Even though it is Eric Prill behind the wheel in this weekend's SCCA national championship event at Mid-Ohio Course, he's competing for ailing father Paul
Published Friday, October 6, 2000,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.
BY TOM REED
Beacon Journal staff writer
LEXINGTON: It was a victory lap shrouded in sadness.
On a spring afternoon in 1994, Paul Prill rode around the Nelson Ledges course one last time in his Lotus Super 7.
He was holding a checkered flag, while in his heart waving a white one.
The Hudson resident could barely feel the accelerator from the numbness in his foot. The entire right side of his body was weak.
Prill had won the race, but lost his battle to a disease that forced him out of the sport he loves.
"I knew right then I couldn't go on," said Prill, 58, diagnosed with progressive Multiple Sclerosis in 1993. "I told my wife, 'That's it. I'm going to wind up hurting myself or somebody else out there.' I couldn't take that risk."
Prill no longer competes, but this afternoon at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his legacy will carry on as his son, Eric, drives in the Valvoline Runoffs.
Eric is not only competing in the Sports Car Club of America's national championships -- an honor that eluded Paul during his 26 years of racing -- but he's doing so in his father's 1962 Lotus.
"One of the worst things that could happen to a race car driver is having to hang up the driving gloves before you're ready," said Eric, who earned his SCCA license a year after his father left the circuit. "While Ive got my own competitive ambition for driving this car, continuing on my dad's legacy for all of us is the biggest motivating factor for becoming a driver and racing this car."
Eric will participate in the E-Production class scheduled to start at 4 p.m.
Paul and his wife, Pat, will watch the 45-mile race along with their daughter, Tracey, who drove in from Dayton with her husband for the occasion.
"I don't think there are words to express how proud Paul is of Eric," said Eric's mother, Pat Prill, a teacher in the Hudson school system. "He is racing for both himself and his father."
As a boy, Eric idolized his dad and dreamed of the day when he too could become involved in racing. He spent weekends riding in the family camper to events all across the Midwest.
While Paul fine-tuned the engines that he built, young Eric could be found on the ground beside him playing with Matchbox cars just hours before a race.
"I grew up at a race track and still live there," said Eric, a Miami of Ohio graduate, who works as the public relations director for SCCA Pro Racing Division.
Because he drives in the amateur ranks, his position with the SCCA is not considered a conflict of interest.
"I was a total track rat," Eric said. "If you would have left me there between races, it would have been perfectly fine by me. I can't imagine doing anything else with my weekends."
Eric has won 22 of the 40 SCCA regional races he has entered. He is just completing his first season on the national circuit, where he qualified for today's prestigious event by posting four top-5 finishes in six races.
But his joy has been tempered by concern for his father's declining health.
Based in Denver, Eric sees his father just four or five times a year although father and son talk by phone twice a week.
Eric has watched the incurable neurological disease -- which affects at least 250,000 Americans -- rob Paul of a little more mobility and independence with each visit.
The man who won almost a third of his 90 career SCCA races he entered, now has trouble driving his red Porsche when fatigued.
The man who took great pride in building and rebuilding sports car engines now cannot turn a wrench without great difficulty.
"I've watched what has happened to him and it's been tough on all of us," Eric said. "Racing has been a part of our family for as long as I can remember.
"When he first got out of it, what softened the blow was that he could race vicariously through me. But now to see him struggle to do things that were once so simple to him -- quite honestly it's heartbreaking."
No longer capable maintaining the car, Paul allowed his son to move it to Colorado last year.
Paul has wonderful memories of a vehicle he affectionately calls "my second child." He remembers winning one of his first races and plopping his pregnant wife into the driver's seat with him for a spin around the track.
"My daughter Tracey took her first victory lap before she was born," Paul said laughing. " . . . It was tough to give up the car, but it's in good hands. I sure wouldn't give it to anyone else."
Eric has repainted the Lotus green and yellow to add his own identity. But he also has displayed the National MS Society phone number (1-800 FIGHT MS) prominently on the hood.
Paul, who worked in advertising, is a co-leader of a men's support group for the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the National MS Society in Akron.
"This is not my car, it's my dad's car and he can't drive it because of this mysterious disease," Eric said. "I want people to be aware of what it can do and hopefully one day work toward a cure."
Paul gets around with the aid of a cane and walker. The weakness and numbness he experiences in his hands and feet are exacerbated by the heat.
But Paul has not let MS keep him entirely out of the racing scene.
He travels to regional SCCA events and works as a track steward. Pat continues to accompany her husband and serves as a registrar.
Both will be on duty this weekend at Mid-Ohio when the SCCA crowns champions in 24 classes.
"It is tragically ironic that they moved the nationals here (from Atlanta) the year my dad retired from racing," Eric said. "This was a hobby to him, but had the nationals been in Ohio, I think he would have tried a little harder to qualify."
This is Eric's first national championship event and, while he'd love to win it for dad, he is realistic about his chances. He qualified 19th in a field of 44 cars.
Jim Leithauser, a fellow racer and friend of the family, said where Eric finishes today is almost immaterial.
"Eric is fulfilling Paul's dream," Leithauser said. "You look in Paul's eyes this week and you can see the spirit is still there."
Messages for Tom Reed can be left at 330-478-6000