August 26, 1946 – July 2, 1973
The auto racing history books are filled with stories of unfulfilled potential, with drivers having their lives cut short leaving a lingering series of ‘what if’ scenarios.
Young men like Francois Cevert, Adam Petty, Greg Moore and more recently, Jules Bianchi, had yet to demonstrate how far their careers would take them before they were taken from us.
None of those stories, perhaps, are as compelling as the story of David Earl “Swede” Savage Jr. who found himself in the lead of the biggest motor race in the world, just moments before the accident that would ultimately claim his life.
Savage was was raised in San Bernardino, CA, the son of a physician. He was interested in racing from an early age, bravely hanging on to the controls of his Soap Box Derby car as it flew down the steep California hills at the age of five.
Over the next few years, the small daredevil and his younger brother, Bruce, spent weekends tearing up the dirt tracks in quarter-midgets. Trying his hand at karting for a time, he then turned his attention to motorcycles.
In 1965, Savage was invited to be a part of the Evel Knievel Stunt Show of Stars, performing stunts on his motorcycle to warm up the crowd for the headliner.
While his time with the Stunt Show was brief, Savage maintained a friendship with Knievel that would see the two often play a round of golf and discuss the different directions that their high-speed careers had taken them.
Sensing an opportunity, Savage dropped by Riverside International in 1967, when he heard that Dan Gurney was to be present at a test for the Ford Motor Company. The 20-year old Savage was showing off, popping wheelies on his motorcycle, when he caught the attention of Monte Roberts, who worked in the Public Relations department for Ford.
Struck by the young man’s skill and bravado, Roberts was also impressed with his movie-star good looks. After introductions were made, Roberts felt that Savage would be a fantastic addition to the Ford stable. He lobbied Ford’s executives into taking Savage under their wing as a development driver. As a PR guy, Roberts saw a lot of potential in marketing the name Swede Savage.
The association with Ford brought Savage the opportunity to run a limited schedule in the NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) series in 1967.
Savage made his stock car debut at North Carolina’s Hickory Speedway with the legendary Holman-Moody team. He was running well before losing the engine 25 laps shy of the finish. His next two outings with the team, at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro, both resulted in top-ten finishes.
In 1968, Savage split his time between NASCAR, and running both USRRC and Can-Am with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. In Grand National, Savage took a third place on the half-mile oval at Bristol, while he piloted Gurney’s powerful Lola Can-Am car to a top finish of fourth at the road course in Bridgehampton.
The next few seasons saw Savage display his skills in a number of different racing arenas. Gurney had cut back the sports car program for 1969, and Savage returned part-time to motorcycle racing to supplement his income.
Savage had a wife and a 4-year old daughter at home, and was intent on making ends meet.
1969 saw Savage’s first and only run at the Daytona 500, driving a Mercury Cyclone for the Wood brothers. His day ended early when the car lost a tire, sending him into a spin.
That same season, Savage first drove in the USAC Champ Car Series, taking the Olsonite-Eagle to a top-five finish in his debut at Brainerd. Savage also entered one race in the SCCA Trans-Am series, grabbing second place at Lime Rock Park behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang.
Gurney, now with backing from Plymouth, signed Savage to run the full 1970 season in Trans-Am. Reliability issues with the Barracuda car caused a number of DNF’s for the team. When they did manage to make it to the checkers, it was always in the top-five. The high point of the season came at Road America where Savage took the car to a hard-fought second place on the sweeping four-mile long road course.
The 1970 season also saw Savage’s finest moment in motor racing when he out-dueled both Roger McCluskey and Al Unser in the USAC Champ Car season finale at Phoenix. He led only one lap on the day, but it was the one that mattered, the one with the checkered flag.
With a big race win under his belt, Savage was beginning to make a name for himself. He endeared himself to many fans with his genuine likeability and obvious talent. This combination put him solidly into popular culture. Savage even appeared as a guest on the Merv Griffin Show in 1971.
Success in both open-wheelers and sports cars led to a ride for the Questor Grand Prix in March of 1971. This unique event pitted some of Formula One’s biggest stars in their Grand Prix machines against North America’s finest drivers in Formula 5000 cars.
In the one-off event, Savage had the throttle jam itself wide-open, sending him hard into the wall. The resulting head injury would put him out of racing for five months.
Returning to the cockpit for 1972, Savage signed with Pat Patrick and Walt Michner for a full season in the USAC Champ Car series. The contract would give the young driver the opportunity to compete in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time.
The first season with Patrick was unfruitful, seeing Savage failing to finish in nine of the ten race weekends. His Indianapolis 500 debut was equally inauspicious, as a connecting rod in his Offenhauser engine failed a mere five laps into the 200 lap contest.
Undaunted, Savage returned to the Patrick organization for 1973, teamed alongside Gordon Johncock. Savage collected a pair of top-fives in the double-header at Trenton as the team began preparations for Indianapolis.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened up for the month of May in 1973, the atmosphere was electric. With the advent of bolt-on rear wings and engines producing more than 1000 hp, speeds had climbed dramatically over the prior two years. Hearing the news that Johncock had run a lap at 199.40 mph during a tire test in March, many were optimistic that the 200 mph barrier would be broken.
By the end of the month, the 1973 Indianapolis 500 turned out to be one of the darkest, ugliest ever contested. When all was said and done, the teams just wanted to get the hell out of there and close the book on this chapter of motor racing history that many would prefer to forget.
From the outset, practice was plagued with rain and high winds, keeping the speeds down. When pole day arrived on May 12, the skies were clear and sunny as a large crowd gathered.
Art Pollard crashed hard in the morning practice session, seeing his car flip over and burst into flame. He was transported to Methodist Hospital, and the news soon reached the Speedway that Pollard’s injuries were fatal.
With a pall cast over the proceedings, qualifications began for the 500. Swede Savage was the first to break the track record with a four lap average of 196.582 mph.
With the tentative pole in his hands, Savage watched from the pit lane as he saw Johnny Rutherford come tantalizing close to the 200 mph mark, knocking him off the top spot.
When qualifications had concluded, Savage ended up with the fourth starting spot, on the inside of row two. The Patrick Team was optimistic, knowing that they had two fast cars, and two fantastic drivers.
Monday morning, race day, began with a downpour that delayed the start for more than four hours. At the drop of the green, a horrifying scene unfolded as eleven cars crashed, and Salt Walther’s machine climbed the catch fence. The fuel tank of Walther’s car split open, spraying burning fuel into the front stretch grandstands.
While the injured spectators and drivers were being attended to, the rains began to fall again, delaying the race until the next morning. A start was attempted Tuesday, but didn’t get farther than the pace laps when the skies opened up again.
The rains continued on Wednesday morning, as a local newspaper writer dubbed it the ’72 hours of Indianapolis.’
The clouds finally broke, and the cars roared off for the start shortly after 2:00 pm.
Bobby Unser took the early lead while Savage held his own in the top five. When Unser had an unusually long pit stop, Savage found himself leading the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career. He held off a charging Al Unser for several laps before getting bottled up behind the lapped car of Roger McCluskey. Unser grabbed the lead, and Savage, for the moment, settled for second.
Savage darted into the pit lane on lap 57, where his crew executed a flawless stop, changing the right side tires and filling the car with fuel. Savage headed back onto the race course, intent on grabbing back the lead.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Some say that the rear wing broke, others speculate that there was oil on the track. Whatever the case may be, Savage’s car jerked violently, and slammed into the inside retaining wall. The car exploded into pieces, as a fireball erupted.
Burned, battered and bruised, the good-natured Savage still managed to smile and crack a few jokes with the rescue workers that transported him to the hospital.
The rains hit the Speedway once again, ending the race after 332 miles. Gordon Johncock was declared the winner. Rather than celebrate the win, Johncock, along with team-owner Pat Patrick, headed straight to the hospital to check on their young teammate.
Despite the multiple injuries, Johncock and Patrick found Savage in good spirits as they wished him well. The team’s victory banquet consisted of fast-food hamburgers and Pepsi-Cola.
The prognosis seemed hopeful for a full recovery, but Savage succumbed to complications 33 days after the accident. He was 26 years old.
He left behind a son, a young daughter, a wife that was expecting another child, and a legion of adoring fans.
Savage raced during an era when the speeds were climbing faster than the safety innovations could keep up. The period between 1965 and 1980 saw us lose a disproportionate amount of our heroes, on both sides of the Atlantic. Death was just an accepted part of the game.
Thankfully, this day and age, racers can expect a long career and a fatality is now the exception, rather than the rule.
Savage’s legacy lives on through his daughter. Angela Savage never met her father, but she took a trip to Indianapolis in 2014 with the help of some remarkable people, to learn more about her father, and what he meant to the racing community.
These days, you can catch Angela on WCOBM as she shares stories of hope and inspiration, along with the latest racing news, in her weekly broadcast, Good News with Angela Savage.
Image: IMS photo