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Struggling former driver Sam Ard benefits from Kyle Busch's generosity

Struggling former driver Sam Ard benefits from Kyle Busch's generosity

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. Sam Ard was unsettled late Saturday night, unable to sleep as he peppered his wife about things he couldn't remember.

Were his parents still alive when he married Jo nearly 50 years ago? Were they doing a good job raising their children?

"He asked me 'What if I go back racing?'" Jo Ard said yesterday. "I said 'If you go back racing, I'm going to hand you divorce papers. Nobody is going to let you go racing.'"

Ard's racing days are indeed long over.

He's 69 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. He's not permitted to drive anywhere anymore, and no one is exactly sure how much Ard understands about his crumbling finances and mounting medical bills.

Kevin Harvick, a champion of Ard's plight, donated a 2007 Chevrolet van last month to Ard's family. Then the NASCAR Foundation and Motor Racing Outreach teamed for an online auction to benefit the Sam Ard Fund.

The largest gesture, though, came Saturday when Kyle Busch committed $100,000 to Ard after winning the Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch tied Ard's series record of 10 victories in a season.

"Sam Ard is one of the pioneers of this [series], and to be tied with him at 10 wins is something that's pretty spectacular and really, really special to me," Busch said. "I'm going to try to help him out and see what I can do. It's not much, but it's something that can try to help."

But to the Ards, the gesture was enormous.

A successful short-track driver for decades, Ard ran three full seasons on NASCAR's second-tier touring series, now sponsored by Nationwide, and won two championships.

In those three seasons Ard's team won purses of $378,765 - about 25 percent of which went to Ard.

His career was cut short in 1984 when he suffered severe head trauma in a racing crash.

Unable to secure a consistent income after the accident, the Ards blew through their children's college funds to cover everyday expenses. Unlike every other major professional league, NASCAR does not provide a pension to its participants and has not been on the hook for Ard or any other former driver facing financial difficulties.

The NASCAR community has occasionally stepped in to help, and a 2006 plea to their peers by Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led to a significant donation to Ard's care fund. That gesture and Ard's fight were the centerpiece of a 2007 Associated Press examination of NASCAR's indifference toward financially supporting its veterans.

Jo used the money to pay off the mortgage on their doublewide trailer in Pamplico, S.C., and repay debts. Then, Ard was seriously injured in an April 2007 accident on an all-terrain vehicle that gobbled up the last of the money.

When the balance in the fund dipped below $200 earlier this year, Jo Ard had to close the account before the monthly maintenance fee drained away what remained. Social Security, Ard's veterans benefits and the little bit Jo brings home from cleaning houses and taking care of some hunting dogs is the only money currently coming in.

So when Busch pledged his assistance, Jo Ard said the 23-year-old driver had no idea the magnitude of his gesture. She said she will use a chunk of the money to make their bathroom handicap-accessible so Ard can use it alone.

"Kyle doesn't know what he's done. He really, truly does not know what he's done to take the load and the pressure off of me," Jo Ard said yesterday. "We can do the bathroom. I can maybe get someone to come to the house and help me if I need them, because we're here day in and day out because Sammy can't be left alone. He falls. He can't drive. He'll tell you he feels fine, but every day is different."

Ard watched Saturday's race with his grandson, aware that Busch was chasing his 1983 mark for wins in a season. Jo was having a rare dinner out when her son, Robert, called her.

"Mama, are you sitting down?" Robert told her. "Well, Kyle tied Daddy's record, and I had someone call me and tell me that Kyle is going to give Daddy $100,000."

Many view the Ards' predicament as NASCAR turning a blind eye toward its pioneers with its refusal to pay a pension plan to its athletes. NASCAR's direct employees are eligible for both a pension and retirement fund, but drivers and crew members are viewed as "independent contractors" and aren't covered for any sort of assistance.

The Ards have gone through stages where they've been angry at NASCAR and its policies. But Jo Ard isn't bitter right now. Instead, she is grateful for the help they've received from the racing community at large. Although the sanctioning body does not specifically contribute anything, individual high-ranking officials have made personal financial donations for Sam's care.

"There's been some good boys," Jo said, "and we're just so thankful for their help."

For more information, visit www.samard.com and www.NASCAR.com/foundation.

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