Writhing on the track surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am in more agony than any I’ve ever felt in my injury-laced life. My face is screaming with pain. It actually crosses my mind, “Why is this hurting so bad so soon? Shouldn’t it take some time before it hurts like this?” Little do I know that this is just the beginning of what the pain would eventually be. Finally, the safety crews and track ambulance arrive, and the medical staff begin checking me over.
They remove my helmet, careful not to disturb the burnt skin on my face. I recall being lifted onto a gurney and into an ambulance, but my mind blanks out on the memories of the next few minutes. The next thing I remember is lying on a bed in the track’s infield medical care center. Doctors and nurses are bustling all around me, and they’re cutting my driving suit off my body. A nurse is scissoring through the left sleeve of my fire-retardant, triple-layer suit and single-layer long underwear, while another snips away at my right glove. A doctor delicately pulls my balaclava away from my raw, bloody face, while a nurse lifts the bottom of it and pulls it over and off my head.
In my dazed, stressed mind, this all takes a long time—something like an hour or two—but I doubt that really any more than a few minutes have gone by. Lying on this bed in the infield medical center, I have only two thoughts: first, how painful it is. And second, how is Robin handling this? She was in pit lane sitting next to Dale Coyne, and she would have watched the whole thing. I know how scared and upset she’d be, seeing me on fire.
As the medical staff cuts my driver’s suit off my body, I hear her coming in. She’s in tears, of course. I hear her panicked voice talking with someone, and it gets louder as she nears. I need to say something to relieve her, so as she slips through the curtain surrounding my bed, I look at her and the closest I can get to a joke is, “Let’s not barbeque for dinner tonight.”
It isn’t much of a joke, but it’s all I can think of at the time. It helps, and she seems slightly relieved to hear me attempt a joke. Robin knows that if I’m making bad jokes, all is well and normal.
And then my memory goes blank again until a brief time when I’m once again in the back of an ambulance. I’m being transported to Methodist Hospital, about ten miles from the Speedway. Within the racing world, this hospital is famous, as more race drivers have been treated here than just about anywhere. Having grown up watching Indy on TV, I know the reports about driver injuries from Doctor Bock and the Methodist Hospital are part of what makes Indy what it is. Riding in the back of this ambulance, I realize that, in a strangely sick way, I am becoming part of Indy lore.
My next memory is of my lying in a bed somewhere in Methodist asking for more painkillers. I’m told that I’m in the intensive care unit and have already been given morphine. I tell them to do something to stop the searing pain. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?” I’m asked. “Eleven,” I croak. “Give me more painkillers.”
A vague image floats in front of me of someone wearing a face mask and a gown. They’re picking at and cleaning around my eyes, looking closely at my neck, and doing something with my hands. Then I drift off again. Every now and then I hear voices, but I really can’t make them out, nor do I know how long I’ve been there.
Then I wake up to find myself lying in bed in a very nice hotel room. The wall in front of me is solid walnut, with a large TV screen flush-mounted into it. I look past the expensive drapes toward the window and notice the clear blue sky. The bright sky makes me blink. Well, try to blink. It’s like my eyelids are gummed up, and they need to be lubricated. I half-blink a few more times and hear Robin’s voice. “How are you feeling?”
“Huh? Where are we?” I ask.
“What? Methodist Hotel?”
“No. The hospital. They moved you from Intensive Care this morning to this room.”
“This is a hospital room?”
“Yep. Pretty nice, isn’t it? I spent the night in the guest bed over there. Not many hospital rooms have that, do they? This is nicer than most hotels we stay in. How are you feeling?”
I’m groggy still, but it’s not lost on me that this is one nice hospital room! Then it hits me. “Stayed the night? What day is it? Is it Saturday? First day of qualifying?”
Robin knows what I’m thinking. “Yes, it’s Saturday. You’ll be okay.”
“But I need to be at the track. What are we doing here?!”
“The doctor will be in soon. A great guy. His name is Tom Southern, and he’s really nice.”
I’m struggling to think clearly, but the pain is at least at a level where I can think about something other than it. It’s only about a six now.
I need to pee, so Robin helps me out of bed. My hands are completely wrapped like a mummy’s. I feel gauze tight around my neck and face as well. After a few minutes to clear my head enough to get my balance, I stand up. Immediately the intense pain rushes back and I feel dizzy. It’s zoomed up to at least a nine now. Robin helps me to the bathroom in my hospital suite. She has to assist me, as I can’t use my hands.
Standing, I turn and look in the mirror. “Uuhh…” is all I can stammer out. Above the gauze around my neck, my face…well, the first thought that comes to mind is the Elephant Man. My face is blistered and bubbled, and my eyebrows and eyelids are completely gone. Wow, what am I going to look like for the rest of my life?
Back in bed, I feel the pain building like a toothache on steroids. I stubbornly think about how I’ve got to get back to the track. Then Dr. Southern comes in.
“You have second- and some third-degree burns on your hands, neck, and face,” he informs me. “When can I drive again?” is all that matters to me, so I ask. My misery doubles, maybe triples, when Southern matter-of-factly says, “A few weeks. At least three or four.”
The pain of those words stabs far worse than any physical pain from the burns. The thought of not going back to the track to qualify, not to drive the Indy 500 was more agony than anything, ever. That’s a pain that no medication can ever take away.
Indy. Drivers achieve their dreams there. Others have their dreams doused like water on a methanol fire.
Check back next week for Part 4 of this story.
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