For the second time since 2014, John Wes Townley has had to do the toughest thing a racecar driver can do: Sit out of his racecar.
An accident at Pocono Raceway in 2014 forced Townley out of competition for two weeks, while two hard crashes during the June 24 Gateway Motorsport Park event saw an unfortunate return for the 26-year-old.
After missing three races in the Camping World Truck Series, including some time in the ARCA Racing Series, Townley made his return to the cockpit this weekend at Pocono. Finishing second in Friday’s ARCA event, he crashed out of Saturday’s Truck Series contest after 16 laps.
Despite the disappointment, the weekend was a step forward for Townley’s 2016 season.
“It definitely makes you more cognizant and makes you respect the place a little more,” Townley said. “I still come in here and approach it the same way, it’s just another racetrack. This is one of those places you have to be cautiously aggressive. It’s a really fun racetrack and [injuries] hasn’t taken anything away from it for me.”
Following one of the wildest moments of the year at Gateway, with Townley fighting Spencer Gallagher after the second accident, Townley realized what went wrong while breaking down the entire series of events.
“Spencer, he got into me and wrecked us into Turn 1,” Townley said. “We came in, got four tires. What we didn’t realize at the time, was how bad the brake rotors were damaged. We went back out and got he restart and the brake pedal went to the floor and the rotors exploded. That second impact, I kind of saw stars.”
With past experience with injuries in the racecar, Townley knew what to expect.
“2014, I was kind of forced to because I heard a pop in my neck when I hit the fence,” he said. “You don’t want to take any chances there if you have a fracture, that could be devastating. This time, it was up to me and what I told them because there was nothing really alarming other than feeling dazed. I took it upon myself to wait a week.
“Something wasn’t quite right. Knowing what I went through two years ago, I really didn’t want to be 100 percent forthcoming because I knew, if I was, I would have to go through that approval process again.
“Looking back, that’s what I should’ve done. I figured to myself that I’d give it a week and see how I feel. A few days and the symptoms hadn’t subsided so I said I would sit out the XFINITY race at Daytona. But even after that, the symptoms were still lingering and were made worse whenever I go to the gym, which I do a lot.”
Following up with the NASCAR medical community, Townley saw insufficient scores, which led to only one decision going forward.
“At that point, I did everything they advised,” he said. “I ended up going through the approval process again. My scores were a little bit off, they have computerized cognitive testing to where they measure reaction time and memory. The reaction time was a little bit off and they definitely thought there were some symptoms there so they held me for a few races.”
Though going through the process of almost knowing the outcome, Townley says imply watching others drive his truck was “very hard.”
“The worst thing you can tell a racecar driver is ‘You can’t race this weekend,'” he said. “Sitting at home watching, it is pretty tough. I really have to thank Parker [Kligerman], Cole Custer and Brady Boswell, they all did a great job for me. A lot of thanks to them for stepping in for me.”
Speaking of a hearty thanks, following the scuffle between Townley and Gallagher, Tony Stewart was happily impressed by the grit and passion shown by Townley, saying he was “his biggest fan for the week.” Townley noticed the recognition, however, would rather keep a better reputation going forward.
“It was pretty neat, I’m not going to lie,” he said of Stewart’s comments. “Looking back, I could’ve handled myself a little bit better. I just lost my temper. While it is good to stand up for yourself, I don’t want to have a reputation of a loose cannon out there ready to go off. It’s really not me.”
Speaking with Gallagher immediately following the Turn 1 fight, Townley hopes to have calmed the tension that has dragged on for more than four years.
“NASCAR sat down with Spencer and I and we re-hashed everything out,” he said. “Spencer seemed complacent with the way things turned out. He didn’t seem too upset so I really don’t think there is too much more bad blood there. It just depends on how he handles himself in the future and how I handle myself.”
With a past run-in with Gallagher in 2012, Gateway’s incident is what “sent me over the edge.”
“That’s kind of what led me to lose my temper,” he said. “There was an ARCA race, I want to say it was 2012. We were leading at Salem and we were waiting a few more laps to pit and he came in earlier and got tires. We saw him coming and we were going to let him go and he just drove [his car] in there and used eight tires and banged me into the fence.
“I wasn’t very happy about that and expressed that to Spencer after the race. There was a little bit of tension there but nothing extreme. When he did [Gateway] I guess it sent me over the edge.
Though the incident occurred years ago, Townley does not dwell on the past.
“I’m one of those people — I don’t hold grudges to be honest. I do remember,” he said. “There was not, necessarily, any anger until he did what he did at Gateway. It’s not like I’m just waiting for this guy to do something. It was like ‘Really, man? You’re going to do that again?’
“I really hope the tension between him and I has calmed down and we can move on from here and race like professionals on the racetrack.”
In a similar incident grabbing recognition throughout the NASCAR world, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is currently on the sidelines with concussion-like symptoms while Jeff Gordon fills his No. 88 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series. Noticing Earnhardt’s decision, Townley says reoccurring concussions can led to tougher comebacks.
“I really hate it for him,” he said of Earnhardt. “Unfortunately, he’s been in a lot of big hits. He’s been racing a lot longer than I have and a lot of those impacts have occurred at superspeedways where the speeds are really high. Even though you heal from a concussion, I’ve read studies in the past week or two – once you have one, even if your symptoms are gone, the next time if happens that recovery time can be longer. I think that might be what he’s going through.”
As it is with any driver who suffers multiple injuries in the racecar in a small period of time – especially involving the head – Townley tries not to focus on the word “retirement” as he plans on having a long, successful career for years to come.
“I try not to think about that just because I love what I do,” he said. “I don’t want to cut my career short, I want to race as long as I can. All you can do is go out there and be cautiously aggressive and focus on the goal. If something happens, something happens. Unfortunately, it’s just a risk all racecar drivers have to take.”
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