Brian Vickers: Out of the Tunnel and Back on Track

cathyWatching Brian Vickers go about his business at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 8 was, for me, the happiest NASCAR moment of the season so far.

Over the past few years and even the past several weeks we have talked a lot about NASCAR’s various recovery and reinstatement guidelines and programs, most notably in the cases of AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch. Allmendinger is a success story and I personally believe Busch will be one, as well, but there has been no more heart-wrenching and dramatic road to recovery than the one traveled by Vickers.

There are many people who claim that I will seize any opportunity to write about Brian. I don’t deny it. I first met and interviewed him at Rockingham in 2001 when he was still in high school — he finished 25th in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at The Rock that year, by the way – and have been a fan ever since. Like adopting a puppy, you can’t help but take a personal interest in watching a guy grow from a kid who skipped his high school prom so he could race to a polished, seasoned young man and experienced racer with three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins to his credit; a big dog, you might say.

When Vickers was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and legs in 2010. His life changed overnight. While undergoing blood thinner treatment for the clots, he simply could not race. The risks in case of an accident were just too high. Publicly, he took it in stride, but privately, it must have been devastating.

Millions of Vickers’ fans were devastated as well, worried about their favorite driver’s health and fearful they might not see him race again. Other competitors got a reality check, undoubtedly taking a mental and emotional step back to wonder, “What if this happened to me?”

I interviewed Vickers as he was in the final stages of his treatment, preparing for his comeback in 2011. He told me how me how his health issues had changed not only the way he approached his job, but the way he approached his life.

“I have been able to take a step back and look at life differently, to live it to the fullest because you never know when things may change. They changed drastically for me,” he said.

“We all get worked up each week, but I think if you appreciate what you have around you, the people that support you, your friends, family, coworkers, etc., you will feel much more gratified about what you do in life.”

That’s a lot of wisdom coming from a guy who was still in his ‘20s.

In 2013, concern ran high once again as Vickers missed the last five races of the season to be treated for a blood clot in his leg. And last December, during the offseason, the now 31-year-old underwent surgery to repair a hole in his heart. To say that race fans were both happy and relieved to see Vickers get back on track in Las Vegas, both literally and figuratively, is a massive understatement.

He said he had spent time with his No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota team over the past couple of weeks, “supporting them, being on the pit box and the spotter’s stand and the tower, trying to learn and pick up little things.” He likened his return to coming out a tunnel, saying the experience of being out of the car was made somewhat easier by the fact of knowing that come March 15, he would be back in it, and that while watching from the sidelines was beneficial, “I can tell you it’s the last place I wanted to be.”

In the entertainment world, you periodically run across shows with titles like “Whatever happened to…?” The people generally under the spotlight on such programs are celebrities — in the realm of sports, TV and films or politics — who made a big splash in their early careers and then, for whatever reason, faded away into obscurity.

Good news: In the case of Vickers, this will not be the case. He raced his way to a top 15 finish in Las Vegas. He said it was “a victory in a lot of ways,” but in typical driver fashion added, “ … but we were a top seven car.” You gotta love that attitude.

So it now appears the appropriate question regarding Brian Vickers is not “Whatever happened to…?” but “What will happen next?”

I am thankful to say that gives all of us a lot to look forward to.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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