Sean Gardner | Getty Images
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

Cody Ware shares his story, strives to give back for mental health awareness

Editor’s note: If you or a loved one are struggling today, please reach out for support. Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.

Every driver in NASCAR’s national ranks has a story, the details of the path that got them to that level. Those stories take hold, marking the key moments in the passage of time and in their own journey.

Telling the story of Cody Ware’s path not just to the NASCAR Cup Series but his growth to adulthood means acknowledging some hard truths and deep-rooted memories — that quote-unquote “real talk,” as it’s sometimes called. Those acknowledgements have gotten easier with each retelling through the years, and Ware has strived to use them as a positive — helping others and, in turn, healing himself.

“Honestly, for me it’s really easy now,” Ware says. “The biggest reason why I do it now isn’t for me, it’s for other people, so that other people who have had traumatic experiences or have dealt with things, whether their mental health issues have been with them since they were born, or coming from a bad experience. Just trying to tell my tale so that people don’t feel as alone, and that they can feel comfort in that it’s OK to not be OK, and to get help and to get better.”

Ware shared his story with NASCAR earlier this month, and his experiences with bullying in his youth and his walk with mental wellness are featured in a short film called, “The Battle Within.” The release coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month, a national movement to fight stigmas and offer support for individuals battling mental illness and their loved ones.

Ware has opened up with frank transparency about his past, using it as a means to move forward in his ongoing fight with the effects of depression. In the film, he details his relationship with the clique he fell in with as a teenager and how their interactions went from relatively minor mischief to a dark place. One day in woods, Ware’s group scattered and fled after soaking him with gasoline and setting his legs ablaze.

Help eventually came, and a painful recovery from severe burns followed. But so did mental anguish and a struggle to find his way after the trauma. That part of the story represented a long road back, but Ware found an outlet in following the path of his father, Rick, into motorsports. To this day, racing remains a refuge, one where he’s able to block out disruptions.

“It really just boils down to living in the moment,” Ware says. “When you’re doing something as all-intensive as driving a race car is, it just gets rid of the static and the chatter so all the doubts or fears that I might have that always are prevalent in day-to-day life, those thoughts just turn off because it’s just 110 percent focused on living in the moment and driving the race car to where — even if I wanted to — I don’t have time to think about all those other things that would normally worry me or bother me.

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“So for me, racing obviously, it’s passion. I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I love the adrenaline, I love the intensity, but I also love the escape and the reprieve that driving a race car gives me from dealing with the issues that I deal with.”

While racing has often provided Ware with a sense of belonging and community, it hasn’t been a cure-all. The pressure of competing and sometimes finding conflict on the track steeped in the 2017 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, where Ware’s effort ended early after a crash with AJ Allmendinger and Matt DiBenedetto. Struggles in his day-to-day life fueled a post-race feud on social media, one that turned personal. It became a crossroads moment.

“Where it kind of came to a head and became that fork in the road was Darlington in 2017 where all the repressed emotions and trauma and hurt that I was feeling from my teenage years that obviously just couldn’t go ignored any longer or else it was going to end my career and ruin racing for me,” Ware says. “So that was the moment where I really needed to acknowledge that I needed to get help and I had to decide that that’s what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to lose racing and give up what was really the one thing I had to look forward to each week, which was getting to drive a race car.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

“Having to kind of have my job and career put to the burner made me realize that things had to change. I had been going to therapists and things like that in the past, but I really was always skeptical and not very optimistic about it and didn’t have the right mentality to get help. That was the catalyst that made me realize that I had to put in genuine effort into making things better and healing.”

Those hard truths and deep-rooted memories? Ware became more public in addressing them, and his openness has been a beacon to others dealing with similar pains. That’s also meant trying to harness social media’s reach for positive ends.

As social platforms go, escaping the negativity that exists hasn’t always been easy. Some of that friction flared after last month’s race at Martinsville Speedway, where an on-track altercation with teammate James Davison became heated, sparking conflict within the team. Critics were quick to associate Ware’s mental-health battles with the short-track frustrations many drivers face at Martinsville. Ware says it has led him to maintain a lower profile on social media in the weeks since.

“I know that I’m not the first and I’m not the last person that’s ever going to lose their mind and have moment at a place like Martinsville,” Ware says, “but a lot of the people who were making it about mental health or being like, ‘ahh, he’s angry and he wrecked his teammate because he’s crazy and has mental-health issues,’ it’s like … no. I lost my cool at a short track. I did something dumb. Everyone’s done something that they’ve regretted and known was wrong, especially in racing at a place like that.

“And so, that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back for me on social media, just seeing and realizing that the stigma is still very real with mental health, and I’m always going to do my best to be an advocate and wear my heart on my sleeve and open up for those that need it and those that deserve it. But I definitely have had to take a break from that because I’ve got a very real first-hand experience in how the stigma is still very real to this day.”

Through it all, Ware has relied on a close-knit support system, one that includes his parents and fellow drivers, whether it’s at the track or in his daily life. He specifically mentions BJ McLeod as someone he speaks with regularly, leaning on his perspectives as a fellow competitor to work through issues.

The support has helped him, but Ware also makes sure to devote time to helping others, whether it’s through sharing his story or listening and learning about their personal experiences, being present with each retelling.

“For me, what it boils down to is just giving back, it’s just trying to be a good Christian, trying to be there and be the somebody for someone else that I wish was there for me when I was going through things directly as a teenager in the first months and years after my incident,” Ware says. “I didn’t have anyone who I trusted to confide in or let be there to let them give me support. So I’m just trying to be the person that I wish was there for me when I was going through all this stuff as a teenager.

“Half of it’s ending the stigma and trying to normalize talking about mental health and normalize getting health care and treatment for it, and the other half is as a reminder to let people know that if you need someone to talk to, I’ve been through a lot, I’ve been through many ups and downs, and I’m someone you can talk to. I’ve had many friends of mine and people that I’ve met through racing reach out and talk to me, and I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to be there for people. I’m confident and I have a peace about me, knowing that no matter how hard racing gets or how hard life may be — now or in the future — I feel like I’ve done some good, and that also motivates me to continue doing that and hopefully helping more people along the way. I think even if it’s saving just one person, it’s worth it.”