News & Media

Caraviello: Vickers turned time away from racing into a positive

January 22, 2011, David Caraviello,

Brian Vickers' first reaction wasn't fear. It wasn't anxiety. It wasn't self-pity, or anger, or a rolling wave of emotion centering on illness and mortality. Sitting in a Washington, D.C., emergency room, immediately after being diagnosed with blood clots that were a serious danger to his health, the then-26-year-old racer's most pressing concern was something much more practical.

"Whatever we do," he told the doctor that day, "I just need to be at practice by Friday at 10."

"Whether I win or lose, I'm happy to be back."


The physician, Vickers remembers now, tried not to laugh. The Red Bull Racing driver wasn't going to make practice that Friday morning at Dover International Speedway. He wasn't going to race again for a while -- if ever again. There was a clot in his lungs called a pulmonary embolism, other clots in his extremities. He was going to have to be on blood-thinning and clot-blocking medications for the rest of the year, and ultimately require surgery to close a small hole in his heart. All that would register in time. But there in the hospital room, fresh out of the CT scanner, a driver who had emerged on the NASCAR scene while still a high-school student feared for the only career he had ever known.

"It really makes you learn a lot about what you really love, you know?" Vickers, healthy and cleared for a return to competition, said this week during Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway. "The first thing I asked him was, 'When am I going to be back in a race car?' not, 'How long do I have to live?' Which, don't get me wrong, it wasn't like it was that bad, but my lungs were shutting down. That should have been my first question, not, 'I need to be in the car Friday at 10.'"

And yet, it was a completely understandable reaction. Drivers by nature are a single-minded lot, tethered to a calling that eats up most of their time for 10 months, and requires that they spend as many nights per year in a motorhome than in their own beds. A vacation often means a trip to a short track somewhere. There's always another test, another appearance, another obligation, another race. Despite all their money and fame, NASCAR drivers exist in an all-encompassing bubble that can make perspective a difficult thing to find.

For eight months, Vickers got to step outside that bubble. The reason why was undoubtedly disconcerting, given that it was some of the factors inherent to his profession -- tight seat belts, dehydration, remaining seated for long periods of time -- that were considered potential causes of his condition. Yet at the same time, the blood clots gave Vickers a degree of freedom other drivers don't get to experience until they're fired or retired.

He could have moped, wallowed in self-pity, and certainly there had to have been times when those demons were present. Yet by every account, Vickers turned his time away from the track into a positive. He traveled to Rome. "My favorite city in Europe, hands-down," he said. He went mountain biking down 10,000-foot peaks in the Rockies less than three weeks after his heart surgery. He knew his Red Bull team would wait for him to return. He didn't stop working out, he trained harder.

"Just this past weekend I was swimming a couple miles a day, spear fishing 18, 20 feet down," he said. "I got a lobster actually that I couldn't even fit two hands around. I was pretty excited about that. It tasted good, too."

But that wasn't the best part. That belongs to the time Vickers spent at home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It's been a long time, if ever, that I've been able to sit at home and do nothing for an extended period of time," he said. You know, there's always something going on, sometimes self induced through the offseason, [where] I try to jam all that traveling in that I want to do and I still barely have time with testing and media and all this other stuff. And I'm always ... bouncing back and forth out of Florida, going to the shop, seeing family, going traveling, spend some time in New York, so I'm kind of always all over the place, and it doesn't bother me that much. But I enjoy it. I enjoy being on the move, I enjoy traveling. But there was a couple times over the summer that I was just at home and had nothing to do, not a single thing on the agenda, not a phone interview, not a race, not a test, nothing, zero obligation for weeks at a time, and it was amazing. It felt fantastic."

And yet, the call of the race track was always there. He tried to go, climbing up on the No. 83 pit box as Casey Mears drove his car. The first time, he was swept up in a wave of support. The second time "was probably my lowest [point]," he said. He wanted to be the good teammate, but the despair blindsided him. "It was just tearing me apart inside. I was just a wreck, a complete wreck," he said. "I couldn't. My stress was out of the roof, my medicines weren't working, they were all over the place, and that was probably when it hit me."

He began to wonder -- was it time to chart a new career path? At the time there was still plenty of uncertainty, so the internal question was a legitimate one. He traveled, he spent time with friends and family, he hung out at home. There seems no doubt that, health concerns aside, Vickers enjoyed his hiatus from race track life. There also seems no doubt that he could never walk away. Deep down, he's still the driver who had hoped to get his blood clots fixed before opening practice at Dover.

"I realized that I couldn't not give it another shot," he said. "I felt like I had unfinished business. You know, there was something that I left on the table that I always wanted to do, which is to win a championship, and at first that was kind of my drive to come back, and in a lot of ways it still is. But in the end what brought me back was just my love for racing, just being in a car at going 200 miles an hour. Whether I win or lose, I'm happy to be back."

He's been off the medications since November, and says he's under no restrictions whatsoever. Vickers could have been back in the car for the mid-December tire test at Daytona, but the fluid scheduling of that event combined with a team photo shoot -- the obligations of a driver, rushing back in full -- precluded his participation. His returned to his No. 83 in January for a test at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla. "It felt fantastic," he said. "It was like an old shoe, just fit right back on."

Routine took over. He strapped in, slipped on his helmet, and pulled onto the race track, as he had done a thousand times before. He didn't think about blood clots, didn't think about heart surgery, didn't think about moving beyond a condition that could have been fatal if left untreated. Outside the car, things are different for Brian Vickers -- he's developed a wider perspective, and greater appreciation for the people and things around him. His health scare has become a source of motivation and empowerment rather than something that might hold him back.

But inside the car? He flips the ignition switch, and everything is familiar. What time is practice again? "I just focused on how much fun I was having and how happy I was to be back," he said. "And now I've been in the car for a total of [four] days, and that hasn't changed, and I don't see that changing going forward."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.