By Deb Williams | Aug 15, 2018
Special to espnW.com
Wendy Venturini’s plans for June 23 were simple: a workout and a morning run before heading to Sonoma Raceway for her broadcasting duties with Performance Racing Network.
She never made it to the California race track.
Instead, she found herself in the Intensive Care Unit at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California. She had a basilar skull fracture, a concussion, blood filling her middle ear canals and road rash on her tailbone and shoulder. Her early morning run had ended abruptly when she was struck by a car.
Now, nearly two months later, the 39-year-old says she looks the same and she sounds the same, but she doesn’t feel the same.
“That’s kinda what head trauma does to you,” said Venturini, who will return to her PRN announcing duties this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. “It’s something I’ve had to learn. I’ve worked very closely with Dr. [Jerry] Petty, the neurosurgeon who works with all of the head trauma in NASCAR. He thinks my progress has been remarkable for the type of injury that I had, but to me, it can’t heal fast enough.
“I’m dealing with a lot of side effects of my skull fracture and of a concussion. I have good days, and I have bad days. I don’t know my limits until I surpass those limits, and then I pay the price with either a headache for 24 hours or head pressure that feels … like a balloon is about to burst in my head.”
It was a basilar skull fracture — a crack at the back and bottom portion of the skull — that took the lives of seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt and fourth-generation driver Adam Petty. OrthoCarolina motorsports director Bill Heisel said their injuries occurred at the base of the skull where the brain stem exits. Venturini’s fracture was more to one side, and Heisel said it probably helped her because “it allowed her brain to swell a little.”
“If her brain had not been able to swell, it creates a bunch of other issues with intracranial pressure,” Heisel said.
Venturini still must sleep on an angle because the pressure in her head changes when she lies down. To curb eye strain, she wears gamma ray glasses, which eliminate the blue rays from cell phones, computers and televisions.
“I went for weeks without being able to look at my cell phone or my computer screen,” Venturini said. “My husband [Jared Egert] did all of my texting for me. I would tell him what to write, and he would stay up at night answering text messages and emails for me. I wouldn’t have survived mentally or physically without my husband by my side. He stepped in and did everything for me during my recovery.”
Five weeks passed before Venturini’s ears began clearing, but they don’t “feel completely normal yet.” Petty told her it could be a year before her skull fracture is completely healed.
“I had vertigo for several weeks,” Venturini said. “I just had to adjust and get comfortable with what my body was feeling and get comfortable with what I was experiencing.
“I’m super lucky, super blessed with the outcome … but it hasn’t been an easy road by any means. I’ve had my challenges and my frustrations.”
That June day could have been much worse for Venturini had it not been for her peak physical condition, the result of her becoming a personal trainer after her contract with Fox Sports 1 wasn’t renewed. Her quality muscle mass, Heisel said, helped absorb and defer other injuries that could have occurred.
“If she had been bone-thin and not had all of the muscle mass, I think her injuries collectively would have been worse than what they were,” Heisel said.
The Saturday morning of the accident, Venturini awoke before sunrise. The gym at which she had purchased a two-day membership near her Novato, California, hotel didn’t open until 7 a.m. Rather than wait, she donned her running clothes, which included a neon pink tank top, and started her run at 6 a.m. She followed her usual routine, listening to her Christian rock playlist through headphones as she ran.
“I had run a couple of miles, and I was on my way back to the hotel,” Venturini recalled. “It was 6:30, and the sun was starting to rise. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful, bright, sunny day.'”
Venturini turned onto a U.S. Highway 101 bridge overpass and was running in a crosswalk when her peripheral vision caught sight of a car about to slam into her left side. Instead of freezing, she jumped as high as possible. The Mazda Miata, traveling at about 20 mph, struck her just below her left knee. Venturini somersaulted over the car’s top, tore the antenna off its trunk with her backward flip and slammed into the pavement on the crown of her head.
The Miata’s driver, a 63-year-old woman headed to work at the Humane Society, said she had been blinded by the sun and failed to see Venturini. After the impact, the woman stopped her car immediately.Â
“She actually thought a small bird had hit her car because when I jumped I hit her roof,” said Venturini, who never lost consciousness. “The only damage she had was her back antenna. There was no damage on the hood.”
Venturini remembers every detail. A witness found her shattered phone, which still worked. Venturini immediately called her best friend, Stephanie Drew, who had accompanied her to California. While en route to the hospital, Venturini tried unsuccessfully to call her husband and her mother. She arrived at the hospital with her neck in a brace. Her entire body was scanned, and everything was X-rayed.
“I knew there was a big problem when the nurse said, ‘She’s bleeding from her ears.’ I remember asking her if that’s why I couldn’t hear clearly,” Venturini said. “She said yes.”
Venturini relied on Drew to talk with her husband, her mother, her brother, a list of friends and her boss, PRN president and general manager Doug Rice.
Rice immediately headed to the hospital. Word of Venturini’s accident quickly spread through the Sonoma garage. NASCAR driver Michael McDowell was at her bedside as soon as he finished qualifying for Sunday’s race. His wife, Jamie, had cared for Venturini’s son, Caleb, at the tracks when Venturini was a reporter for Speed Channel and Fox Sports 1.
By Saturday night, Egert was by his wife’s side. Her first night at the hospital, she received 400 texts from drivers, their wives and fellow media members, but she couldn’t respond.
“I barely could get my bearings straight,” Venturini said. “I was doing a lot of cognitive testing on a daily basis. They checked my eyes every hour [because] you can see when your brain has swelling through your eyes’ pupils.”
The personable Venturini spent 4.5 days in ICU, seeing “every specialist on the ICU floor,” after which there was the matter of getting her back to North Carolina.
Her head hurt from the pressure on her brain, and her skull was cracked behind her left ear. She had a black eye. Whenever she tried to walk, her left knee gave way (three weeks after her accident, an MRI showed a severe left knee injury, with torn ligaments in the knee).
Venturini couldn’t fly, so that meant driving cross-country, following a route below 6,000 feet of elevation because of the skull fracture. When she was released from the hospital, she still had a lot of pain, vertigo and dizziness. Toyota executives arranged to have Venturini and Egert, an engineer for Toyota Racing Development, return home in one of the corporate motor coaches. They provided the driver and told him to “take care of everything” on the 3.5-day journey.
“It was such a blessing for my husband and me,” Venturini said. “It allowed my husband to watch over me … because there were still scary moments.”
Once they arrived home, Venturini was adamant about stopping her medications as quickly as possible.
I knew there was a big problem when the nurse said, ‘She’s bleeding from her ears.’
“I didn’t want them in my system because I am so driven by my nutrition and my training that I wanted my body to heal as much as possible and as quickly as possible on its own,” she said. “I think it was the Fourth of July when I stopped all my meds.”
Venturini’s first public speaking engagement after the accident came earlier this month at a Stella & Dot national conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Venturini, a stylist for the online jewelry and fashion accessory boutique, admitted that she was nervous because she had experienced some short-term memory loss. She spoke to the 200 women from her heart, without notes, and she came through without a stumble.
On Friday, she will face her stiffest test yet at Bristol, where she returns to her pit road reporting duties for the NASCAR Xfinity race. Nothing can emulate the horrific noise and the bright lights she’ll endure. Heisel will remain close, watching for any sign of trouble.
“I have some concern that her vertigo may be worse as a result of trying to watch cars come through the corners,” Heisel said. “I have told her to try and not follow one car all the way through.
“The noise and the lights certainly are a complicating factor that we have discussed. The noise factor is something that we have to be cognizant of because of the residual effects of the concussion. Her first race back is a little bit of an aggressive deal.”
Venturini returns to the broadcast booth for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race on Saturday, and she will share play-by-play duties with Rice and Mark Garrow. Heisel won’t be by her side, but he’ll be in the pits and can be reached quickly.
“You can be a victim or a victor,” Venturini said. “I don’t see myself as a victim. I was always a positive person and a grateful person, but I feel God is using my platform for me to continue to tell my story. I feel like I’m here to make a difference.
“I told my dad if it wasn’t my day on June 23, I don’t think you’re going to be getting rid of me anytime soon.”
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990 and 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.