#49 Al Wilcox, 91, never tires of life on the racetrack
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Al Wilcox is in the shade, baby.
Here he is, the morning sun starting to heat up the day, the flagman for another motorcycle track day at Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia, set up with an awning and cooler of cream sodas right by the track. He steps out under the brilliant blue sky, his trademark white beret perched at a jaunty angle.
He can hear the bikes coming out of the turn before he can see them -- wwwwaAAAAANNNNnnnhhhh -- and he starts whipping the checkered flag side to side, up and down, whump whump whump. The bikes hit 140 mph and up in the straightaways. But they come out of the turn, they see Al, the flag signaling the end of their run. They ease off the throttle. They give him a little wave. They head for the pits.
All the riders know Al, sure. His image is on the back of every T-shirt sold out here today. Track officials let him park his black-over-black Lincoln Town Car right beside his awning. He's got vanity plates ("WILCOX"), Elvis blaring on the tape deck ("Suspicious Minds") and a radar detector on the dash ("I do 80, 85 miles per hour coming down from my house in Jersey.").
Al Wilcox is 91 years old.
"I got, what, 28 track events this year. This is number four," he says, settling back into his chair in the shade. "It's a perfect day for racing, isn't it?"
His vowels are sharp with that New Jersey accent. His eyes are lively, even behind sunglasses. He's got on bluejeans, white shoes, a light blue knit shirt with his name in black script above the left breast pocket. He was up at 2 a.m. for the three-hour drive from his home in Trenton down here to West Virginia, the cooler with the sodas and a bologna sandwich for lunch in the back. His brother, Ralph, 86, came for the ride. He's sitting right here, big sunglasses. ("He said we were doing 80? Hmmpphh. That was uphill. Three guys passed us, the whole way. Al got mad.")
In a man's life, is happiness the absence of doubt? The presence of certainty? The surety of action over contemplation? You could ask Al Wilcox these things. He was born when Babe Ruth still played for the Red Sox. He should know.
But he's too busy. There's a new group of guys coming onto the track for their 15-minute session, and their only link to the world outside of outrageous speed will be Wilcox and his set of color-coded flags. Who's got time for doubt?
The man has lived in the house his father built with his own hands for eight decades. He was married to his junior high school sweetheart for 61 years. He had one job his whole life, a truck driver. He was racing motorcycles in Daytona when they let you run on the beach, right after World War II. He was a Harley-Davidson factory racer when Ike was in the White House. He raced more than 3,000 times on more than 360 tracks from Canada to Florida. He stopped racing (at age 47) and started flagging races before men landed on the moon.
He's still at it. Where did everybody go? What happened?
"Down deep in my heart, I feel if [racing] is taken away from him, he'll die," says Julia Smires, his daughter. She's 70 years old. She's still crazy about her dad. "That's what Daddy's life is. I hope he'll go the way he wants to go, with racing. It's what he loves so much."