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Jud Larson, An Uncrowned King

Jud Larson spent 27 of his 43 years on this earth driving race cars, I doubt if a record exists today of how many hundreds of races he won or lost.

One thing certain Jud was a terror in a sprint car, especially on dirt, but a teddy bear in the pits.

He spent his early years racing in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa on the half mile dirt bullrings that spawned many fierce competitors in the post war years.

Jud hit the "big time" at the Hoosier Hundred in 1956 and led most of his first USAC race until a broken shock slowed the likable giant to a fourth place finish.

Next race, a hundred miles on the dirt at Sacramento, Calif., was no contest, Jud won going away and the eyebrows began to raise. He won two more 100 milers in '57 and tossed in a 50 lap sprint car win at the always tough Williams Grove track. Not a bad year for his rookie year in the big time.

Things really started to look up in '58 when John Zink hired Jud to drive his Zink roadster at Indianapolis. It turned out to almost be the ride of a lifetime.

Jud easily qualified the sleek roadster in the 19th spot and lined up race morning full of anticipation but not prepared for the antics of Ed Elisian and Dick Rathman.

Rathman was sitting on the pole and Elisian was in the middle of the front row when the starter's flag fell. The field made it thru the first and second turn and headed down the backstretch for turn three.

Elisian and Rathman decided the time had come to win the race in the third left turn of the 800 left turns needed to complete the 500 miles. Elisian spun, hitting Rathman, and both cars went into the outside wall and all hell broke loose.

In all 15 cars were involved in the wild melee and Pat O'Connor paid the supreme price.

The best description came in Jud's own words, as he liked to tell it, "when I came into the short chute there were so many cars headed at me I thought I was the one going the wrong way. Then I saw the infield was still on my left and I thought now that's where I should be".

Jud drove down through the grass and out of trouble and finished the race in a very creditable eight place and, after adding wins at Atlanta and Phoenix, ended the '58 season in fourth place in the championship standings.

Disaster struck in '59. It happened at Springfield where the crowd had gathered for the annual 100 mile dirt championship dirt race. Jud collapsed in the pits.

The doctor in the infield medical center said heart attack and USAC said your racing days are finished.

Jud spent the next three years trying to convince one and all that he didn't have a heart attack. Finally, and at his own expense, he made trips to both the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic and was given a clean bill of health by both places.

He was allowed to return to racing. The return to the top had to start at the bottom running the modifieds, super modifieds and then IMCA sprinters, with there anything goes engines.

Finally in 1964 Jud broke into the USAC sprint ranks and proved to the boys the same talent and desire was still shinning brightly. His first year back Jud won six out of 19 sprint races and finished a strong second in the rugged sprint division point standings.

In '65 Jud won four of the first six sprint races and led the points standings for more than half the season, but mechanical ails hit the last half of the season and he slid to ninth in the final standings.

Come the '66 season and Jud was once again leading the sprint division until --- until.

Until the night of June 11 at Reading Speedway in Reading, Pa.

Jud and Red Riegel were running side by side going in to first turn, there was contact between the two cars and both started flipping.

Jud's sprinter ended up upside down on the guard rail with Red's, also upside down, a little further down the track.

Both drivers died in the crash.

I knew Jud Larson very well, I saw him win and lose many races. But a funny thing about Jud, you could never tell whether he had won or lost when the race ended by the size of crowd around him, he was always surrounded by autograph hunters win or lose.

Jud Larson was truly a man who didn't fear dying so much that he was afraid to live.