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He goes by both. Whether “Buddy,” the two-syllable synonym for pal, or the more mature-sounding “Bud,” the single-syllable term for what is young and unfinished, both fit. Bud McElroy, at 39, seems easygoing and uncomplicated. He likes to talk about having fun. He smiles a lot. And if he heard himself described as a complex man — maybe even a driven one — he’d laugh. “Who, me?” he’d ask.

Except for two years of missionary work and a stint in the service, McElroy has always lived in Chula Vista, in the same house he now shares with his wife and four children. Years ago it was brown; now it’s painted gray with white trim. McElroy did some brick work out back, sank a flagpole into the front yard, and hoisted the American flag.

Inside, the house is comfortable and unassuming. The living room is a jumble of fall-into-it furniture. On the hearth, a green parakeet named Paulie breaks into song. His twittering high notes scissor the air and bounce off the wall on which hang World War II memorabilia, replica portions of the American flag with blue and gold stars. The code, he explains, was devised during the Civil War. Sixty years ago, the flags were set in windows to indicate, according to the number of stars, how many in that household were serving in the military. A blue star accounted for those who were living, gold was for the dead.

McElroy transferred to night school in his senior year at Montgomery High School. He’d found a day job delivering furniture and was saving money to go on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For two years after graduation he walked door-to-door delivering the Mormon vision of hope and redemption through parts of Colorado and the New England states. Next he enlisted in the Marines and served six years, then went on to the Army Reserves. He later signed up for active duty and was in Berlin in 1989 when the wall came down. Reenlisting in the Army Reserves, he continues to give a weekend every month and a couple of weeks each year.

In 1990, McElroy joined the Federal Fire Department of San Diego. With his one-day-on/one-day-off schedule, he uses his free time to speak to young people about the dangers of drugs (“It’s your future, why blow it?”). Otherwise he might be filling orders for the custom-made surfboards he designs and makes in his garage. He has hobbies — like collecting wartime memorabilia — he makes time for his kids, and he’s a faithful member of his church. A moderate Republican, he talks about going into politics one day. And he might. Since September 25, 1993, McElroy has worked hard to keep his options open. That day — the most important one of his life — he came close to collecting his gold star.

“I’d done some professional off-road racing and was preparing for ‘Baja 1000,’ a thousand-mile run, with a shakedown session.”

Neighbors and friends had traveled the 90 miles to the desert with McElroy and his wife. Tina McElroy, dark-haired and perky, was all smiles. It was her birthday and she was excited. McElroy was feeling the grip of adrenaline that always hit before a race. He’d never driven the Plaster City series before. The race offered ideal conditions to learn how smoothly his transmission ran, if his suspension was spongy, whether there was sloppy play in the steering.

Tina settled in with friends at the start/finish line. A hubbub of activity surrounded the pit crews and race officials. Bob Hines (known as “Radio Bob” to his fans) was doing radio dispatch under a B.F. Goodrich banner. The sky over the Yuma Desert was cloudless, a bleached blue that rose high and endless.

Racers went six times around a 30-mile loop. McElroy was counting upon his map-man, 70-year-old Ed McClain, to keep him on track. Their aluminum-bodied, tubular-framed “Class 9” car was painted white with red-and-blue stripes. It was funnel-nosed. The engine was in the rear.

Every 30 seconds, the green flag came down: they were ninth out of the line. Shifting easily, his foot on the gas, McElroy whipped past one car after another. Number 999, their car, was running well. One lap and McElroy was up to third place. Halfway through the second loop, just as he was ready to pass the second man, the car stalled and lost all power. McElroy rolled as far as he could, pulled the brake, and got out. Hugging the side of the car, he edged around to the rear. Ed McClain stayed put, belted in the passenger seat. Cars roared past. There was no wind that day. The dust that the cars kicked up hung low.

Bill Hernquist saw neither the man nor the car when he hit them. The impact was so great that, inside the car, Ed McClain was knocked out cold.

“This was after he nailed me,” said McElroy. “I went flying 50 feet and hit the ground. Everything went black...”

McElroy is 5´8.˝ Women call him cute. This has as much to do with his boyish style as his youthful looks. (His head of graying hair looks premature.) His features fold easily into a smile. Like his laugh, his grins are various; now it is over-bright; he’s a guy who has told his story before.

“You wanna know why everything went black?” He laughs. “Because I landed on my stomach with my face in a pile of dirt.”

Desert dirt, so fine that it had the consistency of flour. McElroy rolled over and looked up. “And I see that I’m back on the race course. I get to my knees, and I’m trying to stand, because, you can understand, I want out of there...”

He was in shock and didn’t know his right leg, between the knee and foot, was in pieces. By now Bill Hernquist had jumped out of his car and run over. Hernquist, chunky in his dark racing suit, stood over him.

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