RPM Nationwide driver hopes to return by Talladega
The blunt force of the head-on impact knocked the wind out of him, but that wasn’t anything Michael Annett hadn’t experienced before. His steering wheel wasn’t bent, his belts weren’t broken, his helmet didn’t have a mark on it. It wasn’t until he climbed out of the car, walked to the ambulance and unzipped his firesuit that he realized something was wrong.
“Honestly, it felt like there was a golf ball right in the middle of my sternum,” the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said Wednesday. “I knew right away -- my sternum’s snapped.”
Although it would take a few more days to diagnose, that would indeed prove the case -- Annett’s sternum had been fractured and dislocated by the force of his accident in the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, an injury that would require surgery and a recovery period as long as two months. In the meantime, the 26-year-old Iowa native has turned his No. 43 car over to friend Reed Sorenson, worked to figure out why he was hurt in the crash and made plans to return to the track as a spectator this weekend at Bristol.
Annett plans to ride up to Bristol with Sorenson on Thursday, spend Friday watching practice from the spotter’s stand and giving advice to first-timer Travis Pastrana and sit on the pit box for Saturday’s race.
“I think being around the guys and showing them how into this I am is the best thing I can do,” he said.
His return as a driver, meanwhile, will take a little longer.
If all goes to plan, Annett could be back by the May 4 event at Talladega, although he holds out hope of returning a week earlier at Richmond. The sternum is shaped roughly like an upturned dagger, and Annett said his snapped where the blade meets the hilt, with the bottom fragment protruding over the top part by about three-quarters of an inch. He had surgery Feb. 28, where doctors repaired the damage using screws and a metal plate.
In the immediate wake of the accident, though, things were not as clear. Annett was transported to Daytona Beach’s Halifax Medical Center, where he said doctors performed a head-on scan that indicated his injury was a contusion. As a former hockey player, Annett knew what broken bones felt like. But he was also a driver hoping to get back in his car.
“I was like, OK. Good news,” he said. “The way I thought was, NASCAR can’t keep you out for having a bad bruise. We get bruises all the time. As long as something wasn’t broken, I was like, all right, we’re going to be just fine. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
The following Monday he was in the RPM shop, working with his team as they tried to get Annett as comfortable in the car as possible, assuming he’d compete that weekend at Phoenix. The vehicle was loaded up and sent out west, and the next day Annett visited a Charlotte orthopedic practice, hoping to be cleared. Doctors performed another scan, this one from the side. Thirty-five minutes later, Annett said, he was wearing a gown in a hospital room across town, getting ready to undergo surgery the following morning.
“When they realized how serious it was, they did a great job of getting everything ready,” said Annett, who praised the assistance of NASCAR’s medical liaison in the process.
"Nobody did anything wrong."
-- Michael Annett
The doctors were blunt: recovery time, eight weeks. RPM scrambled to put Sprint Cup Series driver Aric Almirola in the Nationwide car at Phoenix, because his seat was on site. Sorenson was quickly lined up as a longer-term replacement. And Annett -- who finished fifth in the standings last year -- was left to process the fact that his bid for the series championship had come to an abrupt end.
“That day was really tough,” he said. “Watching Aric at Phoenix was really tough. But I’ve accepted what it is at this point, and I’m just trying to make the best of it. Having a good friend like Reed in the car is going to be fun for me to watch, and I’m going to cheer him on in these next few weeks, and just wait for my time to get back.”
Those hopes are buoyed by Annett’s rapid recovery -- he was out of intensive care soon after the anesthetic wore off, he said, and soon in a room accompanied by Sorenson and other friends and family members. He was out of the hospital two days earlier than expected. On Monday, Annett will undergo another scan to gauge the progress of his recovery and perhaps give him a better idea of when he might be able to return to the car.
Meanwhile, officials from RPM, Roush Fenway Racing -- which builds chassis for its Ford affiliate -- and seat belt maker Schroth are studying the crash. Annett said that when he hit the wall, his lower back slid further forward than he’s ever experienced in an accident before. At the same time, his shoulders were held in place, pushing his chest forward. Annett said RPM and RFR drivers, crew chiefs and car builders met Monday, poring over videos and diagrams in an effort to figure out how to prevent similar sternum injuries, which have become rare as racing safety has advanced.
“Nobody did anything wrong,” Annett said. “They’ve looked at everything there was. There was nothing wrong with the installation, and the belts did everything they were supposed to.”
Although NASCAR mandates a six-point harness, Annett added he may examine a seven-point restraint to prevent his lower back from “submerging” like it did in the crash at Daytona.
Now, though, Annett can only wait on his body to heal. There’s no doubting his toughness -- when the Daytona emergency room was inundated with fans injured in the Kyle Larson crash that occurred later in the Nationwide race, Annett told staffers to move him to a room and get him out of the way. Following surgery, he said he was on painkillers for about two days. These days, he says he’s moving around pretty well, getting sore only when he sits for long periods, which rules out a trip to the race in Southern California next week.
But Bristol? He wouldn’t miss it, even though he won’t be in the car.
“Physically and health-wise, I feel fine,” Annett said. “It’s just a matter of waiting for everything to fuse back together in case there is another big hit like that. But I’m excited to be back at the track and be around the guys and just be around that atmosphere. Because NASCAR really is like a family, and when you’re not in it, you get forgotten about pretty quick. So I’m excited to get back there this weekend.”
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