IRL: Indy500: 84-year-old Crewman Defies Time with Hemelgarn

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 25, 2000 -- Hoyt “Doc” Kerr has no problem remembering which annual Indianapolis 500 will take place on Sunday. It’s the same number as his age - 84. Normally, that would be no big deal. Except he...

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 25, 2000 -- Hoyt “Doc” Kerr has no problem remembering which annual Indianapolis 500 will take place on Sunday. It’s the same number as his age - 84. Normally, that would be no big deal. Except he will be the oldest working crewman in the race. Kerr will control the “dead-man valve” on the fueling rig for 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier, who starts 16th in his Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo/Hemelgarn Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone car. When Lazier dashes in for refueling during the race, Kerr pulls the lever that releases the fuel flow the instant the refueler meshes the hose connection into the side of the car. Then when the disconnection is made, he must instantaneously release the handle to stop the rush of methanol from the rig. It’s not a physically demanding job but one that takes concentration and reaction if the stop is going to be a speedy one. “For a few races I did the pit board,” Kerr said. “They wanted someone to be there consistently. I’ve got a comparative simple job, but you’ve got to do it. You can’t be lolly gagging around when your driver comes in the pits. “I’ve never had a refueling incident. It doesn’t seem to be very important, but if you don’t do it, it’s critical. “I make fun at the Speedway that I want to be the oldest living dead-man valve operator.” That’s only part of Kerr’s job with Hemelgarn Racing. He also drives the show car around the country. He’s on the road 150 days a year and has visited more than 130 cities all over the United States and Canada. During May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he does various “gopher” jobs such picking up supplies. Kerr was born in Mechanicsville in eastern Iowa. His father was a dentist. He attended Millikin University in Illinois. His experience in auto racing was limited to some road racing when he was young. He saw the Indianapolis 500 once. During his life, he held down various jobs, including one with a company that sold land in Michigan and Indiana. That brought him to central Indiana in 1978 as he purchased property for a subdivision called Heritage Lake west of Indianapolis. “Our business was seven days a week,” he said. Eventually, that job ran its course, and he retired. He would drop into the Union Jack restaurant a few blocks from the Speedway. There he met racing artist Ron Burton and Dennis Weaks, who worked for Hemelgarn at the time. Weaks told Kerr that the team needed someone to haul parts, and in 1987 a new career was launched. This led to the show-car assignment and then to his pit task in the Indianapolis 500. “I have this philosophy about life that it’s good to change to something you’ve never done before,” he said. “I’ve had a great time in racing. It’s totally fulfilling. One thing I’ve discovered is there’s an awfully lot of nice people in the country despite what the paper says.” Kerr, who received his nickname of Doc because he looks very much like Dr. Marcus Welby (Robert Young) of the old TV show, took a Hemelgarn show car to Kansas City, Kan., for the recent announcement that the Indy Racing Northern Light Series will race at the new Kansas Speedway next year. He’s driven close to 300,000 miles and made friends everywhere. Kerr’s biggest mishap happened a year ago on Interstate 74 northwest of Indianapolis when a speeding car cut him off. He jerked the steering wheel to the right to avoid a collision, then yanked it back trying to retain control. Instead his rig struck the guardrails on both sides of the highway and flipped over. The truck and trailer were destroyed, but unbelievably Kerr escaped with only a few scratches. He was hauling Lazier’s winning car from 1996, and it received only superficial damage, too. Kerr has two daughters who live in Michigan, another who resides in California and a son in Tennessee. Son David and daughters Patricia Winston and Kathy Cole will attend Sunday’s race. Doc hopes it’s a repeat of ’96. “Oh, man, it was exciting,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. Lee Kunzman (team manager) tossed his headphones up in the air, and they came down and hit (crewman) Ronnie Dawes on the head.” Doc Kerr, like Sarah Fisher on the other end of the spectrum, is proving that age is not a deterrent in the sport of auto racing. “I can’t make any recommendations on how to live a long time,” he said. “It’s good genes and that I’ve always been active.”

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Buddy Lazier