The Fight Of His Life

Busch Series legend Sam Ard enduring Alzheimer’s, financial crisis
BY RICK HOUSTON (article reposted courtesy of NASCAR Scene)


Sam Ard sits quietly in his recliner as the tape is loaded in the VCR. The images that flicker across the screen are of a race long ago finished, on a track that sits a little more than two hours from the living room of his modest double-wide mobile home.
For all the changes both driver and facility have undergone since that afternoon, the track now known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway might as well be a universe away.


During the pace laps, Ard’s red-on-white No. 00 Oldsmobile rolls past the camera. It was a beautiful car, simply designed. Seeing it seems to trigger something with Ard.


" This is the race where I beat Earnhardt by 8 1⁄2 seconds," he exclaims, and indeed it is. It is the 1983 Miller Time 300 and undoubtedly the biggest win of Sam Ard’s racing career. Although the announcers on the taped broadcast never mention it, it is also Ard’s fourth consecutive win of the season, setting a record that stands to this day in the Busch Series.


Ard’s streak was broken a week later at Hickory, where he finished second to longtime rival Jack Ingram. The next race, Ard capped off his championship run with yet another victory in the season finale at Martinsville. It was his 10th triumph of the year, setting one more mark that’s never been topped.
That’s how dominant this man was in his prime, yet there will come a day – it may be next week, or it may be next year or the year after that – when Ard will no longer remember much, if anything, about his storied racing career. Ard has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, "is a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities."


Moments after his recognition of the tape as his Charlotte victory, Ard abruptly moves to another subject – the track conditions that led to his career-ending 1984 accident in Rockingham.


It had been an absolutely crazy year. Ard finished out of the top five in only four of his 28 starts ... four! ... and won eight times en route to amassing a stunning 583-point cushion over Ingram going into the next-to-last race of the campaign at the North Carolina track.


Ard qualified second, but wrecked just 14 laps into the Rockingham race. That was that. His racing career was over in the briefest blink of an eye, his life never to be the same again. Today, he and Jo, his wife of 44 years, face his battle with Alzheimer’s and a dire financial crisis due to both past and future circumstances.


Nevertheless, Ard doesn’t let a lot bother him. Never has. After his accident, he taught himself to walk again on a sawdust pile behind the family’s home because it cushioned his falls. The story was never told to seek sympathy. That’s just the way it was.


And this, his Alzheimer’s Disease, is just the way it is.


" What’s my biggest concern right now? Ain’t no need to be concerned. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I guess it just comes with age," Sam says. "I just can’t hold out to do nothing no more. I can get out there and start to do something, and shoot, I’ll have to take two or three breaks right in a row just to catch my breath."


It was in May that Ard was hospitalized in Florence, S.C. because of stroke-like symptoms. One test became two, two tests became countless ones. After about a week, neurologist Dr. Ashley Kent confirmed for two of his three daughters – Joane Jones and Sharon Ard – what they already suspected: their father was one of the estimated 4.5 million people in the United States who has Alzheimer’s. Joane and Sharon told their other two siblings, sister Melinda Ross and brother Robert Ard, before all four Ard children approached their mother with the news.


Heaven knows Jo already had a lot on her mind. Six months before Sam’s diagnosis, tests had revealed a degenerative disease in Jo’s right eye. While her husband was in the hospital, she learned that the disease has spread to her left eye as well. In two years, chances are that she will be completely blind.
" I didn’t want to talk about it," Jo says of her initial reaction to Sam’s diagnosis. "I did my crying without the kids. I said, ‘I’ve got to get myself together. A lot of stuff is gonna have to be done. A lot of things are gonna have to be thought through," because I know what Sammy’s disease is and because of the situation with my eyes. I just didn’t really know what to do."


One right after another, Jo and each of her children mention two things that keep the Ard family together: a very close family bond, and a deep faith in God. It isn’t rehearsed, a cliche read from a press-conference script. When Jo, Melinda, Joane, Robert and Sharon say they’re close to each other and to God, they mean it.


Facing the insidious disease that is Alzheimer’s will take fortitude of the most incredible sort. Since Ard’s diagnosis, his family has made every attempt to learn as much as possible about Alzheimer’s.
" To me, it’s a disease that will erase, me, my family, racing and everything else that’s important from my daddy’s memory," says Joane, the next-to-oldest Ard child. "It’s a disease that will take my daddy back in time, and he will become totally dependent on others for his normal daily routines. I have learned, though, that he won’t suffer because of the memory loss, and that is a great comfort to me."
" The most terrifying part about it will be him not realizing who I am," adds Robert, the third-born of Sam’s and Jo’s children, and the only son. "I dread the day that I walk in there and he says, ‘Who are you?’ ... He’s my best friend. He’s the man I want to be."


The problems that plague Sam and Jo Ard, however, aren’t just physical. They’re financial, as well. At the height of his success, Ard was paid a weekly salary of $300 by car owner Howard Thomas, plus a fourth of the race winnings. Out of that, the driver was responsible for paying his crew. In1984, his last season as a driver, Ard pocketed a shade more than $48,000.


" I feel like Sammy, Jack Ingram ... they made the Busch Series," Jo says. "Sammy and Jack earned their respect. They worked on their own cars. They carried their own cars to the track. They didn’t live in these here big motorcoaches and have million-dollar sponsors."
The Ards now exist on just $1,100 a month in Social Security and veteran’s benefits, plus whatever Jo can pick up by cleaning houses here and there. That’s it. After half goes to the house payment, there’s virtually nothing left for anything else. Certainly, there are no "extras" in the life of Sam and Jo Ard.
" By the time I get done paying the house payment, the light bill, the telephone bill and the credit card bill – we’d been buying groceries on it – that’s it. We don’t have anything left," Jo says matter of factly. "We don’t go out and eat much. I don’t go anywhere, other than to church and back."


This ... this is how bad the situation is. Trophies and other pieces of Ard’s racing memorabilia have been sold to pay bills. Gone are Ard's two championship rings. All but one of the numerous grandfather clocks Ard took home after wins at Martinsville Speedway are gone.


" It’s nothing (unusual) for Daddy to call and ask if I’ve got money to get gas for him, just to ride up and down the road," Robert says.


The Ards are a family used to taking care of their own. However, Jo and Robert feel that’s not been the case with NASCAR, a sentiment Sharon echoes in no uncertain terms.
" I’m not looking to get any money out of this," Sharon says. "I’m not looking for my family to get any money out of this. Who do you blame? It’s a dangerous job. You knew what could happen. It happened. It’s unfortunate it happened to you, but at the same time, you’ve got spectators out there paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars to see these people put their lives on the line. NASCAR was making millions of dollars off of this attraction."


According to Jim Hunter, the vice president of corporate communications for NASCAR, the sanctioning body has no benevolence fund for competitors who seek financial help. When Robert contacted NASCAR for help with Sam’s hospital bills, he was directed by Hunter to the Women’s Auxiliary of Motorsports, an independent charitable organization. WAM has paid several of those bills, but has also informed Robert that the organization does have an unspecified limit on what it can pay out.
Ard is a two-time champion of a major NASCAR series, and still holds important records in that division. Really, the question is this: what’s that worth for someone like Sam Ard, years down the road? When asked if Ard’s accomplishments were enough for the sanctioning body to give him any extra consideration, Hunter is relatively non-committal.


" Well, we would certainly want to help any way we could, both financially and otherwise," Hunter says. "When his son contacted me by e-mail and told me the situation, we did some things (to show) that we certainly appreciate what Sam has done for the sport. I know in some cases, we actually help someone financially. We don’t discuss what we do, obviously, because every situation is different."
For everything facing this family, there is no father on the face of the Earth held in higher regard than Sam Ard. He once spent his weekdays at the shop, his Saturdays on the track and his Sundays on the golf course. After the accident that ended his career, he went from being a father to much more than that. He was a daddy.


For Melinda, that’s all that ever mattered.


" Daddy is the kindest and most humble man I know," says Melinda, the oldest of the Ard children. "He is funny, too. "Even though he was not there a lot while we were growing up, he always made sure we had everything we needed. He was an awesome provider. He was and still to this day is my hero."
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A fund has been set up to help the Ard's. If you want to assist Sam and Jo, send your contribution to:
Sam Ard Care Fund
Account # 68212-03
Carolina Trust Federal Credit Union
P.O. Box 780004
Myrtle Beach, SC 29578