The images from the first minute of the Indianapolis 500 still horrify: Stan Fox’s race car, hurtling head-on into the wall, airborne after a broadside collision with Eddie Cheever.
The front end of Fox’s car is ripped away, exposing his feet and legs, as thousands of bits of debris shower the track. After landing, Fox is slumped over in his seat, already unconscious, legs dangling onto the pavement.
A month later, Fox still hasn’t spoken. He’s awake most of the time now, and he has begun making spontaneous movements, but his recovery from a serious head injury will take many more months. He has improved to good condition and recently was moved from the critical care unit to a private room.
He is lucky to be alive.
A neurosurgeon removed a blood clot from Fox’s brain shortly after the first-lap crash, then watched and waited five days to see if the potentially fatal swelling in his brain would go down. Fox, a midget car veteran who drove Indy cars only once a year, finally came out of a coma on June 2.
His condition changed little until the past few days.
“He’s quite alert and beginning to respond more. I’m sure he knows where he is, but we still don’t know what level of recognition he has,” said Charlotte Hatfield, a spokeswoman at Methodist Hospital.
Fox is awake most of the day, she said, completely off a respirator that had been used to help him breathe, and has smiled and begun mouthing words.
He has begun physical therapy and is making movements without prompting, Hatfield said. The brain swelling isn’t a problem.
At times, Fox is placed in an upright position in a chair to help keep his lungs clear. A few friends and family visit him regularly, and his wife, Jean, is with him every day. Sometimes, she turns on the television for him.
“He watches what’s going on in the room, but whether he pays attention to the TV, we don’t really know. There’s no way to know how much he’s aware of because he hasn’t spoken at all,” Hatfield said. “Definitely it’s a very slow improvement.”
Fox, who turns 43 on July 7, probably owes his life to his race car, which did just what it was designed to do when it exploded on impact with the Speedway’s concrete wall.
“There are features that are built into the cars to try and have the driver protected,” said Dr. Kenneth L. Renkens, the neurosurgeon who removed the blood clot from Fox’s brain. “A helmet alone can’t protect you from a brain injury, but the idea is you let some other mechanical device suffer the impact. In the case of cars, the cars disintegrate, or come apart, so they are the vehicle that absorbs the shock to protect the individual.
“In the case of helmets, the way that helmets are designed, you let the helmet suffer the impact, and it takes the pressure off the brain and the skull itself,” he said.
“In general, with high acceleration impacts, the fibers that are running between the brain cells themselves and the rest of the body can be injured. They can either be damaged beyond repair; they can be mildly damaged where they are just not functioning; and the mildest form of it is sort of a concussion, where it’s a transient event and people regain consciousness very early.
“If it’s an injury where the cells are partially damaged but not completely damaged and they will recover function, then improvements will be made,” Renkens said.
Fox, who has won more than 60 midget car feature races and 19 U.S. Auto Club national midget events over a 24-year career, was in his eighth start at Indianapolis, where his best finish was seventh as a rookie in 1987. He has competed in only five other Indy-Car races at other tracks, none since 1984.