News & Media

Vickers returns to Darlington 'a better person'

May 06, 2011, Joe Menzer,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Explains that lessons learned during layoff had little or nothing to do with racing

The signs were there. Brian Vickers just didn't know it.

He was a race-car driver, after all. So what if he had to fight through some shortness of breath while working out? So what if he had to shake off a persisting numbness in his left hand -- even while driving at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour?

Vickers was programmed to ignore it all and keep motoring along at a high rate of speed. So even after suffering those symptoms leading up to and during last May's Showtime Southern 500, Vickers took his season's best 10th-place finish and moved on. He flew to New York City to visit friends. He flew from there to Washington D.C. to take care of some business, visit more friends and plot some sight-seeing before making a pre-planned publicity stop at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the way to the next race at Dover.

"I hope I never have to go through it again. But I truly feel like I came out a better person for it. In the moment it's hard to see that sometimes; but in hindsight, looking back on it, I truly do. And not just with racing."


He had no idea he had just participated in his last Sprint Cup race of the 2010 season, nor that he soon would be lying flat on his back in a hospital bed of his own, wondering if he would ever race again.

He was having lunch with a friend when these new realities first began to wash over him in unrelenting waves.

"That's one thing I've learned: there is no certainty in life," Vickers said Friday, smiling easily as he sat cross-legged in shorts and a T-shirt on the couch in his motorcoach parked in the infield at Darlington Raceway. "You can't live life in fear, because of all the crazy things I've done -- from skydiving to racing MotoGP bikes -- I was having lunch in Washington D.C. when I almost died. You know what I mean? Think about it. I drive race cars for a living, and it was over a cup of tea that almost got me."

Vickers could not help chuckling at the thought.

He is back at Darlington this weekend to visit and compete at the 1.366-mile track where his 2010 season ended prematurely. It was during that race when Vickers began experiencing long periods of numbness in his left hand. It got so bad at one point during the 367-lap, 500-mile event that he could not feel the tips of the fingers in the hand at all.

"They were numb pretty much the whole race, and they were numb pretty much the whole week prior as well," Vickers said. "It was really just a weird feeling. I didn't know what it was at the time. I would shake it off but it would come and go."

It wasn't until later that he thought seriously about what that might have meant if the condition suddenly worsened as he was attempting negotiate his No. 83 Toyota through one of Darlington's banked turns.

"It could have ended really badly," he said Friday, shaking his head.

After he experienced more shortness of breath and severe chest pains while having the lunch with a friend in the nation's capitol the following week, Vickers admitted he became worried. Still, he resisted doing anything about it. It wasn't until those conditions persisted through the night that he called Dr. Jerry Petty, a medical liaison to the NASCAR community, to seek advice on what to do about it.

Petty urged Vickers to get to a hospital immediately. Vickers argued against it, telling Petty he thought that was "overkill."

Vickers thinks differently today. He eventually was diagnosed with blood clots that developed in both lungs, in his right leg, and in his left hand. He was placed on a series of blood-thinner medication that required him to climb out of the race car -- and stay out for a minimum of six months.

He was out of his car from the last Darlington race until this January, when he was permitted by doctors to test in it on a track in Orlando, Fla. Vickers says now that the time out of the car allowed him to put not only his career -- but also his entire life -- in better perspective.

"It was a hard experience, and it was difficult. I hope I never have to go through it again," Vickers said. "But I truly feel like I came out a better person for it. In the moment it's hard to see that sometimes; but in hindsight, looking back on it, I truly do. And not just with racing."

Vickers said it forced him to cease taking his career as a professional race-car driver for granted.

"It definitely gave me a new appreciation for the passion I've always had for this sport," Vickers said. "You do this long enough, especially at this level, and it wears on you. I don't care what anyone says: there is not one guy in this garage that doesn't get just worn out at times. I think the whole sport does. We have a long season, and it's a grind. You do it for 10 years, you know, and it's a real grind.

"That's just human nature, to take things granted after a while. And that's not just with NASCAR drivers. Every one of us on this planet will take something for granted in some way in our lifetimes. You have something one way for so long, and then all of a sudden it's gone and you stop taking it for granted -- and you truly appreciate it. That probably was one of the biggest things I learned that was in direct relation to this sport."

There were other lessons learned during his layoff as well, and they had little or nothing to do with racing.

"You're looking at someone who was, to the naked eye, certainly not only young but healthy and in shape. And he's having those issues. It was spooky for a while."


"There were a lot of other things just in relation to growing up and learning about life, and what's important in life," Vickers said. "As much as I love racing, and in one aspect I walked away with a true, renewed appreciation for what I do and how much I love it -- but on the flip side of the coin I also walked away realizing that it's really not that important. I enjoy it, but at the end of the day, you know, it's nothing when you're lying in the hospital fighting blood clots.

"That's when you realize family and friends and so many other things that are truly important, besides this. So there were a lot of lessons learned for sure through the experience."

Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending champion who is close friends with Vickers, said everyone in the Sprint Cup garage took away something insightful from what Vickers endured.

"You're looking at someone who was, to the naked eye, certainly not only young but healthy and in shape," Johnson said. "And he's having those issues. It was spooky for a while."

Johnson said all the drivers kept close tabs on Vickers as he underwent a variety of tests, trying to figure out what had caused the clots and if Vickers was going to be able to race again.

"All of us drivers, racing is us," Johnson said. "That's what we're defined by; what we've always done. Then Brian is sitting there at a point wondering if he's going to be on [blood] thinners the rest of his life -- and if he's going to ever get to go back to the sport that has defined him as a man.

"I know he went through some really tough times. We're glad to see him back."

Vickers is back now at the scene of the last race he ran last season. Doctors took him off the blood thinners after six months and cleared him to race again before he jumped in the car for the January test.

This season has been a mixed bag of results. He had top-10 runs at Las Vegas and California, but sits 26th in the driver point standings heading into this Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500 after encountering a combination of poor luck and circumstances he admitted his team could have handled better.

But at least he's racing again. Asked if this race carries any special significance for him, he sighed and replied: "You know, I haven't really thought about it until people have brought it up to me and really asked me the question. I suppose to a certain extent it does.

"I think Dover will mean as much or more than Darlington. This was my last [2010] race -- but that one I didn't make. So if I can get to that one, I will really feel like I'm over the hump."