Driver Scott Speed began racing karts when he was 10. Heâs 36 now.
In 2006, he debuted in Formula 1, the first American in the series in 23 years. His career includes stints in NASCAR Monster Energy Cup, NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series, IMSA, ARCA, Formula E and at least a dozen other series before landing where he was last Friday, leading the season points in the Americas Rallycross series in a factory ride from Subaru, heading toward a fifth championship.
He has, of course, crashed before. Hard, grinding, spectacular crashes.
This one was different. He knew it immediately: âMy back was broken.â
It was hard to even call this a crash. It was merely a bad landing on the other side of one of the jumps at the Nitro World Games, a standalone, non-points spectacular backed by racer, rider and stuntman Travis Pastrana at the Utah Motorsports CampusÂ outside Salt Lake City. Nitro Games feature not only rallycross with racers from the ARX and WRX series, but alsoÂ Moto Quarterpipe, FMX, Flat TrackÂ and Super Hooligan competition.
And it wasnât even track designer Pastranaâs massive trademark jump that crosses over the dirt track below, clearing a 100-foot ramp-to-ramp gap. No, Speedâs downfall was one of the lesser jumps that he took during Fridayâs qualifying.
Of all the jumps on the track — which Speed said was, in balance, âtruly spectacularâ — this jump, coming off the straight, was the only one that seemed a bit off-balance. It was supposed to be a mild single jump, essentially taken wide open. They had just wet the track down, and the first two laps in his Subaru WRX STI wereÂ pretty slippery; the jump performed as designed. But on the third lap, the dirt had dried some, âand I gained so much grip powering up the jump —Â I mean, it was like turbo speed —Â that I landed on the flat from about 20 feet in the air.â
He knew immediately he had broken his back —Â he just didnât know exactly where or how badly. Typically youâd stay in the car and wait for help, âbut it was so hot in there I figured Iâd die from heat exhaustion before they got me out, and I just wanted to get out of the car as fast as possible and lay on the ground, and thatâs what I did.â
A University of Utah spine specialist told Speed that he had fractured three vertebrae, with the T6 damage being by far the most severe, in addition to some torn ligaments. âMy T6 was squished in half, and some pieces of the bone penetrated the spinal canal to a depth of about 6Â millimeters —Â which was not enough to damage the spinal cord.
âIâm the luckiest man alive,â Speed said from his hospital bed. âIt has been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life. The support has been overwhelming. I know when (IndyCar driver)Â Robert Wickens got hurt, he said how much the support helped. His injury turned out to be more serious thanÂ mine, but I know how it feels.â
Wickens crashed one year ago today at Pocono Raceway, sufferingÂ multiple serious injuries, including a fracture of the T6 vertebrae. He was among the first to reach out to Speed after his rallycross crash.
Speed was told to begin mentally preparing himself for surgery, but the next morning the top surgeon told him it was a really close call between operatingÂ and seeing if the injury could heal on its own. The test would be fitting Speed with a brace, then having himÂ stand up. âThe go/no go gauge is simple,â Speed said. If there was pain, and the vertebrae became more compromised, theyâd rush him into surgery immediately. If there wasnât pain, and the vertebrae stood up on its own, he could begin therapy immediately.
Thatâs what happened, and Speed is hoping for a quick recovery —Â so quick that he has the date of the next Americas Rallycross race circled on the calendar, Sept.Â 28-29 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Even if he canât race, he plans to be there to support his team.
About that team: During the offseason, Speed left the Michael Andretti-run Volkswagen Beetle team that had delivered four straight championships to move to Vermont SportsCar, the factory-backed Subaru WRX STI three-car team.Â Â
âTo go from a car that has won the last four championships to a car that didnât have a podium finish last year, it was a challenge,â Speed said. âBut the program has turned around so quickly, and weâre winning races,â and Speed is leading the championship, five points ahead of his friend and former VW teammate Tanner Foust. âIâm super-happy with the new team. Everybody is so nice there, itâs been great. I couldnât be happier.â
Speed insists that heâll handle recovery the way he races —Â with a singular focus, âtaking it one step at a time and make good decisions. Iâm going to do everything I can to recover. Iâm more motivated than I have been in a long time to get well and get back in the car.â