Jim Robinson was doing what he does best, highballing a 3,000-pound stock car through the corners of a difficult race track--out in front of the pack.
Phoenix International Raceway is one of the fastest mile ovals. It has four corners, with a crook--sort of a mini-dogleg--in the middle of the backstretch. The secret to running fast there is to get set up for a straight, full-throttle shot at the dogleg.
Robinson was in the groove, the way he had been the day before when he lapped the mile in 27.68 seconds, a track record of 130 m.p.h. for the 600-horsepower cars running in the Skoal Bandit Copper World stock car race.
The fastest way around the west end of the Phoenix track is to drive hard into the first turn, then just start to lift on the throttle, but not completely out of it, trail-braking with pressure on the throttle and the brake at the same time. Just as the car backs off, almost imperceptibly to the human eye, the throttle is flat-footed, and the car sweeps through the second turn and takes dead aim at the dogleg.
That's what Robinson was doing on the ninth lap Feb. 7 when he was challenged on the high side by Gary Collins, a Bakersfield driver who had won the two previous Copper stock car races at Phoenix.
Robinson's Pontiac Trans-Am, a car he was driving for builder Dave Jackson of San Fernando, began to drift up the banking, toward the wall, as all cars do at that point when they're running 135 m.p.h., and Collins, in a Chevy Camaro, backed off.
They ran out of racing room.
In the time it takes to blink an eye, the left side of Collins' front bumper ticked the right edge of Robinson's rear bumper.
"Three inches more and we'd have never touched," Collins said. "I thought I'd missed him."
But he hadn't. The bump had no effect on Collins' car as the Camaro shot past Robinson, into the lead, when the Trans-Am flipped into a reverse spin and began sliding toward the wall--all adhesion to the track lost in the loose dirt and gravel, what the drivers call the marbles.
"It actually looked as if Jim's car picked up speed while it was sliding," said Ron Esau, who was following in 10th place at the time. "It was like he was on ice."
The left front of the car--the driver's side--slammed into the wall first and the momentum lifted the car up as if it were going to climb the wall. Instead, however, the force crushed the driver's window up against the wall before rebounding into the middle of the track.
Robinson's head took the impact about eye level on the left side of his helmet. That impact broke his jaw, cheekbone and nose, and damaged the eye socket.
The race was stopped for more than an hour while safety crews pried Robinson from the tangled wreck.
That was 76 days ago.
Robinson, 42, is still in a coma at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, where he was transferred March 10 to be nearer his home in North Hollywood after treatment at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.
Robinson's own No. 78 car, one of the white, orange and blue Olds Delta 88s that have helped make him one of the most popular stock car drivers on the West Coast for the last decade, was in a 40-foot container, en route to Australia on a boat when his accident occurred. The cars left the United States 35 days before the Feb. 28 race.
Robinson had been one of 15 Winston West drivers selected to compete in the Goodyear NASCAR 500 at the Calder Park Thunderdome, near Melbourne, in what was Australia's introduction to American-style stock car racing. Also selected to compete were 10 Australians and Winston Cup drivers Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dave Marcis and Kyle Petty
The West Coast drivers were promised round-trip airline tickets for four people each, shipment of their cars over and back, about a $10,000 tab; free racing fuel, five sets of racing tires, use of utility vehicles and rental cars and two hotel rooms.
When Australian promoter Bob Jane, who had personally financed the building of a $20-million track to showcase NASCAR racing, was informed of Robinson's accident, he contacted Robinson's family. At first, they asked him to send the car back.
Several days later, however, they changed their minds and suggested to Jane that he have Ron Esau, who had flown to Australia with the entourage, drive the car. Esau was there as a crew member for fellow Winston West driver Ruben Garcia of South El Monte. Jimmy Baxter, Robinson's son-in-law, flew to Australia to help prepare the car.
Baxter had been Esau's crew chief in 1983, when Esau was rookie of the year on the Winston West circuit.
"We thought we were all set until Jane told us that he'd allocated the money (for Robinson's car) to other places and that the deal was off," Esau said. "The family didn't want to spend any more money, but we had Jim's motor there and it was fresh and the car was ready to go, so with Ruben Garcia's help, we raised enough money to race anyway.
"The Melbourne papers got a hold of the human interest story . . . and the stories led to our getting some sponsorship money from Eurovox, an Australian car stereo manufacturer. The official entry listed it as the Jim Robinson Fund car, with Eurovox as a secondary sponsor."
Esau qualified fifth, fastest of the West Coast drivers, and was running in second place early in the race but then lost a lap when a tire went flat. He finished 18th after completing 160 of the 280 laps before the engine failed.
"With the sponsorship money, the qualifying money and all, we managed to bring home nearly $7,000 for Jim," he said.
Coincidentally, Jane himself had survived a 10-day coma in 1961 after crashing a car at the Philip Island track in Australia. Jane, 59, who runs the biggest passenger tire retailing chain in Australia, returned to racing and competed until he retired in 1985 to concentrate on building his own track.
Esau will drive another of Robinson's cars Sunday at Sears Point Raceway, north of San Francisco, in the 7-Up 200, opening race in the 1988 Winston West series.
"Everything we win, and I hope it's the winner's share ($7,325), will go to help pay bills for Jim," Esau said. "When I got home (from Australia), I told his family that I wanted to drive his car at Sears Point, but they said they couldn't afford to spend any more money on the car, so I got busy and rounded up some sponsors who were willing to chip in.
"I got McDonald's, my old sponsor in Riverside, to help out, and then Hall's Ambulance and Reynolds Machine Shop in Bakersfield added enough to cover the expenses."
The car Esau will drive Sunday is the one in which Robinson finished 12th last year in the Winston Western 500 at Riverside, the highest West Coast finisher.
Robinson owns three cars, one built specifically for oval racing where all the turns are left; one for road racing courses such as Sears Point and Riverside, and one neutral car that can be used for either purpose.
All three cars, which are maintained at the Jim Robinson Automotive garage in North Hollywood, are for sale, according to Rick McNeil, Robinson's racing mechanic and right-hand man in the repair shop for the last 11 years.
"Depending on what a customer wants, the price ranges from $13,000 for a chassis, without the motor or the transmission, to $45,000 for a race-ready car that doesn't need anything but a driver," McNeil said. "We need to sell them to pay off some of the hospital bills."
The red, white and orange No. 98 Trans-Am that Robinson drove in Phoenix was cut up after the accident.
"We took off the pieces that were good," owner Jackson said. "We probably could have patched it back together and made it run again, but I don't like to do that with a car that's involved in an accident like Jim's.
"That car had been my house car for about a year and a half. Jimmy Insolo won a couple of 100-lappers in it when it was a modified. Then this year Robinson decided he wanted to do more racing. He was concerned about not getting enough seat time to keep his driving talents sharp, so I converted it to a Southwest Tour car. We were planning on running the full series."
Robinson had been unhappy with his 1987 season, during which he went without a win in the Winston West circuit and finished sixth in the standings. It was the first season he had been blanked since 1980, and he wasn't used to failure, not after winning track championships at Clovis, N.M., and Saugus Speedway and then three straight Winston West championships, 1983-85.
"Jim felt his problem was not enough races," Jackson said. "There were only eight races last year and that wasn't enough for him. He's a racer and he wanted to keep busy, so we decided that this year we'd do all 20 Southwest Tour races in addition to the nine Winston West, or at least as many as we could make.
"He built himself a new Chevy engine, the one he put in my car for the Phoenix race, and it was strong. Jim always built his own engines. That's one reason he finished so well over the years."
Jackson said that after Robinson's accident, he decided not to campaign a car this season.
The other day, Jackson visited his old friend in the hospital.
"I asked him how we were going to go up to Sears Point and whip all those guys without him," Jackson said. "He squeezed my hand. I think he really knew what I was saying."
For friends and family, which includes daughters Brenna, 22, and Glenna 12, and his divorced wife, Ouida, such occurences are slim signs of hope.
Robinson, a sinewy 168-pounder who came from New Mexico 20 years ago to become a race driver instead of a rodeo cowboy, has wasted away to 129 pounds during his more than two months in a hospital bed. Brenna and physical therapists exercise his limbs daily, and he sits up in a wheelchair from time to time, but mostly it is a vigil waiting for the first spark of awakening.
"If you saw him shortly after the accident, as I did, and then saw him today, you can't help but be impressed with his improvement," Garcia said of his racing buddy. "It's the waiting that's tough, but Brenna has never shown the slightest discouragement.
"The other day, when I was there, she came into Jim's room and said, half-jokingly, 'OK, Dad, it's time to give me a kiss,' and out of a clear, blue sky, I'll swear he puckered up his lips. The doctors didn't believe her, so she had him do it again.
Jim Robinson didn't play much golf. He didn't have the time, between working on passenger cars at the garage during the day and on racing cars nights, then traveling to races on weekends.
He had a lot of golfing friends, though, and many of them will gather May 22 at the Mountain View Golf Club in Santa Maria to play a tournament for his benefit. The greens fee is $200 a person, with a maximum of 40 players. A dinner that night at the clubhouse will be open to the public for $20.