If I could’ve squeezed in a couple more, I probably would have.”
Two-time USAC Silver Crown National Champion Hewitt, now 61, drove the PDM Racing car in 1998 at Indianapolis as a 46-year-old rookie. He got a lot of help.
“I think I was in with a good bunch of guys,” Hewitt said. “Al Unser, Gary Bettenhausen … a lot of my heroes were there to help me. Johnny Rutherford took me around and told me it was a lot like Winchester. After he told me that, we picked up speed. Paul Diatlovich (owner of PDM) was showing me on the computer what I was doing and I was able to understand it better after JR talked to me.”
The first “500” Hewitt remembers was in 1963, when he walked past his father, who was listening to it on the radio. Parnelli Jones won that year and carried No. 98. Hewitt and PDM carried No. 98 at the Speedway in 1998.
Hewitt’s Indianapolis 500 career started ominously. He crashed on the first day, and the PDM crew rebuilt the damaged machine. He was back on track Wednesday.
“You never give up from your dream,” he said. “I got to hang out with Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors. I was so paranoid about pit stops because I didn’t want to kill the motor. If you’re a race driver, I don’t think it makes a lot of difference what you drive. It’s just another style of racing. In my whole career in sprint cars, I was smooth and patient.
“It was a dream come true. You have goals, and racing in the Indianapolis 500 was one of them. It’s just amazing how many get to do it. I got to be a part of it, and I got to race there. Basketball, baseball … a lot of people didn’t reach their goals. I’ve led a fantastic life.”
On Race Day, many of Hewitt’s fans from short tracks around the Midwest were on hand. Hanging signs from the grandstands is discouraged at IMS because they block the view of other ticket holders, but that didn’t stop Hewitt’s Heroes from hanging a huge bedsheet from the railing of the upper deck at the end of the front straightaway that sported the words, “Do It Hewitt,” a phrase frequently heard over the public address at American short tracks.
Hewitt became the oldest rookie starter in Indianapolis 500 history, a record surpassed only last year by Jean Alesi, 47. Hewitt started 22nd and finished a respectable 12th in the Parker Machinery entry, completing 195 laps.
“It was such a Hollywood script,” Hewitt said. “I ran all day.”
The year 1998 was a big one for Hewitt in another way as well. In the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora, he won the midget, sprint Silver Crown and modified features.
“It was the most unbelievable achievement in the history of motorsports,” said USAC executive Dick Jordan. “Absolutely incredible. In four different cars … he even wore four different helmets.”
Hewitt suffered a neck injury in 1993, and a second injury in 2002 caused him to retire.
“I’ll be 62 in July,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ve been blessed. I’d still be racing to this day if I hadn’t gotten hurt.”
He developed a two-seat sprint car that he takes to various races so customers and VIPs can experience the thrill of short-track thunder.
“I’ve got a 5-year-old grandson and my son, Cody, who’s 29, ran a sprint car all last year and for having one arm, he did really fine.”