In NASCAR, two seconds is an eternity. Two seconds behind the leader is a distant second place. Two seconds is the difference between a good pit stop and a slow one. Two seconds is plenty of time to avoid a crash.
Two seconds is also the amount of time that can change everything.
Aric Almirola was nearly two seconds behind Joey Logano last Saturday night at Kansas when a brake failure sent Logano into the turn 1 wall, collecting Danica Patrick. Committed to the outside line, Almirola saw the crash unfold in front of him. His No. 43 car was handling loose, and as he turned to the inside, the tires of his Ford got into fluid from the crashed cars in front. He couldn’t turn away, couldn’t slow down, and as he slammed into Logano’s right front wheel, Almirola “felt like somebody stuck a knife in my back—and then I realized that my car was airborne because I could see the asphalt.”
The car slammed back down to the track surface, so hard the No. 43 team thinks it knocked the rear springs out of place. A few seconds later, “it felt like somebody took that knife and just twisted it up in my back,” Almirola said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Almirola said on a scale of one to 10, the pain as he was being extricated from the wreck was “a nine point five.”
As the safety crew meticulously cut Almirola from the car, time seemed to slow down. Fans at the track were eerily quiet. They knew it was bad when the tool to cut the roof off the car came out. Almirola had dropped the window net, a driver’s signal that he’s at least conscious, but there wasn’t much movement after that. The driver said later that the pain in his back burned so badly he thought he was on fire. His first thought was to get out of the car, which is why the window net came down in the first place.
But when Almirola realized there were no flames, he knew better than to climb out.
Fans know the cost of the sport they love, and it looked like someone was ready to collect on Saturday night. Collect that someone did, though in the long run, the cost was relatively low: Almirola will heal, likely back in the No. 43 by midsummer. He’ll likely miss two, maybe three months (Regan Smith will be in the car to sub, at least for now).
In the grand scheme of things, that’s not so terribly long, though it will probably seem like an eternity to the driver once the pain lessens.
Just don’t expect Almirola to get back in the car before his injury is fully healed. There’s simply too much still at stake. From the moment of impact, Almirola knew he had to protect his back.
“My dad is a firefighter,” he said. “I know just from being around my dad, I know that the spine is nothing to mess around with. So if you have neck pain in an accident or back pain, it’s extremely important to make sure that you keep the spine stable.
“I knew right away I had a severe amount of back pain, like an unbelievable amount. I got my steering wheel off and when I went to throw my steering wheel up on the dash and I extended my hands out in front of me that pain intensified even more and I knew I had a problem. It kind of took my breath away and I kind of looked around while I caught my breath and realized that I wasn’t on fire, so I just sat there and waited because I knew I had a lot of back pain and I needed to get help getting out of the race car.
“And then, as they got there and I explained what my conditions were and where the pain was coming from, they went through all of their proper protocol to get me out of the car safely without moving my spine.”
Almirola praises the safety workers for taking their time, for keeping his injured back as stable as possible. But the wait had to be excruciating.
His reward for all that patience? More waiting. Eight, maybe 12 weeks of nothing but that. It’s difficult for this Cup veteran, the dream of a playoff spot lost in a promising season.
But, truth be told, Almirola will stay patient. He will wait as long as it takes… because coming back too soon could mean waiting forever.
“Getting back in a race car two weeks too soon is just gonna add two more starts to my start column and the stat book,” Almirola said Friday. “But if I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you’re talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down, so I’m not gonna risk that. I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I’d like to dance with my daughter one day at her wedding, so I’m not gonna risk it.
“Whenever the doctors clear me, I’ll be ready to get back in a race car.”
Don’t think Almirola isn’t tough; you don’t get to the top level of this sport without being tough as nails. He knows what racing does to you. He understands the cost. He’s not afraid, but he’s not going to pay even more if he can help it.
“I’m not naïve,” he explained. “I’ve seen people get killed in race cars. I’ve seen people break their backs in race cars. I’ve seen people break their legs in race cars, so you know that, you take that danger and compartmentalize it somewhere in the very, very far back of your brain and you recognize the risk, but the enjoyment of driving a race car and the adrenaline rush and all that has always outweighed the risk for me.”
“It’s what I love to do from the time I was eight years old and I drove a go-kart. The very first go-kart I ever raced, I hit a hay bale at 40 miles an hour in a go-kart and slammed a wooden wall and it hurt. I cried and my grandfather asked me if I wanted to load the go-kart up and go home and I said, ‘No.’ And we stayed and raced the feature that night, so from the time I was eight years old I’ve known that you can get hurt and that it’s dangerous, but I love to race and I love to drive a race car.”
The driver said all this sitting ramrod straight in his seat in an attempt to alleviate the pain — he doesn’t want to take painkillers before facing the media. Almirola, though remains in constant pain six days after the crash. It hurts to lie down. It hurts to stand up.
It hurts to exist.
But the good news, Almirola says, is that the location of the fracture helps. His body keeps it from displacing, which could cause much more, possibly permanent, damage.
“For me, I think the most challenging part is never getting comfort or relief,” he said. “I’ve broken other bones and I broke my leg in several places in my tibia and fibula. I’ve broken my shoulder blade. I’ve broken a lot of things and as long as you immobilize it and you can sit on the couch and raise it up, it doesn’t really hurt until you get off the couch and all the blood rushes to it and it throbs. But with this, it’s constant pain all the time and the only thing that gets relief is constant change.
“If I sit for too long, I’ve got to stand up. When I stand up, it feels better because it elongates the spine. If I stand for too long, it starts to hurt and then I’ve got to sit down. I’m constantly changing position and nothing alleviates the pain.”
Almirola’s physician, Dr. William Heisel, explained the difficult nature of the injury on Friday. But there’s a silver lining to his patient’s difficulty now – getting back to 100 percent is a strong possibility.
“This fracture is at a higher level than the injuries that Denny (Hamlin) sustained or that Tony (Stewart) sustained,” he said. “This fracture, though has outstanding healing potential. Because of the location, it’s a very stable fracture from the standpoint that the ligaments that connect the bones are all intact and they’re all doing well based on the imaging studies that we’ve obtained so far, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“The bone is, for lack of a better term, crunched and it’s something that first and foremost we’ve got to get some of the edema or some of the blood out of the bone and that is something that is a time phenomenon as much as anything. And then we have a lot of work to do from a physical therapy standpoint. That days that Aric is not available to move around because of the pain and because of the guarding are days that he’s not using those muscles fully and we’re going to have to rehabilitate those.”
Almirola can’t escape the pain, and he faces a long road back to racing, but the smile as he spoke to the press was genuine. He even cracked a couple of jokes, laughing along with the media in the room. His body position gave away the pain he felt, but his tone was overwhelmingly one of gratitude. It was a thank you to the safety workers who worked to get him out of the car so carefully, to his fans and fellow competitors. It went to Janice, his wife, who has a husband to nurse along with their two children to chase.
And finally, to his faith.
“First and foremost, I want to thank God,” he said. “I didn’t think I was lucky. I was pretty upset in the moment and then after meeting with doctors in Kansas and Charlotte I realized how fortunate I was. I want to thank the Good Lord for looking out for me.”
Broken back and all, though, Almirola knows he’s as lucky as they come. He’ll get back in that Petty blue race car in due time…and he’ll play baseball with his son and dance with his daughter. Racing can be emotionally expensive, but the price, all things considered, was one this driver understands and accepts.
“That’s our sport at its finest,” Almirola said Friday, six days after his accident and 13 days after he won the XFINITY Series race at Talladega. “The emotional rollercoaster that you go through as a NASCAR race car driver is unlike anything else. I think in every other professional sport every weekend you either win or you lose, but in NASCAR, you have to identify what success is. To win on Saturday [at Talladega] and have Janice and the kids in Victory Lane with me, and then to have a great run on Sunday [in Cup] – and then literally seven days later to be on a helicopter heading for the hospital, there’s nothing that describes it better other than that’s our sport.
“One day you’re a hero, one day you’re a zero, although I don’t classify myself as a zero just because I broke my back. But it messes with your emotions and that’s where I’m fortunate that I have faith that keeps me level.”