Gene Felton Restorations

1986 - South Florida Sun Sentinel - Injuries, Age Can't Keep Felton Off Track

Injuries, Age Can't Keep Felton Off Track

By Ira Winderman, Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH -- To know everything about Gene Felton, you only need to know two things:

-- Despite a paralyzed vocal cord, Felton is more than willing to rasp his way through a lengthy discussion about motor sports. "I never wanted to be a radio announcer anyway," he says.

-- And despite partial paralysis on his left side, Felton isn't ready to retire from auto racing at 50. "My gas foot is on the right," he says, "and that's the most important one."

Sunday, Felton will drive an Oldsmobile Toronado in the 45-minute GTO race at the Grand Prix of Palm Beach, in an event for production-based sports cars with engines over three liters.

His reasons for competing at such an advanced age are simple. "I'm going to keep going until I start winning again," the Marietta, Ga., resident said in a gravel-toned southern accent. "I'm not going out unless it's on a winning note."

Felton's most recent victory was in 1984, when he won five of 12 International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Camel GT events and finished second in the GTO points standings. Later that year, he decided to dabble in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans-Am tour, a rival series for similar cars.

But what happened to him at a Trans-Am race in Riverside, Calif., wasn't similar to anything he had experienced in IMSA.

He left the race in an ambulance, spending the next 70 days in "total traction" with a metal screw in a board holding his head in place.

"The accident broke my hangman's vertebrae, fractured a couple of shoulders, broke seven ribs, bruised my heart, bruised my brain and, of course, there was internal hermorrhaging," he said, the "of course" coming matter-of-factly 19 months after the fact.

"The only thing I was thinking about then was getting back to walking, not racing."

Problem was, after racing for so long, Felton got to thinking a bit too much.

"I don't remember exactly when it was that I decided to come back," Felton said. "I knew I had won five races before I got hurt. And I knew, according to IMSA, I needed to pass (the late) Peter Gregg for the all-time record. So as I was recovering, I still had that thought on my mind."

Felton resumed his racing career in April 1985, at Road Atlanta, his home track. In 12 races since his accident, he has yet to return to victory lane. But he has accomplished his racing goal.

The all-time IMSA victory mark is his, not Gregg's.

And therein lies the biggest irony of Gene Felton's comeback. It wasn't really necessary.

"IMSA's records weren't correct," Felton said.

Late last year, IMSA updated its record book and learned that Gregg had won 41 events, not the 47 it had been listing in its record books for years. So Felton, whose 1984 victories gave him a total of 46 in three IMSA series, already was assured of the record while he was lying on his back in Riverside, Calif.

But now that he has returned, even with record in hand, Felton said his goals are much the same as before he learned he had the all-time mark.

"I can't stand not being in the limelight," said Felton, sixth in the GTO standings this year. "I just got to get back to winning races. My confidence is back to 100 percent. We've just had some unusually rotten luck this year. Twice we've been right up on the leaders. But at Charlotte the car overheated, and at Atlanta the power steering went.

"I feel as long as I'm physically and mentally able to win, I'll continue. The day I'm not, I'll quit. I don't like to run in fourth or fifth place. When people see me after finishing fifth, I'm hanging my head. Fifth is good if you're accustomed to running 10th."

But running 10th is good if the doctors doubted you would ever drive again.

"It's really hard to describe the difference of how I look at other crashes from before and after," said Felton, whose mother, Goldie, lives in Boca Raton. "Now I'm very much in tune with any accident in racing. I'm well aware of the consequences. Sometimes I feel guilty when (another driver) is in the same type of accident and I'm up and back in racing.

"I feel guilty, but very lucky."

NOTES: Fort Lauderdale car owner Preston Henn remains without a co-driver for A.J. Foyt and his Porsche 962 for Sunday's GTP race. The most likely candidate, Henn said Thursday, is Hans Stuck, who co-drove to victory in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans with Al Holbert and Derek Bell. Stuck normally races in IMSA with the Bob Akin Porsche 962 team, but Akin has decided to bypass Palm Beach. Henn said efforts were being made Thursday to locate Stuck in West Germany. "If that doesn't work," Henn said, "I have three Porsche drivers I can fall back on."


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