By now, you are well acquainted with stock car champion Jerry Tillman who has raced, and hob knobbed, with greats of racing.
Racing in Highland, Tillman was a good friend of the late great racing champion and Highland native, Swede Savage.
Swede raced for and with the who’s who, in racing, with likes of A. J. Foyt, Andy Granatelli and Dan Gurney.
Tillman met at Savage high school. Savage was a junior and Tillman was a senior.
Tillman has many fond memories of Savage.
“I used to pick him at school and take him and work on cars,” said Tillman.
“One day, we were at Swede’s house. He had this huge regulation pool table.
“We talked about pool, and I told Swede that I’d bet my Model A, if he could beat me in 10 games of pool.”
“I knew that I could beat him at least one, in 10 games.”
During the 10th game, Swede’s mom came in and told him, “Swede, you can’t do this to him. Don’t take his car.”
“When we got to the eight ball in the 10th game,” he scratched. “Man, he was a good pool player.”
There are other times that Tillman recalls, as if they were yesterday.
“People in East Highlands would love it,” said Tillman. “Before he was a professional driver, Swede would race around Highland.”
At around 1963, Swede had a Model A, with an Oldsmobile engine in it. It was a sedan.
“It was basically a hot rod.”
According to Tillman, Savage lived at the top of Base Line, on a switchback, right where it had made a sharp turn.
“Swede wanted to test the car out,” said Tillman. “From Base Line, we used to go from Boulder up and around a switchback hairpin turn, where it would connect with orange groves at Church Street.”
“It went down the switchback across the existing Base Line and in through a wide sweeping turn.
“The car was in drift, and I was yelling at him to slow it down, because the car was darn-near sideways going around the eucalyptus trees.”
“I couldn’t believe how he kept his foot on the gas. Smoke was coming from the tires.”
“The switch-back went back around and went over some railroad tracks.
“Right at the tracks, he gunned it even more like he was in a dune buggy.”
“After the tracks, we were in the air. It was if he was in a motocross, in that Model A, laughing all the way.”
Savage ended at Browning road, then turned around and went back home, according to Tillman.
Sweet Savage died at Indianapolis, during the Indianapolis 500, in 1973.
“It’s believed that A. J. Foyt’s car was leaking oil,” said Tillman.
“That’s how the story goes. A.J. was in the lead,” said Tillman. “I think Swede was in there, at second or third.”
Tillman recalls the terrible accident, as if it happened last week.
“He was coming out of turn four when he hit that oil.”
“He spun, and it took him right into the pits, head on.”
“It destroyed that car. It was a hellacious crash.”
“But he survived for a month, in the hospital,” said Tillman. “He finally succumbed to his injuries, from the burning of his lungs.”
Tillman believes Savage would still be alive today, if he had the safety equipment that is used by current racing practices.
Savage was brought back to California.
He is buried at Mt. View Cemetery, according to Tillman.
“Swede was in a lot of races,” said Tillman. “He was in it fulltime.”
After some time had passed, Swede’s father visited Tillman’s mother.
“His dad came up to my mother’s house in Yucaipa,” said Tillman. “He gave me a signed picture of Swede, in his car, at the Indianapolis 500. It’s one my treasures, for sure.”
“Swede did so much in his life,” said Tillman.