Jigger Sirois couldn’t overcome the obstacles that prevented him from qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, but later in life he finally overcame the stutter that afflicted him for nearly six decades.

 

 

 

By JOHN FINERAN

@genefin

Special to woodypaige.com

Sometimes life imitates art, despite what the folks in real-life La La Land want us to believe.

There’s a scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” in which the hero, played by Tom Hanks in an Academy Award-winning performance, is asked by a bumper-sticker salesman for a slogan just before they run through a pile of animal excrement.

Gump’s reaction – “It Happens” – is a humorous way to explain the recent blunder that occurred at the conclusion of Academy Awards when actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope and awarded the movie “La La Land” the Best Picture Oscar only to discover that “Moonlight” was the winner.

“Fum-BALLLLLL,” as the great sports play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson might have intoned. Sometimes, “It Happens.” And when “It” does, there is often nothing you can do but smile through the egg on your face and walk off the stage.

Sports history is full of such “yolk” moments – from young fan Jeffery Maier pulling Derek Jeter’s “home run” into the Yankee Stadium stands during the 1996 ALCS … to Argentine golfer Roberto De Vicenzo signing a wrong scorecard and later uttering “What a stupid I am!” after missing out of a playoff with Bob Goalby at the 1968 Masters … to Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall scooping up a fumble and running 66 yards for what he thought was a Minnesota touchdown but ended up a San Francisco safety … to Fab Five member Chris Webber calling a timeout that Michigan did not have to eventually lose the 1993 NCAA Championship Game to North Carolina.

Unfortunately, because of the Oscars’ last-minute blunder, the beautiful speech made by Viola Davis in accepting her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Fences” is almost forgotten.

“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – one place and that’s the graveyard,” Miss Davis said. “People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition.”

We think we know the whole stories of the late greats Charles Darwin, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Robert Merrill, Jimmy Stewart, Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton, King George VI, John Updike, B.B. King, Wilt Chamberlain, Aristotle, Anthony Quinn and Bill Withers. But we don’t.

Nor do we know all of the stories of the greats still among us – Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman, Tiger Woods, Bo Jackson, Johnny Damon, Bill Walton, Mel Tillis, Joe Biden, Chris Martin, James Earl Jones, Carly Simon and Leon Duray Sirois.

Wait, Leon Duray Sirois? Who’s he?

If we said Jigger Sirois, would that clear it up for you? No?

Well, Jigger Sirois, from the northwestern Indiana farming community of Shelby, grew up dreaming of racing a car in the Indianapolis 500, which isn’t surprising since his father Earl “Frenchy” Sirois worked as a mechanic at the Old Brickyard on the winning cars driven by Lee Wallard, Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan in the 1950s.

Jigger, who won championships driving Midget cars, got a chance to qualify several months of May from 1969 through 1975 at the corner of 16th and Georgetown but never made the Memorial Day show.

His best chance came on pole day in 1969 when he was 34. His turbocharged Offenhauser-powered Gerhardt race car was first in line to qualify that wet and rainy May 17, and when Sirois finally drove onto the dried-off, 2½-mile rectangular oval shortly after 4 in the afternoon despite ominous clouds overhead, his right foot and driving skills produced laps of 161.783, 162.279 and 160.542 miles per hour.

One more completed lap and the car with Jigger behind the wheel would be the first qualifier for the 1969 Indianapolis 500, and as such, be on the pole for the May 30 race that would be eventually won by Italian-American immigrant and future U.S. citizen Mario Andretti.

“Immediately, as I came off the fourth corner,” the 81-year-old Jigger recalled last week, “I envisioned seeing the starter raise the checkered flag and that I was going to be qualified for the race. Then I saw it out of the corner of my left eye.”

In this case, “It” was a yellow flag being waved by car owner, Myron Caves, to wave off the Sirois’ qualifying attempt.

Despite a stutter, Jigger Sirois never had a problem signing autographs and talking with fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I remember,” said Harold Lowe, a racing enthusiast and sports writer for the Plymouth (Ind.) Pilot-News at the time, “I was standing right across from (Caves) and I could see he had the yellow flag in his hand, and I could see his arm was twitching, and it was sprinkling at the moment, and all I could think was to yell ‘No … NO … NO-O-O-O!’”

With raindrops falling on his head, Lowe knew that Speedway officials would soon again close the track after Sirois’ car passed the start-finish line on his fourth lap of 161.340 mph that produced a four-lap average of 161.486 mph.

Lowe also knew what Caves knew – the car’s four-lap qualifying speed might not be one of the 33 fastest to qualify for the race.

And, most important, Lowe also knew that, according to the rules at the time, if Sirois’ car qualified as the only car that May 17, Sirois would be the pole-sitter for the race provided that 33 cars didn’t surpass his speed.

And guess what? Thirty-three cars didn’t. If Caves had raised a green flag instead, Sirois would have started the race on the pole at 161.486 mph with eventual pole-sitter A.J. Foyt, in a car that qualified at 170.568 mph, in the middle and Andretti on the outside of Row 1 at 169.851. Behind Sirois in Row 2 would have been Bobby Unser at 169.683.

The 33 fastest cars make the field for what has long been championed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” and while it would have not been the fastest starter, Sirois’ car would have sat on the pole.

Caves knew that, too, which is why his arm was twitching before he threw the yellow flag. “I came within a hair of not pulling him off,” Caves said in a story written by the late Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times prior to pole qualifying in 1989. “I wasn’t even thinking it might rain again. I was only thinking of getting the car into the race and I heard Jigger had trouble for the second time in Turn 3. I thought he had lost too much time. It looks like I goofed, doesn’t it?”

Caves, of course, had no idea how things would play out. He just felt Sirois’ speed wasn’t going to be quick enough. Caves figured there would be 33 cars quicker, but as the qualifying eventually played out, only 31 were. Eventual cars driven by Bobby Johns and Peter Revson qualified slower – at 160.901 and 160.581, respectively.

So Caves waved the yellow and the car had two more qualifying attempts the following weekend but Sirois couldn’t get it into the field. In both 1970 and 1974 qualifying, Sirois temporarily made the field but was bumped. After 1975, he saw the handwriting on the wall and never attempted to qualify again.

The American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association annually remembers Sirois’ story when it bestows “The Jigger Award” for the hard-luck story of the month at the track. Fittingly, Sirois, the first winner, returns for the picture-taking ceremony the day before the race.

“Sure, I was disappointed,” Jigger said. “It wasn’t my decision – it was the owner’s decision.”

And long afterward, shortly before Caves died of cancer, Sirois made his peace with his former owner.

“I hadn’t seen him in 30 years,” Sirois recalled. “I heard he was in a motorhome across Georgetown and that he was really sick. So I went over and knocked on the door. Mr. Caves answered it and looked transfixed, like maybe I was going to punch him. I told him that I came to thank him, that I was indebted for the ride, and he invited me in and we talked.”

By the time Jigger Sirois had closed that chapter, he already had begun writing new ones for himself and others. And now you will know – as the late Paul Harvey would say – the rest of the story.

“You know, if someone had told me on that day in 1969,” Sirois said, “if someone had told me, ‘Jigger, don’t feel so bad – some day you will help kids who stutter,’ I would have told them they got a hole in their head.”

Now you know what Leon Duray Sirois has in common with those lates – Churchill, Marilyn, Wilt the Stilt, Elvis and Co. – and those greats – Tiger, Julia, Walton and, ironically, James Earl Jones, on whom God may have bestowed the greatest voice of all time.

They all overcame stuttering.

Actresses Nicole Kidman, left, and Julia Roberts, right, and musician B.B. King all suffered from stuttering when they were young as did singer Elvis Presley and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

For much of his life, the only retreat for Sirois, who began to stutter after witnessing a destructive tornado while driving through it as a 3-year-old with his mother, was his seat in cars surrounded by gallons of highly combustible fuel that raced inches from concrete walls at speeds better than 170 miles per hour.

“There is fear that goes along with automobile racing,” Jigger once said in a 2009 interview with Jeff Manes for the Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune, “but it doesn’t compare to the fear a youngster who stutters feels when asked to talk in school.”

As a child, a teacher mocked his stutter, and Sirois grew uncomfortable speaking in social circles. Yet he also remembers being able to talk about racing without much problem to reporters and fans. After his 1969 disappointment at the Speedway, his father “Frenchy” wrote him a heart-felt letter telling him how proud he was of his son both on and off the track.

Sirois finally got help – with wife Juanita and others by his side – later in his life.

In late 1998, ABC News journalist John Stossel, himself plagued by a stutter, directed Jigger to the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va. In 2000, at the age of 65, Sirois enrolled in a 19-day class that consisted mostly of teens for 100 hours of intensive speech therapy work with director Ron Webster and the staff at Hollins.

One of the great voices of our lifetime, belonging to actor James Earl Jones, once was quieted because of his stuttering.

Sirois found his voice – his speech fluency rising from 85 percent to over 99 percent. Today, if you met him for the first time, you’d never know Jigger stuttered until he begins to talk excitedly about the wonderful advances that have been made. Only then does his affliction make a temporary re-emergence.

“Excuse me,” the old racer will say, “I double-clutched there.”

Now, Jigger’s aim is to get children of all ages who stutter to their checkered flag by giving them access to therapy and service whether they can afford it or not.

Jigger Sirois knows – he felt their pain years ago.

“Every child who stutters goes through four stages,” he said. “First, you’re embarrassed and you should not be. Second, you feel ashamed. Third, you feel inferior. But the fourth is the most self-defeating feeling of all. Any child who hasn’t had therapy automatically develops a fear of talking. The sooner we can get help for a child who stutters, the sooner they will feel good about themselves.”

Sports writer Dick Mittman, left, and Sirois get together before awarding “The Jigger Award” to the driver who was the hard-luck story of the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s why Sirois has given speeches and serves as an unofficial ambassador to organizations such as the Stuttering Foundation, the brainchild of the late Genuine Parts Company co-founder Malcolm Fraser, himself a stutterer; Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., where therapy for children begins when they are two years old; and the Rehabilitation Therapies Fluency Program at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital where the program has come to the attention of former Super Bowl-champion quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. Manning’s foundation benefits the Peyton Manning Children Hospital at St. Vincent.

“Peyton Manning called me and thanked me for my letter,” Sirois said. “He told me, ‘Rest assured, I will help move the program forward.’ I got off the phone crying and Juanita asked me why. I told her Peyton Manning called me. We were both amazed.”

Hollywood has

Just like actor Jimmy Stewart, who had to overcome a stutter, Jigger Sirois knows “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

done its share to bring attention to stuttering, never more so than the movie “The King’s Speech.” It’s Great Britain’s King George VI, who was a pillar of strength, despite his stutter, for the people during World War II. The movie won four Oscars in 2011, including one for Best Original Screenplay by David Seidler, who overcame his own stutter and accepted his award for all those similarly afflicted: “We have a voice; we have been heard.”

Jigger Sirois figured it all out for himself long ago. Now, maybe it’s time for the folks of real-life La-La Land to make a sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life” that starred the late, great Jimmy Stewart, an actor who stuttered as well.

“My life has been blessed,” Jigger Sirois admits.

A movie about Sirois? Why not?

“My Blessed Life” has a nice sound to it, don’t you think?

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John Fineran, one of American’s best sports journalists, has been around the track a few times. And he has talked himself out of tough situations a whole lot of times. His life has been wonderful most of the time.