Fred Lorenzen diagnosed with the onset of dementia moved to nursing home Fred Lorenzen was once a man who stood at the very pinnacle of what it means to be a NASCAR superstar, but now, some days are better than others.
It's been a little more than a year since the legendary driver was moved into a Chicago-area nursing home, having been diagnosed with the onset of dementia. He may or may not always remember what day of the week it is or even the name of his granddaughter, Ella. For Lorenzen's daughter and Ella's mom, Amanda Gardstrom, the decline is hard to fathom on so many levels.
He remembers every single thing from racing like it was yesterday. It's incredible. ... When I talk to him about what's going on right now, it's not that crystal clear. It's interesting how the mind works.
-- AMANDA GARDSTROM
There are glorious moments when Fearless Freddy returns, and the triggers are almost always the same. The very best days he enjoys now take place when Lorenzen talks about racing, when in his mind's eye he's back behind the wheel of the famed No. 28 Holman Moody Ford. He's winning the biggest races the sport has to offer all over again. He's back on top of the world.
Not long ago, Gardstrom made her dad a collage of old photos, from Charlotte and Darlington to his days racing at O'Hare Stadium and Soldier Field. Lorenzen promptly told her exactly what was going on in each photograph.
"He remembers every single thing from racing like it was yesterday," Gardstrom said of her father, who turned 76 on Dec. 30. "It's incredible. ... When I talk to him about what's going on right now, it's not that crystal clear. It's interesting how the mind works."
But how is that? How can Lorenzen remember things that are nearly five decades in the past so much better than what took place just five minutes ago? His daughter has a theory.
"I hate to say this because I am his daughter ... I would hope that the happiest times were with us children, but that's a different life," said Gardstrom. "I think the happiest career, exciting, exhilarating, brave, proud moments of his life were when he was doing something with cars, racing. That's whether he was getting ready for a race, talking about racing or winning the race. ... I think it was the best time of his life."
He hasn't been forgotten. All these years later, almost exactly 44 years since motoring to his last checkered flag, Lorenzen receives at least a couple of pieces of fan mail every day. When Gardstrom drops them off, his eyes light up.
"He said, 'You know what? When they stop asking for autographs, that's when you got problems,'" Gardstrom said. "He feels people still care about him. People still think about him. That's awesome, because those are his favorite days. That keeps that spark within him going."
The Golden Boy
Fred Lorenzen never ran even close to a full schedule in NASCAR's Grand National ranks, what would today be considered the Sprint Cup Series. The races he did run, however, were something to behold.
Between 1961 and 1967, the years he captured his first and last victories, Lorenzen won 26 times in 112 starts. The numbers weren't padded much with romps at tiny bullrings as they often were back in those days, either. Just one of Lorenzen's victories came on a paved track of less than a half-mile in length, and just one took place on dirt.
In 1963, Lorenzen started just 29 of the season's 55 races. He made the most of his time on the track that year, though, winning six times and posting 23 top-10s on the way to becoming the first NASCAR competitor to earn more than $100,000 in a single season. The handsome young superstar was good, alright. He was better than good.
"It's just something I wanted to do," Lorenzen said in a 2007 NASCAR.COM profile. "When you decide you want to do something, you put your mind to it and you can do it. You've gotta really want it, though. I gave up everything to go racing. I didn't party, nothing."
Prior to the 1964 season, Waddell Wilson moved over from Fireball Roberts' Holman Moody team to work with Lorenzen building engines and jacking the car during pit stops. Wilson and Lorenzen hit it off immediately, the common denominator being, Wilson says, a shared desire to win. After stumbling through their first four races together, Lorenzen reeled off wins in his next five starts.
"It was a great honor to get to work with Freddy," Wilson said recently. "He had one thing on his mind, and that was winning races. He wasn't out partying at night. In the morning, a lot of times, he and I would go to breakfast together and to the race track. He worked on the race car at the shop and at the race track, just like we did.
"He knew every part about that race car, what it took to make it do what he wanted it to do. He was the first person I ever saw measure tires. He'd come to the race track race morning, and he'd be back there behind the pits selecting out his tire sets. He was ahead of his time."
Roberts and Lorenzen were Holman Moody teammates for a little more than a year, and they became close. Lorenzen finished fourth in the May 24, 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. He'd started second, and saw the accident take place.
Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett got caught up on the eighth lap, and Roberts looped his car to avoid them. The car backed into a concrete wall on the backstretch, flipped and caught on fire. Although he rallied substantially in the coming days and weeks, Roberts died a little more than a month later on July 2.
When asked years later if Roberts' passing impacted him, Lorenzen replied very briefly, "Yep ... did." More than 40 years later, Lorenzen took a long pause before finally adding, "It hurt. He was a very good friend of mine, very close. I saw it happen. I saw it coming, the accident. He didn't have a fire suit on."
The very next time back at Charlotte, Lorenzen won in his final start of 1964. He won again in a rain-shortened Daytona 500 the following year, and then took home yet another Charlotte trophy a few months later. This time it was for the World 600, the same event that cost his friend's life the year before. He ran several races in 1966, and just five more in 1967. After a brief comeback attempt in the early 1970s, Lorenzen's career was over.
At 33, Gardstrom was born well after her father's heyday in the sport as was her older brother, Christopher. She never knew much about his time in NASCAR, and only now is she beginning to piece together why.
"When I've asked him, it always goes back to Fireball Roberts' crash," Gardstrom said. "He said just something in him changed, and that was it. I read a quote once [that Lorenzen made] about Christmas. Fireball was Santa to my dad, and when he was gone, it was like Christmas was over. When something like that happened to my dad, I think it changed inside him and he lost something for racing."
The trophy room
For all the hurt caused by the loss of Roberts and the inevitable frustrations that are simply a part of NASCAR, he missed it. The sport was very much a part of him. Still, over the years, Lorenzen turned down offer after offer to make appearances at various tracks. It wasn't that he didn't want to go, Gardstrom now realizes.
No, Lorenzen probably wanted to go a little too much.
"He missed it," Gardstrom said. "The way for him to deal with it for the rest of his life -- missing it, loving it and having so much passion for it -- was to not be a part of it."
Lorenzen with daughter Amanda Gardstrom and granddaughter Ella.
Wishing Lorenzen well
Well wishes may be sent to:
Bridgeway Christian Village
Attn: Fred Lorenzen
Room No. 146
111 E. Washington
Bensenville, Ill. 60106-2674
For the longest time growing up, Gardstrom recognized that her dad had once been a race car driver, but that was about the extent of it. She played pool in a trophy room in the family's basement, but paid the prizes no real attention, even when he would show the area to visitors. When she asked if they could attend a race, he instead took her go-karting. He was her hero, nothing more, nothing less.
"Sadly, he never wanted to take us to races," said Gardstrom, who remembers only vaguely going to just one event, possibly at
Charlotte, when she was very young. "I knew all the names in racing growing up, just because when there was a race on TV, he was always hooting and hollering and rooting for whoever his favorite guy was at the time. But he didn't involve us in it. I think that's the saddest thing for me, now that I'm a grown person and looking back on my dad's life."
It was not until Lorenzen finally accepted an offer to attend festivities surrounding the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008 that it truly began to sink in just what her father had meant to so many people. Even then, Gardstrom says her dad tried to find a way out of attending the event.
He demanded that he and his family be flown in on a private jet, thinking that would kill the deal. It didn't.
"My dad was joking," Gardstrom said. "He tried to make it as outlandish as possible, so that it would turn on the other guy and he wouldn't have to go. They sent the private jet. He said, 'Pack your bags. We're going!'"
Lorenzen had been presenting worrisome signs for a year or so before the 2008 Daytona 500. The family knew something was wrong, but Gardstrom admits her father was stubborn and refused to see a doctor. That was nothing new, really. She had stitches once. Knowing Lorenzen's aversion to physicians, when it came time, a next-door neighbor removed them in the front yard.
No ... really. That happened.
When Lorenzen got back from Daytona, he suffered a bad fall and was eventually diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus. The brain condition is characterized by gait disturbance, dementia and urinary incontinence. He was also found to have had a number of mini-strokes. The family used a part-time caregiver at Lorenzen's home in Oak Brook for about a year, but after she left at night, he got confused and wouldn't let anyone stay with him. Walking was getting worse, yet he refused to stay on the main floor of the house.
Finally, the caregiver found Lorenzen one morning after yet another fall. One of the hardest decisions a child could ever make about a parent had to be made. He wasn't going to like it, but there simply wasn't any other choice to make. Around Thanksgiving 2009, Lorenzen went into the Ridgeway Christian Village nursing home in Bensenville, Ill.
Afterward, one of Gardstrom's most difficult tasks was figuring out what to do with her father's trophies and memorabilia. They couldn't sit in her basement for no one to see, doing nothing but collecting dust. That would have been nearly as sad as her father's condition itself. Instead, some went to the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Detroit. His World 600 trophy sits in the foyer of Gardstrom's home, a daily reminder of her family's place in NASCAR.
She's got his beaten and battered red toolbox, complete with an STP sticker, out in the garage. It's rusted here and there, but Gardstrom says that it's not hard to imagine Lorenzen "in his glory days, working into the wee hours of the morning to make things just right for the next day's big race."
At some point in the future, Lorenzen will follow other trophies of his into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. His place as an inductee is almost assured, and Gardstrom hopes against hope that the honor comes sooner rather than later.
"Those memories of racing were such a wonderful part of his life," Gardstrom concluded. "Those things he thinks about all the time, it seems so fresh to him, still. To know that he made it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame would solidify for him that his legacy will live on. Even being nominated was an honor. It would be something before he passed, that he would know, that would be so wonderful for him." NASCAR.com