Kevin Cogan pulls away from racing setbacks

In his five years piloting Indy race cars, Kevin Cogan has traveled the road from nobody to somebody several times. Happily, he is at the positive end of this pole now -- and looks as though he may stay there for a while. Cogan, blond and ruggedly handsome, began racing go-carts near his southern California home at 11. He had a good teacher, too -- 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones.

By age 20, Kevin had captured two driving championships and started racing Formula Fords. And he finished fourth in his first Indy 500, leading the field of rookies.

That was 1981, and his future looked exceptional. Roger Penske, one of the foremost figures in auto racing, hired him to drive, and Cogan responded by qualifying for the front row at Indianapolis the next year. Then the sky began to fall.

Cogan never raced in the 1982 Indy. In a scene indelibly etched in the minds of race fans, Cogan's car veered sideways in the parade lap before the start of the race and crashed into A. J. Foyt's car. Mario Andretti, another venerable competitor, piled into them. Andretti leaped angrily from his car, seemingly ready to pound Cogan.

The crash, Mario erringly reasoned, was caused by Cogan's youth and inexperience. In fact, the crash was unavoidable, caused by a broken constant-velocity joint in the rear section of Kevin's car.

Nevertheless, a stigma hung over Cogan. Penske released him and he struggled with himself and his career. He remembers being constantly dragged down by the fans. ``I became the person they loved to boo, regardless of how well I qualified or finished. Racing started to lose its magic.''

The magic waned more when Cogan broke his feet in 1984 when his car hit the wall at Pennsylvania's Pocono race track. After 3 months spent recovering, Cogan felt he had been cheated out of his career. ``I knew than that I couldn't give it up,'' he said. ``I had to come back. Otherwise I never would have felt any satisfaction with myself.''

Newly inspired, Cogan began working out, starting to rebuild his foot strength and his stature.

He won almost $300,000 in Indy cars in 1985, yet not without additional trauma. While traveling to a race at Pocono with Mario Andretti's son Michael, who ironically had become his teammate, their helicopter crashed. Terrified but basically unharmed, they both raced that day.

Now it is 1986. Cogan is fit and respected. Moreover, he is driving for the Pat Patrick Racing Team, one of the most successful and respected teams in racing. In the first event of the season, Cogan won the Phoenix 200, his first Indy-car victory.

``Winning really made a big difference,'' Cogan said. ``It was very exciting. All of us on the team felt our true potential.''

But alas, mental obstacles continue to play a huge role in Cogan's racing career. At Indianapolis this year, he took the lead near the end of the race. Then, with only 10 laps remaining, a mishap on the course brought out the caution flag, and Cogan sensed deep trouble. The car's one mechanical problem was engine response. He was saddened but not surprised, therefore, when Bobby Rahal outraced him as the green flag fell with only two laps remaining.

``It was a great disappointment,'' Cogan mused; ``1986 will always be the Indy I wish I had won. It will always be a source of annoyance. Even if I win next year, I'll still feel badly because I'll know how close I came to winning two in a row.''

Despite this disheartening finish, Cogan's future looks increasingly bright. Corporate sponsors have recognized the pleasing personality and appeal that go along with his good looks, and he is now representing a new line of upscale sports clothing, a change of pace he enjoys immensely.

More important, he has made a new commitment to auto racing. There is nothing else in his plans, at least for the next five to 10 years.

``The owners expect 100 percent effort all the time,'' Cogan explained, ``and I intend to give them that. My goal is to be consistently competitive and to drive fast every race.''

Patrick waxes enthusiastic about his new driver. ``Kevin Cogan has the best attitude in racing, and he is probably the best driver I've ever had racing for me. He's even-tempered and he's always cool. He'll be around for a very long time.''

Maybe it's a little out of character for a race driver, or maybe it is reflective of his new outlook, the new, exciting Kevin Cogan, but a small red sign on his car's dash panel reads, ``Have Fun.'' For the first time in five years, it seems, he does.

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