For Isabella Robusto, a 16th-place finish in the Pro Late Model preliminary for the All American 400 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway normally would be procedural, if not uneventful.
That November evening instead was one of most significant moral victories Robusto had experienced in her young career to date.
The 19-year-old from Fort Mill, South Carolina was coming off an arduous, seven-month process just to resume competing in stock car events. She was sidelined for most of the 2023 season after dealing with lingering, concussion-like symptoms following an accident at Hickory Motor Speedway in April.
While the recovery period took longer than Robusto preferred, her perseverance made those 100 laps at Nashville more cathartic.
“We tried to go back a couple times to see if I was ready to get back into a car,” Robusto said. “Concussions are a weird thing, and I’ve learned so much about them this past year. You can’t really set time on them. You can feel good one day only to experience a whole different feeling when you get in the car.
“It felt so good to get back in the car [at Nashville], and that allowed us to continue testing throughout this offseason.”
Recollection of the April accident brings mixed emotions for Robusto, who was on the precipice of a breakout performance in the zMAX CARS Pro Late Model Tour.
She recalls being unhappy with the handling of her car during practice. Battling a tight condition, Robusto and her team worked to loosen up her car ahead of the 100-lap feature that evening.
The adjustments resulted in an eighth-place qualifying run, but Robusto in the race quickly found comfort with the car and established her own pace. She methodically climbed her way through the top 10 before taking the lead on Lap 49.
The only driver who stood in the way of Robusto making history as the first female CARS Tour winner was short-track veteran Mike Hopkins. Over the final 10 laps, Hopkins erased Robusto’s advantage, which led to an intense battle between the two for the victory as Hopkins used the momentum on the top groove to overtake Robusto.
A slip by Hopkins coming to the white flag gave Robusto an opening to pull alongside him. Slight contact between the two proved disastrous for Robusto, who was suddenly a passenger as her car veered full speed toward the inside wall.
“When [Hopkins] and I got together, it broke the tie rod on my right front,” Robusto said. “It rolled my tire under and sent me straight into the wall. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, and there was no way to keep the car out of the wall.
“I was turning hard right, but with the tire rolled under, I had to go along for the ride.”
The impact was so severe, it broke the pit-wall barrier and shot Robusto’s car back into oncoming traffic. Other drivers avoided Robusto, who managed to climb out of her battered car with minimal assistance from safety officials.
For a brief time, the vicious impact was just another accident.
Once repairs were made to Hickory’s inside barrier and the Pro Late Model race concluded, Robusto was back in a driver’s seat ready to compete in the CARS Tour Late Model Stock event. She mustered a 21st-place finish, which she attributed to personal frustrations over the wreck that cost her a Pro Late Model victory.
It was not until Monday afternoon when Robusto realized something might be amiss.
“I just started to feel nauseous and super dizzy,” Robusto said. “I couldn’t really focus on things, so that’s when Toyota, the team and I decided to get everything checked out. That’s when we figured out it was a concussion, so I had to just go along with the steps for [the recovery process].”
Robusto after her crash closely followed the outline of the concussion protocol. Through rehab and frequent checkups with her doctor, she was optimistic she would return to full-time racing by the middle of summer.
A GT4 event at Virginia International Raceway presented the first comeback opportunity for Robusto, who said road courses helped correct her focus in the simulator better than ovals did.
The first race of the weekend went well; Robusto that Saturday scored a respectable finish as the second driver for Smooge Racing.
The next day, not long after Robusto’s second race, all the progress she had made was stymied.
“I was the starting driver and had to start mid-pack,” Robusto said. “Things just didn’t feel right. I ended up pulling in, and my co-driver got in the car on Lap 3, and he finished the race.
“After that, I knew we still weren’t there and still needed time to get everything back in balance.”
Several factors hindered Robusto each time she attempted to climb back into a car. She experienced dizziness navigating short tracks at a high speed while also dealing with focus issues, a bad equilibrium and poor hand-eye coordination.
With each minuscule step back to full health, more of Robusto’s year evaporated. Her goal in 2023 was to race full-time in both divisions of the CARS Tour, plus a debut in the ARCA Menards Series. All of that was scrapped.
Her lost season was mentally taxing, but Robusto knew following the advice of the people around her and carrying on with daily tasks would be crucial toward her return.
“It was very frustrating,” Robusto said. “I was able to do all my day-to-day stuff and even do the sim while feeling relatively normal. When we would get into the car, I knew I wasn’t there yet.
“I’ve learned throughout this concussion that you could be good doing everything, but there’s a whole different level in recovery when it comes to driving a race car. When you’re in the car, you really don’t think about how on you have to be.”
Robusto noticed enough improvement by the time October arrived. She and Donnie Wilson Motorsports began making plans to run at Nashville the following month with the goal of simply getting Robusto re-acclimated to running a Pro Late Model.
Everything went according to plan; Robusto kept her car out of trouble and obtained a solid, lead-lap finish. Although she had to re-learn much about her craft, Robusto climbed out of the car feeling invigorated knowing her prolonged recovery period was finally coming to an end.
Back at full health, Robusto is ready to embark upon a busy season. Her plans include joining Lee Pulliam Performance’s Late Model Stock operation on a part-time basis, a team with which she will be paired with short-track veteran Brenden “Butterbean” Queen.
A solidified schedule for the upcoming year brings a sense of relief for Robusto, who credits the support system of her family, friends, teams, doctors and Toyota Racing Development for standing by her and providing valuable advice while she waited to get clearance for on-track activities.
Robusto considers herself a more astute and attentive driver following the Hickory crash. She now spends more time on the simulator preparing for races and takes more precautionary measures with how her driver’s seat and seatbelts are set up in the car.
Robusto’s long road back to the track was laborious, but she is more determined than ever to resume showcasing her talent.
“I tell people who ask me if I’m 100 percent that I am,” Robusto said. “My normal is a little bit different now compared to my normal before the crash. I’m at full strength and ready to get back into a race car.”
Nashville served as Robusto’s sentimental victory after months of patience. The next milestone for Robusto is building off the efficiency she enjoyed at Hickory and start accumulating one victory after another.