NASCAR Columnist Cathy Elliott sat down with Red Bull Racing's Brian Vickers and learned what the sidelined driver has been up to for much of the season after being diagnosed with blood clots in May that forced him out of the seat of his Toyota Camry.
Guest Column By Cathy Elliott
'Ordinary' people, when dealing with a health situation that could potentially end their careers, might be tempted to simply give up. They might say, "Well, it was a good run, but it's over," and not even try to maneuver the long and difficult road to recovery.
But race-car drivers are not ordinary people. And Brian Vickers is no ordinary race-car driver.
Like most drivers, he began racing as a kid, and his part-time fun eventually evolved into his full-time job, one at which he has excelled. Vickers was the 2003 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion -- the youngest champion in that series' history -- and a 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup contender, driving for Team Red Bull.
Then, the bottom dropped out. After being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and leg following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington in May, Vickers' 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, saying something to the effect of, "I can race, I just can't wreck," 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?"
It was a tough time for the NASCAR community.
"I accepted getting sick when it happened, but not at first. I hated it," Vickers says. "I wanted out of the hospital and back into that race car. The doctors pretty much looked at me like I was nuts. And maybe we are for going four-wide at 200 mph, but that’s what makes me tick. It's what I love to do. Having to sit in the lounge chair versus the seat in the car has fueled that passion and desire to go again."
In the blink of an eye, the definition of a 'typical' day had changed for Brian Vickers, who was forced to replace the familiar pattern of his life with something challenging, but far less familiar.
"Typical. That’s not a word I would use to describe anything that’s gone on over the past five months. Typical started out being in the car and at the track throughout the beginning of the year. After I got sick, typical became trips to the doctor's office every day, then every other day, then every few days for blood work and checkups," he says.
Now, he says, 'typical' could be best defined as random, in a constant state of flux. He has done some traveling -- to the Red Bull Air Race in New York City and the X Fighters freestyle motocross stunt competitions, also sponsored by Red Bull, in Italy. He is actively involved in TyKu, a company that produces what he describes as “a good, easy-to-understand" sake.
He has also done a lot of reading, citing Sebastian Junger's "WAR" as a particular favorite.
"It's an outstanding book by a journalist who explores the front line of war in Afghanistan in the valley. It's raw and just goes into grave detail about what's really happening with our troops. We think things in the media center can get heated sometimes; man, I don’t even want to think about how he felt being out there. Literally with the enemy on the other side, with one objective -- to kill you," he says.
To maintain his fitness level, he has focused on cardiovascular activities like biking, hiking, and golfing. "Straight workout routines in the gym are not what I would call my favorite. I like to be out there and active when working out, not just sitting there lifting weights. While that is necessary to build strength, I am a bit more focused on conditioning," he says. “I wanted to get my golf score below 80, but I think I have run out of time."
He has been seen around various racetracks and has participated in a number of NASCAR functions, the most recent example being the Jimmie Johnson Foundation's annual golf tournament in California, but for the most part, Vickers visits the race shop only on an as-needed basis.
"I'll schedule days in Charlotte when I need to. If you spend too much time at the shop you can actually hamper production," he says. “I think when I went to the track often after I got sick, it was a distraction to the team. It had set in with everyone, but because I was there, they -- in a way -- may have been too engaging with me, if that makes sense. I go to the track when I personally see fit, or need to be there, or even want to be there.
"It's been hard to see someone else driving a car with my name on it. That’s been my passion for years, and when it was taken away, it was tough to swallow. Obviously, I have accepted it for what it is and try to maintain the relationship I have with the team, the sponsors and NASCAR... If the team asks for my opinion, I give it, but I just don’t want to get in the way of much past that, because my butt is not in the seat of the race car right now."
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; this will not be the case with Brian Vickers.
"I'm feeling great. Treatment is going very well and I'm almost done with the regimen of coumadin. It's going to be about another month before I am off the blood thinners and can get them out of my system. That would complete the whole six-month period that was discussed back in May when this all went down. So that will be great to have that done and gone," he says.
"It's almost like in grade school when if you were out for a few days with the flu, you had to have a note that said you could come back; same deal. My doctors have already cleared me to race for 2011. They found what was wrong, they fixed what was wrong, and they are confident that I am good to go.
“On the racing side, those decisions are now up to the team. Jay Frye [vice president and general manager of Red Bull Racing] and John Probst [technical director for the Red Bull Racing Team] have met with everyone in Austria and now it is time for them to implement their plans for 2011 for the team.”
Vickers’ plans, he says, have never changed: “It was always to be back in 2011."
While Vickers has made a real effort to distance himself and allow the team to do its job without him, he does admit to being somewhat of an 'armchair quarterback.'
"I think you have to be. Racing has been my life, so if I don’t think back to a race that’s been run or whatever, and maybe think about what I would have done differently, then I need to take a look at where I am in life and what I am trying to accomplish. I think anyone in life has to play that role," he says.
"For me, maybe it's more just being antsy about it all. For instance, when we went to Michigan where we won last year, or Charlotte where I know we have run so well, I just want to be the one who is strapping in the car. Not someone else, because I know we have a shot at running well. I know I can get the job done, but what sucks is I know I have to wait.
“So day after, armchair QB? Maybe. But someone with an addiction might be a better description."
Vickers' widely acknowledged passion for learning extends far beyond the walls of a library or his Kindle screen. Although he describes his forced hiatus as "the worst feeling ever," he admits it has allowed him to sit back and learn more about the inner workings of a race team.
"I was able to be involved in discussions that happen while I am going around the track, or to see how NASCAR calls a race, or to see the pit crew work. I was able to compare how a NASCAR team works to an F1 team; what kind of discussions are had, who has the input, how is the input taken by all parties and then evaluated? There are different mentalities, but it was interesting to compare what they do to what we do," he says.
His time out of the car has been a personal learning experience as well as a professional one. "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 back in May," he says.
"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."
It now appears the appropriate question regarding Brian Vickers is not "Whatever happened to...?" but "What will happen next?"
That gives all of us a lot to look forward to.