Lyn Michaud Part II, A brush with death

Episode 312

April 19, 2020

Life Altering

Life altering events come in a variety of ways and means. Sometimes like in the times we live in; a life change could be a job loss with little hope of that job ever returning.

In my case, when my college fraternity brother, Willard Overlock, center punched a pickup truck that turned left when the driver was unable to see up the road due to a rising sun blocking all chances of noticing Will, who was driving his motorcycle in the oncoming lane.

We were supposed to go to the races later that Saturday at Unity Raceway. Instead we had to deal with the shock of Willard’s death. For me that was one of the first times I experienced the death of a person my own age.

This week I viewed  a DVD of the July 1 & 2, 1989 Van Buren Regatta. Several scenes showed Lyn Michaud prepping his race boat and winning races. Little did Michaud know that in a little over a month his life would take a dramatic turn after an incident a race in Connecticut.

A somewhat grainy photo of Lyn Michaud at the Van Buren Regatta June 30, 1989 just a 1 1/2 months from the race in Thompson, Connecticut. (Gregg Cyr video screenshot)

This week we will share a racing experience that altered the life and racing career of Van Buren’s Lyn Michaud who looked death in the eye and refused to give up. He would need every bit of toughness he possessed just to survive the crash at West Thompson Lake, Thompson, Connecticut, that hot August Saturday in 1989.

That day

“As an active driver,” reflected Michaud as he looked at the ceiling of his camp recalling that tragic day. “I raced probably into the very late 90s, well actually, right around the year 2000. I only drove, of course until 1989.”

Pointing to his damaged right arm he said, “Because, you know, I did this boat racing.”

The trailer set up utilized by Lyn Michaud to haul his Formula E and D Mod Hydros to venues primarily in the northeast. The box in the rear contained engines, tools, and spares. At one time this rig was hauled by his Ford Mustang. (Lyn Michaud collection)

The race was near to Thompson Speedway at West Thompson Lake, “Yeah, not far from the speedway, in Thompson. It was a divisional race, it was a big race, it was a qualifier for the nationals. There were guys from Ohio and Michigan, from all over the eastern seaboard.”

“It was a windy day. I remember the wind was bad enough that they were contemplating calling it off, or delaying it a few hours. They had a meter and depending on the wind, they had a threshold … but anyway the race went on.”

“This was in Formula E.  I was in my old boat. We had a full field that was like 11 or 12 boats coming down to the start.”

Michaud explained how the start works in hydroplane racing. “You know it’s a flying start. In a race, you have a three-minute gun at the beach. When the gun goes off… I take it back; it’s a five-minute gun. So, when the gun goes off you have four minutes to get your motor started and your boat on plane in the water.”

“At one minute, the second gun goes off,” explained Michaud.

‘Can you hear that gun,’ I asked?

Having started of hundreds of races, Michaud used his hands to help me visualize, saying, “Well, not really, not the second gun because by then you’re on the water. The first gun of course you’re in the pits, but once you’re on the water you look at the beach.”

“On the beach is a clock that’s six feet high with one big round circle, and one bright red-orange dial. At one minute, they’ll throw the white flag which indicates that there’s a minute to the start and the dial starts. The dial makes one sweep around the clock and you can’t cross that start line until the clock hits zero. So, you got to time your start. You want to be coming in full-throttle, as fast, basically as you can go and time that start to be right there when it hits zero. If you jump the gun, then you’re out, disqualified.” 

Just right of center is a starting clock at West Thompson Lake similar to the one described by Lyn Michaud. This was the 2015 version of the clock.(South Shore Outboard Association photo)

“Sometimes they’ll come in a little early and then at the last few seconds you have to back off the throttle, because you don’t want to jump the gun but if somebody behind you times it just right shoooo they’ll come flying by you at the start.”

“We were coming down for the start, because it’s a 12-boat field there were two waves of boats, there was like six or seven boats in the first wave, six or seven boats in the second wave. Coming into the start once you line up you have to choose a lane.”

“You have imaginary lanes. A lane is supposed to be ten feet wide. You have to kind of pick a lane, and by the rules you cannot change lanes coming into the start. You can’t be jogging around. You have got to pick your lane back here, so once everybody starts coming in, you stay in your lane. You have to stay in that lane around the first turn. You can’t chop people off.”

“One guy was over here on the inside who basically missed a lane choice. I was in lane three, I was in good position at the start, lane three.”

“This guy all of a sudden comes in and starts crowding everybody. The guy in the first lane kind of made the mistake of pushing over a little bit to give him room and he shouldn’t have. By the rules he shouldn’t have. The guy would not have made the first buoy, he would have been inside.”

“He pushed the whole field over, to kind of give this guy room. And at that point the guy to my inside who was in lane two bumped me, and when he bumped, it lifted the boat just enough.”

“I went over backwards, what we call a blow over. That would happen once a year, typically. But I landed right in front of a boat in the second wave, and I got hit. I got hit on the back shoulder by a pickle. (the sponson) Actually, took the pickle right off his boat.” 

I woke up three days later.”

Paul Cyr’s memory of the crash

That weekend, Madawaska native Paul Cyr was with Michaud at the regional race. He filled in the blanks since the terrifying crash knocked out Michaud who could not remember what happened next.

Cyr who encouraged Lyn to get into racing and mentored him in his early career recalled…

“In Thompson on Saturday, Lyn and I were all set up for the afternoon of races in several classes.  Lynn was racing in the very first heat of the day, Formula E Hydro, the fastest class of the day.  Clubs often did that to keep spectators at the races all afternoon.”

“Lyn got hurt on the start.  I was watching with my field glasses.  There were probably 10 boats in the heat.  Lynn had a middle position in the lineup.  As they hit the start line Lyn got “squeezed” by the boats on his left and right.  Racers are expected to maintain a one boat length space between boats.”

“But stuff happens in a race. When you get ‘squeezed’, the air spilling out from under the sponsons flows under your boat and lifts the front of your hydro.  Experienced racers know to back of the throttle early when this happens.”

“Lyn was not very experienced and probably this was the first time for him.  Anyway, as Lyn’s boat lifted, he backed off the throttle but as the boat settled it hooked violently to the right”

“A racer from Michigan was coming up from behind as Lyn’s boat spit him out.  The Michigan guy veered violently to the right to try to avoid Lyn.”

“Hydros naturally want to go to the left, not right.  The left sponson of his boat nailed Lyn in a direct hit to his right side.  You are talking 80 plus MPH.  You have less than a second to react…. humanly impossible.”

“I knew immediately Lyn was screwed.  I headed over to where the ambulances were, always two at a big race.  As they brought Lyn in on the basket, I made sure I was at the front of the basket to load it into the ambulance.”

“The crew then forced me out the side door of the ambulance, but I went right back around and got in the back again.  A crew member was unstrapping Lyn’s helmet and I ordered her to stop and to NOT take his helmet off.”

“The driver was looking back at us, and I said to him, ‘Look, if you do not want this kid to die get this ambulance moving NOW’. And he did.”

“I directed the attendant to get an air splint on his right arm and inflate it, and she did.  I found out later the driver was a Vietnam vet and probably knew what I was talking about.”

“Lyn was combative and was trying to sit up.  I just placed my hand on his life-preserver to prevent that and started talking to him.”

“’Lyn where you?’  Nothing just a blank stare.”

“’Lyn who is president of the US?’  Nothing.”

“’Lyn what day is it?’  Nothing.”

“I kept it up all the way to the hospital.”

“There was absolutely no blood.”

“When we got to the hospital, I told the doctors exactly what had happened.”

“A few minutes later, I was told that he was going to be Life Flighted to Worcester to a hospital that turned out to be one of the best trauma units in the country.”

“Before I left the hospital, I saw the wife of the Michigan racer and went over and asked her how he was.  He was on the operating table.”

“As he veered violently right, the torque of the turn forced his left hand off the throttle and the boat spit him out the left side.  Unfortunately, his left hand went under the left sponson where the turn fin is located and is almost razor-sharp.”

“It cut the left wrist open and he almost died on his way to the hospital from loss of blood.  But he lived.”

“The races were over by the time I got back to the pits.  The guys had taken down all our boats and gear and stowed it for us.  There were races the next day, but Cal Manley and I were in Worcester where Lyn was being tended to.”

Paul Cyr concluded his remarks by saying, “I never raced again!”

Gregg Cyr remembers the accident

Paul Cyr’s brother Gregg recalled the incident aftermath which was vivid in his mind today almost 31 years later.

He remembered, “I drove to Worcester, Massachusetts to see Lyn after his accident. I should have been at the race in Thompson, CT the week before but family matters got in the way. I am not sure but I think my brother Paul drove and we visited with Lyn in The University of Massachusetts Medical Center, one of the best trauma centers in the US.”

“I was shocked at the sight when I walked into the room. Lyn was hooked up to all kinds of gadgets and he looked really beat up.”

“The following day, I went to Cal Manley’s place, somewhere in southeastern Mass. Cal had brought Lyn’s equipment to his place and parked it in his yard. I hooked the trailer up to Lyn’s Mustang and drove it back to Van Buren.”

“I know after a few years of recovery; Lyn would bring his equipment to a few races in New England and had several drivers drive his boats. He was one tough cookie to come through all that with several follow-up operations and still had his lust for life and racing, even though he could not personally compete.”

“And yes, I stopped racing after Lyn got hurt.”

“The injuries were big”

Michaud explained the extent of his injuries which were multiple, “I broke… this arm (his right arm) was broken in five places. I still have a plate of steel in here. They never took it back out.”

“The hit broke my collar-bone and the collar-bone severed an artery, the subclavian artery. I was bleeding internally; they didn’t know where, actually, and I was puffing up, and so they gave me a ride, the helicopter ride. I was Life Flighted to UMass Medical Center. I think they said they gave me 15 units of blood because it was coming out as fast as they could put it in. My right lung was punctured, I forget what else. it was a big!”

“Yeah… and I say these things don’t happen often, but they do. They do happen.”

Next week…after the big one

Legendary USAC Silver Crown and sprint car owner dead at 77

Though I have never met Gene Nolen personally, in conversations with Kody Swanson I have heard him speak highly of Nolen. One of Swanson’s disappointments last season was not winning an Owner’s Championship for Nolen Racing despite winning the Driver’s Championship.

As explained in the accompanying tribute, Swanson did deliver two Little 500 wins that Nolen had pursued for over two decades. Swanson has absolutely nothing to hang his head for. I suspect Swanson was treated as a family member, loved and respected.

Kody Swanson with car owner Gene Nolen, Whiteland, Indiana after winning the Salem Speedway USAC Silver Crown race 2019. (Dallas Breeze photo)

Kody Swanson’s words:

“Gene and I met through racing. We were competitors first, before getting the chance to race together and know each other better over the past few years.

I remember the first time he called me about racing together. He was calling about the Little 500, which was certainly one of his favorite races. As time has gone by since, and we got to spend more time talking about racing, life and business, he shared that he always aimed to be friendly, fair and firm; and as I think back about that first conversation all three of those things were there.

He was friendly, approaching the idea that we should race the Little 500 together. He was fair about his terms; what I would be able to expect, and what he expected of me. As the conversation went on, maybe he sensed some initial hesitation on my end, and then he was willing to be firm – quickly expressing the confidence he had in his team, his equipment, and particularly his crew and people who were part of it. He made sure I understood I wasn’t going to find a better Little 500 ride anywhere else.

You could tell that Gene always emphasized his relationships with people. Most often he had a big smile, and he was willing to make time for everyone. While he wasn’t afraid to be firm, he was still genuine in tough conversations. He would share about his family, his work family, and I was fortunate to witness how he cared for his racing family. From your first race as part of Nolen Racing he would go out of his way to make you feel welcome whether you were a driver, a crew member, part of their extended family, or joining in to help his team for the day. He made the effort to make you feel like part of his team, and that you were appreciated.

I’m thankful that we were able to win the Little 500 together. It was something that he had been after for so long. And one of the neatest parts about that is as happy as he was to do it, he was so glad to share that joy (and relief) with the members of his team who had been chasing that dream with him. He was genuinely happy for everyone that was part of it.

Slugging down the Indiana Dairy Producers Victory Circle milk is Kody Swanson after winning his second consecutive Little 500 at Anderson Speedway, Anderson, Indiana the night before the 2019 Indy 500. Owner Gene Nolen looks on from the left. (Jordan Swanson photo)

He had such a passion for the sport, from start to finish. Everything from the engineering and ideas behind making his cars faster, executing race strategies, having the right people in the right place, to having the team really pull together to do our best to succeed.

While Gene was still recovering from his heart surgery last June we had to leave for a USAC Silver Crown race in Madison, Wis. Sometime during that race day, after practice had started, we got word that Gene was able to move from his hospital room into the physical therapy wing. It was a big step for him, and for all of us in a difficult time. That seemed to give everyone on the team an extra boost that night, and we were fortunate to win the race. It was a very special moment for my family and I to visit him at the hospital when we got home, and to be able to bring him the trophy from that race. We shared the story about how our day had unfolded, and all the memories of a great time with his team, knowing he’d been there in spirit with us all along.

But before our visit was over, Gene had arranged for Berry – the dog he loved to bring with him to the races – to come up to his room to see Trevor. Gene was so good to my family, and seemed to have a special connection with Trevor – and here while we were trying to cheer him up, he had already turned the tables, hoping to bring an extra smile to Trevor’s face and share with us that joy of getting to spend a little time with Berry too.

Gene Nolen at Salem Speedway August 10, 2019 with his driver Kody Swanson and Swanson’s wife Jordan and sons Trevor on left and Adam right. ( Jordan Swanson photo)

One of the things I’m grateful for today is knowing that we had the chance to pray together as a team before the races we ran together. And through all that Gene battled in the last year, he was so determined to get to the race track as soon as he could – early enough to be there for that prayer, for practice and qualifying, and to be on the radio for the race while hoping to meet on the frontstretch afterward – he didn’t want to miss a thing. He battled through long, hot days in the sun, far beyond what his body should have been physically capable of, in order to be part of it all, and with us every step of the way.

Gene was a special person. He was passionate about his family, his friends, his business ventures, his racing, and the people he met along the way. He was a good friend to so many, and seemed to share a smile with everyone he met. He will truly be missed.

Gene, thank you for your friendship and all the great memories!” -Kody

Following is the tribute to Gene written by Linda Mansfield, Restart Communications:

H. Eugene (Gene) Nolen, owner of Nolen Racing, passed away this afternoon, Wednesday, April 8. Nolen, 77, of Greenwood, Ind., had been fighting kidney failure and pulmonary fibrosis for about a year, and recently developed
pneumonia. He had tested negative for COVID-19. He died at
Kindred Long-Term Hospital in Indianapolis, where he was admitted
about three weeks ago.

His son, Greg, said that in accordance to his father’s wishes, the team
will continue to field cars for Kody Swanson, the winningest driver in
USAC Silver Crown history and the reigning USAC Silver Crown
champion, once racing resumes after the COVID-19 pandemic
subsides. The plan is to field a car in the USAC Silver Crown series
for Swanson and two sprint cars at the Little 500 at Anderson (Ind.)
Speedway for Swanson and Shane Hollingsworth to be run in Nolen’s

Known for being one of the most honest, caring gentlemen in the
sport, Nolen was a top USAC Silver Crown team owner for nearly 40
years with 16 victories, including three Hoosier Hundreds at the
Indiana State Fairgrounds. His team won half of the USAC Silver
Crown races held last year. It finished in the top five in the entrant
championship in each of the last five years, including second twice
(with Jerry Coons Jr. in 2017 and Swanson in 2019). Almost all of the
team members are volunteers, and many of them have been part of
the team for over 20 years.

His drivers included top names in open-wheel racing such as
Swanson, Hollingsworth, Coons, Tony Elliott, Johnny Parsons, Jim
Keeker, Ron Gregory, Chris Windom, Joe Axsom, Bob Frey, Dakota
Jackson, Hunter Schuerenberg, Billy Puterbaugh Jr., Bryan Clauson,
Rocky Hodges, Steve Barnett, Rick Hood, Levi Jones, Lance
Kobusch, Chris Phillips, Larry Rice, Tony Stewart, Tanner Swanson,
Brian Tyler, Brian Gerster, Rex Norris III and Brent Beauchamp. He
also assisted with the careers of rising stars of the sport such as
Kameron Gladish and Emerson Axsom.

His first race car was a midget he purchased in 1980.
Nolen had a passion for engineering, and that passion fueled his
participation in motorsports. Along with his close friend, the late Glen
Niebel, he helped popularize the use of the Chevrolet V-6 engine in
short-track open-wheel racing.

He was a founding partner of Manar, Inc. of Edinburgh, Ind., which is
a high-quality custom plastics manufacturer serving customers in
many dynamic industries. He was Manar Inc.’s chairman and chief
executive officer at the time of his death. He oversaw the company
becoming an employee-owned business in 2017.
He was a past recipient of USAC’s Robbie Stanley Award. In January
he also received the Emma and Joie Ray Award for Courage at the
Hoosier Auto Racing Fans (HARF) banquet.

He was a 2010 inductee into the Little 500 Hall of Fame. He was the
winning car owner of that race, the premier asphalt sprint car race in
the world, at Anderson Speedway for the last two years. In fact, his
asphalt sprint cars driven by Swanson and Hollingsworth led all but
one of the 500 laps of the Little 500 last year, with Swanson winning
and Hollingsworth placing fourth.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum honored Nolen on right and Kody Swanson on left by utilizing one of Nolen Racing’s Little 500 winning sprint cars as a special display at the museum. (Chris Gardner photo)

Nolen is survived by his son, Greg (wife Tisha), a daughter, Tammy
Sue Wagner (husband Mark), and four granddaughters (Whitney
McAtee, Emily Wagner, Jenna Wagner, and Amelia Rose Nolen). He
was preceded in death by his wife, Rose Marie Nolen, in 2005.
He was a 1961 graduate of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Big Engine sights and sounds and Operation Atlas videos for you

In this days of quarantine it have included two videos for your enjoyment. If you like the sound of big engines look at this one:

Mercury Marine’s David Maus-Berkley forwarded me this video of Operation Atlas filmed on Lake X in Florida in 1957. I found it fascinating what Kiekhaefer Mercury Marine accomplished with their 50,000 mile outboard endurance exhibition.

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Matthew 5:16)

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine