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Olympic flame ignites spirits

-Scheffie Sarver 

 

Jan. 5, 2002

 

GARY — Imagine a ticker-tape parade and you’re the hero. Or pretend you’re the homecoming queen. Maybe you’re in Disney’s electrical parade. All eyes are on you. People cheer; small children chant; American flags wave; and people shout best wishes.

 

This is what 41-year-old Mark Claussner sees as he drives the truck carrying the Olympic Torch “mother flame,” just like he did Friday on the streets of Gary.

 

Claussner drives the torch, a piece of the Greek flame, as it makes its way to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the start of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 8.

 

The flame is sacred in that it can never be extinguished. In every city where the Olympic flame appears, torchbearers run or walk for their one-fifth-mile legs.

 

Their torches are lit from the mother flame, which Claussner hauls in a metal cauldron in the back of his truck, a specially outfitted Chevrolet Avalanche Torch Transport, or CATT.

 

Claussner is a professional race car and stunt driver. He and four other drivers take turns driving the mother flame across the country.

It’s a duty that Claussner, a Charlottesville, N.C., resident, takes seriously, as do the 250 people responsible for organizing the logistical nightmare that is the flame’s transport.

 

A truckload of security guards keep their eyes peeled on the crowd lest anyone try to throw a bucket of water on the flame.

The guards also look out for the safety of torchbearers. And at night when the staffers sleep, the flame is contained in several small lanterns, carted off to a secret location and kept under guard.

 

Those details aside, it’s the people who come out to get a glimpse this sporting symbol who bestow the flame with its folkloric status.

They shout. They cheer. They even come up to Claussner and shake his hand and thank him.

 

The secret behind the adulation, Claussner says, is that people see the torch as a symbol of hope — especially after Sept. 11.

 

“We need that healing,” he said. “Maybe this is part of an answer. I don’t think it’s the whole answer.”

 

Claussner sees the world at 5 mph with a radio squawking and police sirens wailing as the entourage winds its way through city streets.

He honks the horn and waves, trying to entice the people who stand behind their screen doors to wave.

 

People run alongside the truck as far and as fast as they can until they run out of breath.

 

In Gary, a guy at the wheel of a low-rider saluted the torch by making his car dance as the flame drove by. Schoolchildren lined the streets and chanted “USA! USA!” Think Norman Rockwell discovers Gary.

 

“That’s the best thing about the flame — it doesn’t discriminate where it goes,” Claussner said.

 

He’s not sure how he’ll top this experience — all the energy and joy he sees on people’s faces has become addictive.

 

The last leg of Claussner’s journey is Chicago, his hometown. He started driving the mother flame from Manhattan on Christmas Day.

 

“This is the best seat in the house,” Claussner said with a grin. But from his seat, the torchbearers are the most inspiring, like the 103-year-old woman who walked carrying the torch in Cleveland.

 

“No one learns anything from me. I’m just the lucky guy who drives the torch.”