With the news of the week surrounding Kurt Busch‘s return to the racetrack following a suspension for a suspected domestic incident, the racing community is divided on how to feel. Some feel he got off too easily considering the nature of the allegations against him. Others feel he never should have had to serve a suspension. Either way, his return is under the microscope, all eyes on what will go down.
Meanwhile, last Sunday in Las Vegas, another driver climbed into his racecar for the first time in 2015. Brian Vickers, who underwent emergency open-heart surgery in the offseason, made his season debut in his No. 55, finishing a respectable 15th. Vickers’ return was preceded by a couple of nice features on the pre-race shows, but there was a distinct air of apathy among fans, and many media, while in one breath welcoming the veteran driver back, in another were wondering why he was back at all, especially after rookie Brett Moffitt scored a top 10 in his car at Atlanta.
Vickers’ story is a long one, and the road has not been smooth. He lost a childhood friend, Adam Petty, to a practice crash in 2000. Vickers carried one of Petty’s hats in his racecar every week, all the way to the then-Busch Series title in 2003. The hat helped Vickers heal, and he retired it from racing, though he kept it.
Vickers moved into the Cup Series the following year at just 20 years of age. It was a typical rookie season, with more struggles than triumphs, but Vickers was doing what he’d dreamed of. His friend Ricky Hendrick had brought Vickers to his father’s organization when he decided that his path lay in management instead of the driver’s seat, and it looked as though the younger Hendrick had an eye for talent (he also introduced Rick Hendrick to Jimmie Johnson). Ricky Hendrick spotted for Vickers on race day, and the two were close friends away from the track as well.
It’s still hard for Vickers to talk about his 21st birthday. The Cup Series was in Martinsville that day, and when the race was over, Ricky Hendrick and Vickers planned to celebrate the birthday more appropriately with a night on the town. But the celebration never came. On his way to Martinsville to spot for Vickers, Ricky Hendrick was killed in a plane crash along with nine others, many of them also close to Vickers. There would be no birthday celebration, no victory celebration for close friend and teammate Jimmie Johnson, who won that day. Instead, there were only tears. The tears still threaten at times when Vickers talks about that day.
Vickers moved on from Hendrick Motorsports a couple of years later. He won once in the No. 25 before he did, but the move was, in the end, one he needed to make. It still wasn’t easy. Vickers made an impact with Team Red Bull, talking it to Victory Lane and the Chase in 2009. The future looked bright; Vickers was young, he was winning and his team was growing. He opened 2010 with three top-10s in 11 races.
And then the world crumbled again. Vickers went to the emergency room when he experienced chest pains and trouble breathing. Diagnosed with blood clots in his leg and lungs, Vickers also underwent heart surgery to repair a hole that doctors discovered. He missed the rest of the season. There was small solace, perhaps, in that Vickers saved the career of good friend Casey Mears in the process as he called on Mears to fill in for him, but it was cold comfort. Vickers wondered if he’d race again, though he knew he’d come back if he possibly could.
And he did, though 2011 wasn’t quite as strong as his 2009 had been. Vickers completed the season but the Red Bull operation closed its doors at the end of the year, leaving Vickers without a ride. And as damaged goods thanks to his illness, Vickers wouldn’t find it easy to find a full-time seat. Instead, he took a part-time role with Michael Waltrip Racing, running the races Mark Martin didn’t want to run and turning heads with three top 5s and five top 10s in that eight-race stint.
In 2013, Vickers again had a part-time role in the No. 55, and with Martin’s contract expiring, he knew the year was an audition with sponsor Aaron’s. Vickers also filled in for an injured Denny Hamlin for a few weeks, but his year had a bit of a rocky start. He had a pair of top 10s by July, but also a pair of DNFs from crashes. But if there was any doubt that Vickers had earned the No. 55 seat for 2014, it was erased when Vickers won at New Hampshire under the summer sun.
Unfortunately, Vickers’s season ended up being remembered not for his win, but for his role in the scandal at Richmond, where Vickers was called to the pits for an imaginary issue, costing him a lap and assuring that teammate Martin Truex, Jr. would stay ahead of him in the closing laps, hopefully padding Truex’s Chase bid. Vickers said afterward that he had no knowledge of the plan, and his radio backed his story, but the damage was done.
A few weeks later, Vickers’ season came to an abrupt and premature end when he was again diagnosed with blood clots in his leg, most likely caused by the walking cast he had worn for an ankle injury. Speculation about his future spread like wildfire, but his team stood behind him, and Vickers was named to drive the No. 55 full time in 2014. The team struggled a bit, still reeling from the Richmond scandal and personnel changes, but Vickers finished the season with a handful of top-5s and, to everyone’s relief, his health intact.
But life threw Vickers one more curveball in December, when the patch that had been placed on his heart to close a hole in the muscle was rejected by his body. Vickers went to the hospital, where he was taken to surgery to repair the damage. And this time, he didn’t know if he’d race again.
“Going into the surgery, it was certainly a question I asked several times throughout the process,” Vickers said in a press conference at Las Vegas last week. “‘Am I going to be able to race again,’ and early on it was like – I think they were trying to set expectations and they were like, ‘It’s not looking good.’ They didn’t want to say no, but they were a far cry from yes.”
Vickers had held on through everything before, the losses and the health scares, and come back every time. But now, it looked as though he might have to hang up his helmet for good. He was able to put it in perspective, realize racing wasn’t what defined him… but it didn’t change the desire to do what he loved.
He appreciates it more now than ever.
“Anytime you have to fight for something and anytime it’s taken away from you – I mean, it’s kind of like a kid with a toy, right? You take the toy away — they just want the toy more. How many times have you pulled a toy away from a kid and – we’re just big kids, especially boys, we never grow up,” Vickers said at Las Vegas. “So you take their toy away and they just want it even more. And I’ve had it taken away several times, so, yes, I want it more and I think I also have a deeper appreciation for it. I think when you get in a routine, you do something for 10 years or 15 years, five years, whatever it is, you just kind of wake up in the morning and you expect it and then one day when you realize and maybe several days you realize that you can’t just wake up and expect it, you’ve got to fight for it and you appreciate it more and you love it more.”
Vickers’ return to the seat comes from a much bigger struggle than Busch’s at the end of the day. While Busch was fighting for his reputation, Vickers was fighting for his life. If he can stay healthy and stay in the seat, it’s already a victory. But his cars are fast and Vickers can do more than just warm a seat. He can win, and he can make the Chase. His is already the comeback story of the year.
And he’s just getting rolling.
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