Brian Vickers, the whole story

6/4/2010 - NASCAR
Brian Vickers isn't one to sit back and watch. He's looking for answers to everything he faces, personally and professionally. Geoff Burke/Getty Images/NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brian Vickers' compact body sinks easily into the backrest of a chic red couch inside the mobile dance club his sponsor, Red Bull, brings to the racetrack periodically. Thirty yards directly in front of him is the backstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track that holds in its soul his childhood dreams.

Vickers grew up 58 miles to the north and east of this spot, in Thomasville, the son of a racer. From the time he strapped on Pampers he was groomed to strap on a helmet and strap into a race car. Driving four wheels to the brink of their collective limit was his life's calling.

And here he sits, on an overcast Saturday morning, discussing at length the unthinkable truth that he, at just 26 years old, faces: His passion has been stripped from him, and he has no say whatsoever in when he'll get it back.

And above that, he's fortunate to even be breathing.

"People have asked me, 'How close were you to dying?' You know, I don't know. The doctors don't know," Vickers said. "With clots, they travel, they move in your system. They go to the wrong place and, yeah, you're done.

"It could have ended really badly, really quick. Or it could have been a couple of days. But, ultimately, had I not gone, it was not going to end well. I mean, there was no question. There was no debate that had I not gone to the hospital, that it was going to turn out worst-case scenario -- it was just when. I got lucky."

It is hair-raising to understand just how lucky.

The truth

Vickers had experienced tingling and numbness in his left hand for a week and pain in the left side of his chest, near his ribs and lung, while lying in bed. It worsened as time progressed, and the night of Monday, May 10, it became nearly unbearable.

But he was young, ate well and exercised often, he reasoned. He was in the prime of his life and career. It was nothing, he told himself time and again. He convinced himself it would subside if he ignored it. That night it did.

He managed to make it through Monday night, and on Tuesday he flew to Washington, D.C. The following morning, he would meet with Congressman Alcee Hastings and tour the city with friends before heading to visit soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital.

Tuesday night, though, the pain grew worse yet. Vickers knew he was in trouble, but again brushed off the symptoms. He was terrified to contact a doctor, for fear he'd be told he couldn't race.

He knew the truth, and didn't want to face it.

He popped an Advil PM and rolled back over. Eventually, he fell asleep.

"Worst pain I've ever felt, for sure," he said. "It felt like someone was beating my chest with a sledge hammer every time I took a breath. It wasn't smart, and I very easy could have not woke up."

Vickers did awake Wednesday, and he felt better. He would later learn that standing erect repositioned the clots in his lungs, and thus helped the pain. Vickers and his friends went about their business Wednesday morning, touring the Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument. His lungs burned like fire the entire time. He thought he had a rib injury. It was his lung. And the pain got progressively more intense.

"When I look back at that day I'm just so lucky," he said.

He wanted to ignore it again, but chose to call his doctor, Scott McNair, in Charlotte. McNair then called Dr. Jerry Petty, NASCAR's chief physician, who suggested Vickers to do the same. Vickers called Dr. Petty for guidance regarding a general physician in D.C. he might visit when his tour of the city was complete.

Petty didn't hesitate. He implored Vickers to get to the emergency room immediately. Vickers, young and hardheaded, felt it was overkill.

He finally agreed to go.

Then he went to tour the Lincoln Memorial.

Then he attended a 3 p.m. business meeting.

"I was so stupid," he said. "The emergency room is just such a hassle."

Vickers didn't go to the ER until Petty and McNair called him back to check on him.

"They knew I wouldn't go," he said. "I just didn't want to deal with it. I didn't want them to tell me I couldn't race this weekend."

Petty had an inkling what Vickers' issue was -- blood clots -- and had spoken to some doctors about the best facility to treat them. Vickers was mere steps from Georgetown Hospital, one of the country's best medical facilities. But for Vickers' condition, Washington Hospital Center was the preferred location. So Petty told Vickers to get in a cab and get to WHC immediately.

Knowing what he knows now, Vickers said he should have just walked into Georgetown. But, again, he was being stubborn. He still felt he'd pulled a muscle. But he jumped in a cab anyway.

It was rush hour, and traffic was at a standstill. So Vickers got out of the cab and walked 12 blocks to WHC. The last three, it began to rain. So he ran.

"That was not very smart," he said. "I didn't want to get wet. And then I really started having a hard time breathing. And right when I got to the hospital, I mean, I was really, really hurting.

"When I got to the hospital after a little three-block jog, I realized, I mean, I'm used to riding a bike for 60 miles. When I couldn't breathe after two-and-a-half-blocks, I was like 'Uh-oh something's way wrong.' "

When Vickers arrived at the ER he was in tremendous pain. The waiting room was packed and his concern spiked, but when he described his symptoms they rushed him back and tried immediately to give him a CT scan.

He had a difficult time lying down for the scan. The pain was too intense. He couldn't breathe. At best, he could take only shallow breaths.

"The whole time I was trying to think, 'Come on, we can fix this, I'll race this weekend,' " he said. "I was asking all the wrong questions. 'I've got to be at the track Friday. Practice starts at 11.'

"And they were looking like at me like, 'Are you crazy? You need to be asking us if you're going to live. Not what time practice starts.' "

The unknown

The doctors did their best to break the news to Vickers easily. But he could see it on their faces. He knew it was a serious situation, just didn't want to admit it to himself. Not only wouldn't he race at Dover, he wouldn't race at Charlotte, either. Or Pocono. Or for the next three months. In fact, his season was over.

"They were trying to work me up to it, knew that I wasn't going to take it very well," he said. "When they said 'blood clots,' I didn't know nearly enough about blood clots when I was told that, but I know a lot now. I did know enough that I knew it was a major problem."

Vickers' team suffers along with him. Not only is he the franchise, he's also a little brother of sorts for Red Bull Racing GM Jay Frye.

"This hurts all of us so much," Frye said. "It's weird. It's one of those deals where he was doing nothing wrong, and it happened out of the blue. It's something you can't predict, and that's got to be hugely frustrating for him. He's frustrated, and were frustrated for him. You ask, 'Why did it happen?' It's something you can't see. He was having pain originally, and thank God he was. That's why Dr. Petty recommended he go to the hospital."

His parents, Clyde and Ramona, were out of town. He admits he missed them. He gave them only vague details so he wouldn't alarm them.

"They wanted to get there right then, and I was like, 'No, no, it's fine, I'll be ok.' There's no immediate danger,' " he said. "I didn't want them to panic, hoping I'd get out soon and get back home."

Three weeks later, Clyde struggles, as any parent would, seeing his son face this situation.

"As a parent it's very concerning to see him go through this, and knowing what it's doing to him to not be in the racecar," Clyde Vickers said. "On the outside I don't think he shows it, but on the inside I can tell it's just eating him alive."

"I was pretty torn up about it, I think, internally," Brian Vickers said. "But I don't show my emotion externally. I just kind of hold it in, process it and move on. I don't think it really hit me until the press conference."

'The funeral'

Vickers walked into the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center on Friday, May 21, and sat at table between Dr. Steve Limentani and Frye.

He didn't mince words or dodge questions, but rather told the world he had a blood-clotting condition that would render him unable to race a car for the remainder of the 2010 season. Six months on the shelf. He and his doctors did not know the cause, and he would be on blood thinners for the foreseeable future.

It was at that moment -- when those words left his lips -- that the magnitude of the situation hit him.

"It didn't hit me when the doctors told me," he said. "It hit me when I said it. It was so weird. I wasn't expecting it, this whole process to catch up to me and it was almost like, almost like going through a death, like a family member or a friend.

"Sometimes you don't really have closure, you don't really process what's happened until the funeral. For me, the media center press conference was the funeral. That's when it hit me.

"In fact, I was still in that moment where you analyze, process, deal with that situation, figure out the best way to deal with it. It was just all business. And then, when I was sitting there in that press room -- that's when I could feel in my heart where all the emotion hit me."

Answer man

Vickers is an "answer man." He wants answers to every question. He's an incessant reader. He studies obscure truths about random subjects like space elevators and green initiatives and foreign currency. He reads the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times every day.

So imagine his trepidation about a situation that offers no answers.

"For me, everything's black and white, everything's determined," he said. "I want to have a process, and have answers. And there's a lot of answers that I don't have, and there's some that I may never get. But that's just something maybe that's something I'm supposed to learn."

Porter Stowell, Vickers' buddy, was with Vickers that day. He toured DC with him. He ran to the hospital with him in the rain. He sat with Vickers when doctors brought the news.

"Throughout the whole time he wanted answers. The only time he complained is when he wasn't getting straight answers," Stowell said. "It takes a while for you to own your new condition. I thought Brian did that really fast, the whole process of denial or 'I'm not going to race.' He embraced his new reality very quickly."

"I was upset about it, but it wasn't going to change. So I had to accept it and evaluate it, make a decision and move on," Vickers said.

Vickers can't fully move on. His doctors still don't know what caused the blood clots, which began in his legs and moved to his lungs. They've analyzed and reanalyzed the activities that led up to the clotting -- the fire at Texas Motor Speedway after the blown tire, running two races at Talladega in one day, long flights.

"It's funny, I go to the hospital in Washington and it's all business," Vickers said. "They ask every question they have to ask, every procedure, doesn't matter whether they think they know the answer to it. They're like, 'Were you in a car accident? Have you been around smoke? Have you been in a car for a long period of time? Have you been on long flights?' I was like, 'Yes!' They were like, 'To which one?' I said, 'All of them.' "

The biggies are the hereditary tests, the predisposition testing. If Vickers' condition was hereditary, he'd be inclined to take blood thinners for the rest of his life. Racing is not an option for a driver on blood thinners.

So far, all hereditary testing is negative.

"That's great news," he said. "Every test that comes back negative, that creates more questions. But at the same time it answers a lot of questions. The immediate concern was, like Factor 5 and some of these other tests, would mean I was going to be on blood thinner for the rest of my life."

The blood thinners are keeping Vickers out of the car. A high-impact crash while on blood thinners could result in an inability to stop internal bleeding.

"They can't get to it, if you hit your head and you bust a blood vessel, it'll kill you," he said. "You can't stop it, at least if you can't get to the hospital in a certain amount of time."

Blood thinners help prevent new clots. They do not dissipate those already in the body. The body has to break down existing clots naturally.

"The blood thinner kind of just gives your body a chance to catch up," Vickers said. "That's why it takes so long. There's no magic pill to make them go away."

Vickers' forthright approach made his competitors reevaluate their perspectives, too.

"The way I see things, I know at some point I'll retire," said Jimmie Johnson, one of Vickers' closest friends. "I don't know how, why, or when. We all have that reality, that there's an ending-point out there. You dream of it being a glorious swan song, but you just don't know.

"I dont think anyone's thought it through in great detail. And so you put Brian in the situation he's in -- in his heart he knows he's healthy and young and very hopeful they'll figure out what's causing the problem, so he can find his way back into the car.

"As time goes on, whatever the situation is, if he can't be in the car that reality over the next few months and year that reality will be much more difficult for him to handle. I admire his persepctive right now, and how he's handling it. I tried to imagine it was me. I can't. I can't imagine going through that."

But Vickers will not sit idle and wait. Like every facet of his life, he seeks answers.

"I'm certainly proud of his talent, and what he can do with a racecar if everything is like it's supposed to be," Clyde Vickers said of his son. "But I'm also proud that he is intelligent, and he reads books and he tries to learn, and he's very smart and has a lot of business savvy about him.

"That's like this situation he's going through with the blood and the clots -- he's reading books and magazine articles and talking to doctors all over the country. And I know is he's trying to absorb all that knowledge so he can deal with it. I'm very proud of him for being able to do that."

Those he's loved

Vickers is the 2003 Nationwide Series champion. He has a couple of Cup wins. He made the 2009 Chase. He has more money than he'll ever spend, his own plane and several residences. He is a superstar.

He has achieved more in 26 years than most do in 86.

But he has lost a lot, too.

Two of his dearest friends, Adam Petty and Ricky Hendrick, died by the time Vickers was 21 years old. Vickers is a spiritual person, and says his buddies still talk to him every now and then.

"I definitely believe they're still here with me," he said. "Somebody's definitely been looking after me. The Big Man took care of me, and I'm trying to find what I'm supposed to learn out of this. This happened for a reason. There's something I'm supposed to get from this.

"I think I'm understanding more and more in the days that go by. You know, living in the present is a lot of it. I think I needed a break, I needed to slow down a bit."

Vickers admits he lost sight of his blessings. To his defense that's easy to do for these men, who are pushed and pulled and prodded in a million directions by a million people.

"I been in this sport now for seven years, at the Cup level for seven years, and you take it for granted," he said. "I don't anymore. Losing both of those guys was really tough on me. But, then again, I learned a lot from both of those experiences as well.

"I probably wouldn't have had the same feeling laying there in the hospital had those experiences not happened. I took more photos. I didn't have as many photos as I wish I had with Ricky and Adam. I took more photos, I did more things, I lived life to the fullest.

"You know, when someone said, 'Hey, let's go on a motorcycle ride,' I went. I didn't not go because I was worried something may go wrong. I wanted to go skydiving, I went. So learning from those guys, I think made me feel more comfortable with what was going on in the present. Yeah, it sucks, but I really feel like I'm going to walk away from this better."

The Interim

Vickers fully expects to return to Sprint Cup competition. He even declared he'd come back in February 2011 and win the Daytona 500. He hopes to return stronger physically and mentally and be fitter to excel. The arduous, down-to-the-minute structure of a Cup driver's schedule prevented his ability to experience many things socially he'd long yearned to.

He can do them now. He has six months off from driving. All he's ever done was race cars, even skipped his prom to wheel a Nationwide car around Bristol, and nearly missed high school graduation because he was racing at Charlotte.

He wants to travel, possibly to Asia and visiting Toyota in Japan. He may hit some Formula One races or the Red Bull Air Race in New York. He'll play some golf and spend time with family and friends. He also wants to see the sport from every angle, to experience what crew chiefs and crew members and spotters and even NASCAR officials endure during competition.

He wants to focus on living in the moment.

That, he says, will make him a better driver. He'll check those things off the list, and be reminded how much he loves racing. That's where his chief concern comes in.

"My biggest concern is perception," he said.

Vickers is concerned that his absence from the track will be construed as not caring.

"That's my biggest concern," he said. "They are going to say, 'Brian doesn't want it he's not here.' It's just the opposite. I do want it. I want it so bad."

He needn't concern himself with what anyone else thinks. His team knows well his desire to get back.

"We know he's frustrated, and we're doing everything we can to keep him engaged and involved," Frye said. "There's a balance there, too. We don't want him doing too much. The very first thing out of my mouth every morning when we talk is, 'Are you getting enough rest? Your job is to get better. That's your job. We're behind you. Don't forget that.'

"We miss him at track but we know he's doing what he needs to do right now."

The doctors want Vickers to rest, but he says being at the racetrack doesn't compromise his health. For now, there is no immediate danger. Doctors want him to be active but not push too hard. Like most things, it's about balance.

"I was foolish," he said, "because as much as I love this sport, as much as I love racing, you definitely can't race if you're not here."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.