Local Sportsman Lindsey Hopkins Co-Founded Saints

A wave of nostalgia swept over my clouded mind and it meant… (1) I’ve grown too old. (2) Modern racing has grown too boring.

What brought on the warm and fuzzy memories was a notice on the Indianapolis 500 website that five legendary names — Emerson Fittipaldi, Tom Sneva, John Zink, Mark Donohue and Lindsey Hopkins — were to be added to Auto Racing Hall of Fame. For Donohue and Hopkins, it will be a posthumous induction, and those were the two that stirred a valued storehouse of memories.

Everyone knows that Fittipaldi and Sneva were Indianapolis 500 winners and Zink and Hopkins were car owners and Donohue won multiple SCCA US Road and Trans-Am championships during the 1960s and 1970s before crashing and suffering fatal injuries on a lonely back road in Austria on Sunday, August 17, 1975.

Donohue, a native of New Jersey, had a NASCAR connection. Driving for Roger Penske in only his sixth NASCAR start, he won the 1973 race at Riverside, and a year later he swept three of four inaugural IROC races.

I got to know both Donohue and Hopkins when I was racing editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

First, Hopkins…. He and I had more in common than business interaction and bank accounts. He was a Greensboro native, born and raised on Mendenhall Street, as he frequently reminded me, the most successful sportsman we’ve ever had, though you wouldn’t know it by what’s left of the local daily.

Let me start by saying that Lindsey Hopkins was, in the purist definition of the word, a sportsman. Oh, he was a businessman also — a very, very rich businessman — but he was in racing for the love and camaraderie of it. He loved to mingle in Gasoline Alley with those who drove for him and the list included such legends as Jim Rathmann, Roger McCluskey, Bill Vukovich, Lloyd Ruby, Wally Dallenbach and Pat O’Connor.

You didn’t hear Lindsey Hopkins whining or talking about the lack of sponsors. Hell, he could buy the Indianapolis Speedway and Daytona along with it. The native Carolinian had homes in Miami and Atlanta and spent a lot of time in the Bahamas where he owned a chain of hotels.

Early on, in the 1960s, Lindsey teamed with another racing man, John Mecom of Houston, another wealthy sportsman, to acquire the New Orleans the Saints expansionist franchise from the NFL and bring a third pro football team to the South — Miami and Atlanta were the

other two. He called and offered me the Saints’ relations position but at that time in my life PR translated into “flack.”

When I was in Houston, with the old Press, a favorite saying was that Mecom’s mother asked him to go downtown to buy some rice and a newspaper, and he obliged by driving down Fannin Street and buying the Rice Hotel and the Houston Post. I could have supported myself for a lifetime on the Ferraris and Maseratis he had in his racing stable.

Hopkins and Mecom weren’t the nouveau riche; they were old money, and, as I said, true sportsmen. For several years, Hopkins sponsored four cars in the Indy 500, and I covered the star-crossed race in 1973 when McCluskey drove for him.

It wasn’t all parties and good times.

There were tragic moments. Hopkins saw two of his drivers, O’Connor and Vukovich, flip and die on the track. It saddened and hurt him, but he never thought of packing up and cutting his losses. Like most drivers, he developed a fatalistic approach to track deaths: What will be will be; it’s either your time or it’s not.

One more thing on Lindsey Hopkins: It was through his intercession and support that the Indy cars raced for the first time in the South. As an official of USAC, he arranged for the open wheels to make their debut at Atlanta International Raceway in the 1960s. I don’t know if AJ Foyt appreciated the historical significance of the occasion since he was too busy tumbling out of a burning racer in the infield in what he has described as his “closest shave.”

My association with Donohue was much briefer. I was there when he raced frequently at Road Atlanta, but he was the kind of racer and engineer that you didn’t forget. That “engineer” part was important. Listen to what one of his close friends, Mike Bailey of Coca-Cola, said of Donohue: “Mark was a very shy person. It was most conspicuous in that he was not comfortable with people he did not know. His eyes would light up when his favorite subject came up and it was not racing per se. It was engineering, racing engineering. He always strived for the perfect car.”

Of all the drivers I have covered in NASCAR, Indy racing, bullrings, sports cars or whatever, the two most intelligent, in my opinion, were Mark Donohue and Peter Gregg. I mean, these were two highly articulate and brainy men. To interview them, you had to be prepared, for they brooked very little innocuous chatter. You asked your questions and got out of there and felt more intelligent and enriched for the experience, if you know what I mean.

In other words, they were class, a different breed than the good ol’ boys of NASCAR.

My last recollection of Mark Donohue occurred in 1973 when he crashed on the backstretch of Road Atlanta and left the city with a new knee and a new bride.

Dr. James Funk, the orthopedic surgeon of the Atlanta Falcons, repaired Pat’s knee at Piedmont Hospital after arrangements had been made by Eden White, a model, interior decorator and socialite summoned by a friend of Donohue’s. During the rehab period and visits that followed, friendship blossomed into love and the race driver and the socialite were married eight months later. Eden was in Austria when the fatal accident occurred.

When I heard the bad news, I recalled our conversation before the Road Atlanta race and our touching on track tragedies. Even then, he had the sport’s interest, not himself, at heart.

He said, “My complaint is that they [TV people] keep showing accidents over and over again and creating an adverse reaction from the viewing public. It is not fair to make such a gruesome display of the race.”

The one consolation we have is that, on that back road in Austria, hopefully, there were no TV cameras.

I guess what I’m saying is that I miss those days of character and sportsmen and such giants as Hopkins, Art Rooney, Tom Yawkey, Connie Mack, the Fords and the Maras. Money, to them, was not the factor; civic pride was.

I only wish that my friend Lindsey Hopkins had lived to see the heretofore hapless Saints line up for the Super Bowl Sunday evening for the first time in 44 years. Just for old times, I’m picking them to beat Indianapolis’s Colts and Peyton Manning, the son of his first Saints QB, Archie Manning. Say, 26-21.