Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: Sam Ard - Racing Was Not His Toughest Fight

This week's In the Rearview Mirror looks back at the life and career of Sam Ard. Arguably one of the best NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsmen/Grand National Series drivers, Ard now fights daily against Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sam's loving wife Jo and she provided me with great insight for this column. I would like to thank her for her time. I am pleased to present you this week's In the Rearview Mirror.

Joane, Sam, Robert, Melinda and Sharon Ard.
Photo courtesy of Jo Ard
Sam Ard's career in the series, now known as the Nationwide Series, may not have been a long one, lasting only three years. But in those few years, Sam's name appears numerous times in the record books. Ard, who first joined the circuit in 1982 at the age of 43, was driving for a newcomer to the NASCAR circuit, team owner Howard Thomas. Being a new team did not hold Ard and Thomas back; they won their fourth race together - the 1982 DogWood 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Their first season driving was a success, and would have garnered a championship if not for some racing incidents resulting in five DNFs that season. Nonetheless, Ard finished the season second in points, claiming 4 wins, 20 top-5 and 23 top-10 finishes. Jack Ingram won the championship by only 47 points over Sam Ard in what many would consider to be a very successful rookie season.


Sam Ard with wife Jo in  Martinsville, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of Jo Ard
Ard and Thomas started the 1983 season off well, earning the pole position for the Goody's 300 at Daytona. Ard was scored 6th after a hectic finish in which drivers were four-wide to the checkered flag. The second race of the year was the Richmond Eastern 150, where Ard started from the pole and won. From that race onward, Ard would occupy the top of the points standings until the midway point of the season. Sam was scored with a DNF at the Roses Stores 200 at the South Boston Speedway and slipped to second in the points standings. After 10 more races, Ard returned to South Boston, winning the race and the next three races thereafter and regained the points lead. Sam Ard won the 1983 NASCAR Busch Grand National Series Championship. 

While doing my research, I was surprised by my lack of knowledge of Ard's career, partly due to the fact that I was in diapers at the time. I became tuned in when his name was brought up numerous times when Kyle Busch was approaching breaking his record for most wins in a season. Upon looking at the stats, Sam held many records in the Nationwide Series:
  • Record for most career wins in a season (10), set 1983
  • Most short track wins in a season (9), 1983
  • Most races won from pole position throughout career (9), tied with Mark Martin
  • Most races won from pole position in a season (4), 1983
  • Most top-10 finishes in a season (30), 1983
  • Most consecutive races won (4), 1983
The 1984 season saw Sam Ard repeat as its champion, with 8 wins and 24 top-5 finishes, again remarkable. Sadly, Sam Ard was involved in a career-ending crash in the final race of the 1984 season at Rockingham. Ard had simply clenched the championship by starting the race, so as he drove he had to know he was a back-to-back winner. Racing is not always a fair sport. Wayne Patterson blew an engine, there was moisture on the track and Sam Ard slid into it, slamming into the wall. Ard suffered head trauma from this accident. With his 1984 championship, Sam Ard became the first driver in history to win back-to-back championships and also was the first multiple champion in the series.

The crash that ended it all, Sam (00) spinning out at Rockingham.
Photo courtesy of Jo Ard

Now at the age of 72, Sam Ard is dealing with the daily struggles of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and also Parkinson's disease. Doctors have attributed the racing injury to possibly accelerating the progress of the neurological disorder.

The signs were there in 1993 when Sam started getting lost in Nashville, where the couple was living. In 1995 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He is not the only driver to deal with this type of medical situation post-racing career.

After having the pleasure of speaking with Jo Ard, I learned firsthand the daily struggles she faces in being the caregiver for Sam. The couple has little money, just sparse funds from Social Security and money from the Veterans Administration.

One thing that plagues the NASCAR stars of days gone by: no health care and no pension plans. Racing years ago was nothing like today - no $100,000-plus purse for winning. The little money Ard got from a win went back into the team, as Jo told me they would pay for hotel accommodations for the pit crew back in those days.

Sam is being cared for primarily by his wife with help from their daughter Melinda (who is studying to get a medical degree) and several of their grandchildren. The situation is so bad that trophies and other pieces of Ard’s racing memorabilia have been sold to pay the bills. Gone are Ard's two championship rings. All but one of the numerous grandfather clocks Ard took home after his wins at Martinsville are also gone.

Drivers of today's generation have stepped up to help the Ard family. Kevin Harvick and then sponsor Shell Pennzoil donated a minivan to be used to take Sam to medical appointments. More recently, Kyle Busch donated $100,000 to the Ards after Busch tied Sam Ard's record for 10 wins in a season. Busch kindly donated his own money to the family. Jo detailed how Busch's donation was put to use. An accessible bathroom was added to their home, which is definitely a necessity when caring for someone in Sam's condition. Jo fondly mentioned the likes of Busch, Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all who have stepped up to help the family.  

Harvick, Robert Ard, Delana Harvick and Jim Hunter presenting the minivan to the family.
Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
To assist the Ards, I have included the address for donations, in care of Motor Racing Outreach. You can also mail contributions directly to their home. Wal-Mart gift cards are especially valuable, since the family uses them for food, clothing, laundry and personal care products for Sam. To send a donation to the Ard family, please use this address:

Samuel J. Ard Care Fund
M.R.O.
Smith Tower Suite 405
555 Concord Parkway South
Concord, NC 28027


There are also eBay auctions of Sam Ard memorabilia to raise funds for the family. Please visit http://shop.ebay.com/AGAPEDOC2/m.html?_dmd=1&_ipg=50&_sop=12&_rdc=1

For further information, you can also visit: samard.com.

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