In 1973, legendary racecar driver Swede Savage was beginning to make a mark in the sport he loved so much when a tragic accident took his life at age 26.
Not only did the San Bernardino native leave behind an 8-year-old daughter, Shelly but also his wife, Sheryl, who was five months pregnant with their second daughter Angela, now 48.
Swede Savage would have turned 75 this week.
Angela Savage has co-authored a book “Savage Angel,’’ with Ted Woerner, scheduled for publication in September.
Writing the book took about five years, said Woerner, owner of Miles Ahead Motoring Events.
It also was cathartic for Angela, who now lives in Carmel, Ind., with her husband, Scott, and their two children.
“It was painful,’’ Angela Savage said, of writing the book. “Excruciating, really. I was reliving my entire life and I had to revisit a lot of things that I was trying to forget. I knew it was necessary, but it didn’t make it any easier. It was a long, painful process.”
David Earl Savage Jr. was born on Aug. 26, 1946, at the hospital his grandfather Dr. Philip Savage, founded – St. Bernardine Hospital. David grew up in San Bernardino with his parents, David and Joetta Savage, and his brother, Bruce.
Swede got his nickname from his father because he had bright, blond hair and a stocky build, Woerner said.
Savage’s racing career started with soap box derby racing at age 5, followed by quarter midget racing and Go-kart racing at age 12. By his mid-teens, he was a competitive motorcycle racer.
Savage also was a star football player at Pacific High School in San Bernardino.
It was in 1967 that Savage began his racing career at Riverside International Speedway. The following year, he competed in the SCCA United States Road Racing Championship. These were NASCAR events in 1968 and 1969.
In November 1970, Savage competed in the Bobby Ball Memorial at Phoenix Raceway – the only site he won a professional race. He also entered the Questor Grand Prix at the Ontario Motor Speedway.
Savage only competed in two Indy 500s. The first was in 1972, and it was not a successful season, said Woerner.
In May 1973, on Memorial Day, Savage was ready for the race and had his wife, Sheryl, in the stands to cheer him on, along with other wives of racecar drivers.
The preceding days had seen rain delays, with 350,000 people in attendance, lack of food and restrooms overflowing, Woerner said.
Woerner was 11 and sitting in his classroom that fateful day, listening to the radio and the race that was about to start.
Woerner remembers hearing the commentary that detailed Savage’s 59th lap when his car veered toward the pit and crashed, exploding into flames, with car parts flying in the air. Woerner said that Savage had led for 12 laps so he was stunned when he realized that Savage had crashed.
“Had he not crashed, he probably would have won the race,” Woerner said.
Race officials did not release the name of the injured driver for about 10 minutes, and Woerner said that all of the cars rolled to a stop.
“Later, they announced it was Swede,” said Woerner, now 58 and living in Carmel, Ind. “I was just shocked and stunned and crestfallen.”
Swede Savage did not die at the race track. He lived 33 days until complications arose from his injuries. He is buried at Mountain View Cemetery, directly across from St. Bernardine Hospital in San Bernardno.
Woerner said that he had learned that Sheryl Savage was pregnant and always wondered what happened to that child.
Flash forward to 2014. Woerner friended a man on Facebook named Paul Powell, who was organizing a trip for Angela Savage to visit Indy 500 for the first time thanks to contributions from Swede Savage fans.
Angela Savage had difficulties dealing with her dad’s death as a child and as an adult. Because she never knew her dad, she had to rely on other peoples’ memories of him and look at photos.
It wasn’t until the trip to the Indy 500 that she was able to see where her dad raced, where the crash happened and get a sense of closure and heal her grief.
“It wasn’t easy, but sometimes you have to charge straight at your biggest fear in order to get past it,’’ Angela wrote in an email. “The trip to Indy for the first time changed my life. I had no idea that there were still so many people around that remembered my dad. They all started showering me with unconditional love and understanding that I desperately needed. I was – and still am – humbled by it all. God answered all of my prayers at Indy. I really feel close to my dad there, much more so than at the cemetery. My sister is buried right next to him, so it’s really hard for me to visit their graves. It’s just too painful.”
Another important part of Angela’s life has been meeting other children who have never met their mother or father.
“I also wanted to connect with other posthumous children to share with them some of the research we came across while writing this book; things that may be able to help them take the next step in their lives,’’ wrote Angela Savage. “The worst thing anyone can say to a posthumous child is ‘You weren’t even born yet,’ or ‘You weren’t even there.’”
Woerner collaborated with Angela Savage on the book, “Savage Angel,” which costs $60 and can be ordered at savage42.net.