A record that won't fade from his memory

Sam Ard recalls his 10 wins in a Busch season .

Published November 18, 2006

Today, when Kevin Harvick revs his No. 21 Chevy and guns for a share of NASCAR history, a long-forgotten champion coping with the onset of Alzheimer's disease, bad lungs and a mountain of medical bills plans to watch the final race of the season on the little TV inside his rural South Carolina double-wide.

Make no mistake. Sam Ard has heard Harvick could tie his 23-year-old record for winning 10 Busch series races in a season. Though his memory fades in and out frequently these days, he responds to a reporter's question over the phone in his native twang without missing a beat.

"Records is made to be broken," Ard said. "But nobody will really ever break it, 'cause them boys today just show up at the race and drive. I used to build my cars, haul 'em to the track, race 'em and haul 'em back home.

"But I wish that boy well. He's a real good race car driver. I wish I was able to be where I could fix a car for him to drive."

His voice is strong but his breathing labored, the result of exposure to the asbestos-tinged material he used in the floorboards of his race cars to keep his heels from burning. Doctors have told him and wife Jo that his lung capacity is 40 percent. The huge paydays drivers earn today simply didn't exist for Ard, now 67, so getting by day to day is always a struggle.

And then there's his memory.

Oh, he can remember many details of his heralded career, which includes Busch championships in 1983 and 1984, 22 Busch victories and that dominating run in '83 when he won four straight Busch events - a mark that still stands - and went on to set the record with 10 wins overall.

Ard also recalls the devastating crash in 1984 at Rockingham in the next-to-last race of the season. He was so far ahead in points that he would still win the Busch championship with ease. But the crash left him with a serious brain injury. He never raced again.

"I got a head injury, and part of my brain ain't never gonna work no more," he said. "Another part of it just takes over and does its function, but it makes me do things slower."

Jo says doctors have told her the injury made him susceptible to Alzheimer's. She has read all the articles and books she can to learn how to care for him as his short-term memory continues to fail.

"Really and truly, he can talk to you now, but five minutes after he hung up the phone, sometimes two seconds after, he does not remember anything he told you," she said. "Someone called him yesterday who was involved in racing and I asked him who it was, and he looked at me and said, 'I don't know. I don't know who he was.' "

So Jo makes sure he stays close to home in Pamplico, outside of Florence. Sometimes they attend races, with the help of a NASCAR pass that allows them to get in for free. But he doesn't watch as many races on TV as he used to.

"He can't keep the names of the boys straight," Jo said.

But he still knows the name Jack Ingram. In the '70s and '80s, Ard and Ingram comprised one of the sports best rivalries. Ingram won the Busch series in '82, having been Late Model Sportsman national champ in 1972, 1973 when he overtook Ard for the title and 1974. But all the while, Ingram and Ard liked and respected each other.

"Sam is one of the few drivers that I raced against my whole career - and I raced a whole lot of them - that you could drive a whole night on a narrow, banked, three-eighth-mile track and never even bump fenders," said Ingram, who runs a race car shop in Asheville, N.C.

"He was a great competitor and very difficult to beat. The reason I enjoyed racing against him was you didn't leave the track with a feeling that you were going to have to get him back. There was never none of that going on."

When Ard crashed in North Carolina, Ingram was driving right behind him.

"We was about four of us, two abreast, going into the third turn," he said. "He got in a little high, I think. Back in those days, they put sealer on the track. And after you race a while, there'd be debris in the outer groove, and he got a little high and went into the wall. When I came around the next lap under caution, he was slumped over and they were getting him out of there. When we found out what happened, that devastated a lot of us."

In April, Ingram helped stage a fundraiser in Richmond for the Ards to help them pay medical bills. Jo has her own now, having lost the sight in her right eye to macular degeneration.

Some $36,000 was raised in a silent auction. Ingram donated a sponsors ring from one of his Busch series championships. It brought in $4,600. But the money is gone.

"We were so thankful, but that more or less just paid the bills that needed to be paid," Jo said.

They get help from their four children, including Robert, 36, who lives with them and dreams of getting a job in racing on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team. There's a connection. In '83, Junior's legendary dad lost to Ard by 81/2 seconds in the Miller Time 300 - Ard's greatest race.

Lately, another NASCAR hotshot has had Ard on his mind.

"Whoever thought we would get a chance at one of Sam Ard's records, the all-time win record for one year?" Harvick said. "In this day and age, it is kind of unheard of. We are really excited to have the opportunity."

Meanwhile, the Ards continue to cope with the twists and turns of a difficult course in life. There are more bad days than good. And today could be bittersweet should Harvick win.

"If Kevin ties the record, well, congratulations to him," Jo said. "He's a wonderful boy, and I think it would be wonderful for him to be the one."

Inside a South Carolina double-wide, an old champion will watch and try to remember.

Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.