Split from Chrystie, Bruce Jenner Takes Up Racing and Raises the Stakes of His Sporting Life

updated 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

At the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon and became the great American Olympic hero—perhaps the last of the line, given the parlous state of the Olympics today. He was lionized shamelessly. He and wife Chrystie were invited to a state dinner at the White House. His was the face on the Wheaties box. He apparently learned from the amazing vanishing act of Mark Spitz.

Today Jenner endorses everything from lines of shoes and sporting clothes to 10-speed bicycles and weight-lifting equipment. He has a syndicated sports advice column and a sky-high deal to advertise Minolta cameras. He didn't pass his screen test for Superman, but makes his movie debut in June in Allan Carr's Can't Stop the Music (co-starring Valerie Perrine and the Village People). He has co-authored a spectators' handbook to the Lake Placid Olympics. He has a sports commentator's contract with NBC that will take him to Moscow if the American athletes go. He is negotiating with NBC to produce a couple of made-for-TV movies. He makes big bucks on the lecture circuit ("I've just raised my price—it separates the men from the boys"), mostly from corporate audiences. And when others might grab for the Geritol, Jenner, at 30, feels on top of the world. "I'm very fortunate," he says smugly. "I now no longer have to do things I don't want to do."

But Bruce's decathlon of life since 1976 has taken atoll. One casualty is his seven-year marriage to Chrystie, who worked as a United stewardess to see him through the grueling training that led to the Olympic gold. "Chrystie didn't like the whole public scene," explains Bruce tersely. Her disaffection has cost him time with son Burt, 17 months, and will put him at some distance from the child Chrystie is due to have in June. Theirs seems an amicable separation; Bruce has taken a house just a couple of miles from theirs in Malibu and he sees Burt frequently.

Jenner's refuge from his troubles is, as ever, his play. He jet-skis at Malibu; gets away when he can on his Hobie Cat sailboat; logged 230 hours last year flying his six-passenger Bonanza; gets in a lot of tennis (he's ranked third on the celebrity circuit); and has become a competitive race car driver who has won three of four celeb races and is now taking on the pros. And then there is actress Linda (Hee Haw) Thompson, Elvis' live-in girlfriend of five years and Jenner's steadiest date since he met her at a tennis tournament six weeks ago. "She's a good lady," says Bruce. "We've had a lot of fun." It is his ultimate compliment. "I play hard," he notes. "That's all I do, really."

So the culmination for Jenner came the first weekend this month when he entered the 24 Hours of Daytona, a big-time challenge race not unlike the decathlon: Winning requires less dazzle than sheer stamina, survival over a long haul. So the Rusty Jones team, in a BMW M1 GTP, seemed to have a built-in advantage in the 1980 Florida classic. Two of its drivers, Jim Busby and Rick Knoop, were proven winners in grueling endurance auto races including LeMans, and the staying power of the third, Jenner, was unquestionable. "In the decathlon I had to stay mentally sharp for 48 hours," he observed before the race. "In this sport it's the same thing. Drivers are athletes, and the sport takes a tremendous amount of timing, a tremendous amount of guts, a tremendous amount of judgment."

But racing also has elements unfamiliar to Jenner: high danger and the whimsy of fate. Jenner drove well enough at Daytona, often pushing 200 mph and helping to move the car in the race's first two and a half hours from 18th place to eighth in the 68-car field. But just before 7 p.m. he suddenly veered into the pits, with his windshield blackened with oil and what looked like the loss of the entire front end. "Some Porsche passed me and blew something," he screamed at his crew. "I don't know what the hell it was." As repairmen scrambled to fix oil lines severed by the Porsche's flying right rear fender and fit the car with a new fiberglass hood, Jenner flashed a silly, monkey-faced grin at girlfriend Linda ("It's an 'I'm okay' sign," she explained) and peered under the BMW to check the suspension. In only 32 minutes he was back on the track, down 18 laps and fighting for a comeback. Then, an hour later, after the handoff to teammate Knoop, the BMW's rear axle cracked, forcing them to surrender—and making Jenner confront the unusual feeling of defeat. "In the decathlon," he reflected, "I controlled my own destiny. Now the car and other drivers in the field control it."

The supposition is unavoidable that Bruce's fascination with car racing, which he began to indulge roughly at the same time he left Chrystie, is not so much in spite of its danger as' because of it: play, yes, but play with the element of chance in it and for the highest possible stakes. In practice for Daytona, he watched three cars spin out and one T-bone into another. "The difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys," Jenner shrugs. "I worked hard for the Olympic medal, and now I can sit back and enjoy the rewards."

Interestingly, in 1976, when the U.S. threatened to shun the Montreal Games in a dispute over the representation of Taiwan, Jenner talked about defying the boycott. "I've worked too hard not to go," he was quoted at the time. Today, though he is lukewarm about Washington's attempt to enforce a boycott of Moscow ("The government doesn't support our teams"), he takes the longer view. His original reported comment at the President's action—"Hey, if Carter can't finish a 10-kilometer race, how can he make any decision on sports?"—was an off-the-record quip that he says was misconstrued. "If the American people don't want us to go," Jenner now states, "I'm in favor of that."

Indeed, there are also signs of the sobering of Bruce Jenner, chief among them his attachment to his son Burt. "He's barely out of the crib and people are expecting him to be a big athlete," Jenner notes sadly. "I want to back him in anything he wants to do." Says estranged wife Chrystie: "Bruce is an excellent father, so there will be no problems sharing our children."

Still, she admits, "It's very hard right now. The divorce process is ugly no matter what, and facing the prospect of being an independent woman is very painful." Bruce describes her as "a very good businesswoman," and he expects her to do well in real estate. Chrystie, 29, more mindful of the problems of a mother of one young child who is expecting another, says more modestly, "I'm into decorating, and I've been working on a very part-time basis." As for dating, Chrystie smiles, "It would be a little difficult, and I anticipate a moratorium on relationships. I'm going to keep people at arm's length, because I've been hurt."

Husband Bruce patently is not feeling that pain. Why would a man about to become the father of a second child plunge into the perilous sport of racing? "I enjoy life," says Bruce, "and I have no desire to cash in my ticket early. It's a little scary, there's no way around it, but racing is for me." As he watched the cracked and battered hulk of his BMW being hauled off the track the other weekend, Jenner grinned. "I had a ball," he said. "We're going to do it again in six weeks at Sebring. It was fun."

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