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July 25, 2011 10:00 PM

Sen. McGovern Spry, Speedy On The Speedway

Brandon, SD

In recent years, the term "bucket list" has become increasingly popular. That's a list of activities people wish to accomplish before they're unable to do so.

Sunday night, a former United States Senator made another notch on his bucket list when he strapped into a race car.  But for George McGovern, there's a bigger reason for his recent involvement in extreme sports.

At the spry young age of 89, McGovern had a crazy idea to celebrate his most recent birthday. He wanted to get into a sprint car and drive it around Huset's Speedway. That's exactly what he would do Sunday, but just starting a car like this takes a lot of practice and expert instruction.

"Once they start pushing you, and once the oil pressure gauge comes up, flip this switch on and it will fire," sprint car driver Lane Brenden said.

Because this racing machine is nothing like what you'd see on the streets, McGovern would practice the starting technique for nearly an hour. Sprint cars don't have starters, so they must be pushed to fire the engine. A stunt like this isn't new for McGovern. For his 88th birthday, he jumped from an airplane, from 18,000 feet.

"I had to think of something that would at least come close to that if I were going to put the spotlight on this birthday," McGovern said.

An adrenaline rush isn't new for McGovern. At the age of 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a bomber pilot in World War II focusing his missions on Nazi oil refineries.

“You were required to fly 35 missions. I regret to say that the average crew flew to 17 before they were blown out of the sky. We had a 50 percent fatality rate for the bombers, at least in the part of Europe where I was," McGovern recalls.

That bomber had a total of 6,000 horsepower. The sprint car has about 750 horsepower. After having the chance to watch some of the night's action, it was Senator McGovern's chance. Because of the danger of the sport, McGovern wore all of the safety equipment racers wear from a fire resistant suit, to a helmet, a specially designed seat and a five-point seat belt.

On the speedway, McGovern started the car like a professional, and made his way around the historic Huset's Speedway.

“It's a little more scary. There's a lot of power under that hood. You just touch that accelerator and, 'Whom!' It takes a while to get use to that because it has enormous firepower," McGovern said.

For McGovern, the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a race car isn't about the thrill, but it's about drawing attention to his most important cause.

"The reason I jumped last year and race this year is that I'm dedicating these efforts to the hungry kids around the world," McGovern said.

He's even teamed up with some fellow colleagues in that effort.

"Former Senator Bob Dole, who was the Republican leader in the Senate when I was there, has teamed up with me on this effort, so we have a bi-partisan coalition," McGovern said.

On the speedway, McGovern didn't set a new speed record, but his efforts would take him to victory lane, where he couldn't help but compare the track run to his World War II piloting experience.

"The big difference was that I was 22 then; I'm 89 now," McGovern said.

Now, he has one more year to plan a big celebration for the big 90.

"I don't know what I'm going to do at 90. I guess the first thing I'll have to do is make sure I'm around when my 90th birthday comes. Otherwise, you might have to do the jump for me," McGovern said.

Whatever the future holds, this is another mission accomplished for the Senator from South Dakota.

"I met a lot of these other wonderful drivers who, unlike me, know what they're doing behind that wheel. It's been a great night. I won't forget it for a long time," McGovern said.

And neither will those who witnessed it.

McGovern has four children; none of them approved of him skydiving or getting into a race car. McGovern says he believes he's the oldest person to skydive from 18,000 feet. Despite Huset's Speedway having some competitors over the age of 50, it's believed McGovern is now the oldest person to race a lap around the track.
  • Brandon, SD

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