Vickers back with healthier outlook

FORT WORTH, Texas — The question people were asking Brian Vickers was, "Will you be able to race again?"

The question Vickers was asking himself was, "Do I want to race again?"

That might seem like a silly question, Vickers said this week, for a then-26-year-old who began racing karts at age 8 and missed his high school prom to compete at one of NASCAR's most distinctive tracks — Bristol Motor Speedway — in the Busch Grand National Series, and placed 14th.

"But when you've gone through all that," Vickers said, "you start looking at your life from a different perspective."

"All that" started in May when Vickers was sightseeing around Washington, D.C., with a friend and the chest pains hit again.

He'd been feeling a tingling sensation for a couple of weeks. He'd been losing feeling in his left hand. He'd had trouble breathing to the point that his 60- to 70-mile bike rides had to be cut short at 15 miles because he was panting too hard to continue.

"Being young and healthy and stubborn — stubborn being probably the most prominent of the three — and a race car driver, you just think these things will go away," Vickers said. "Or you don't want to go to the hospital, for one reason or another.

"A lot of times deep down, and we don't want to admit it, we're afraid we're going to be told we can't race."

But Vickers could no longer ignore the warning signs his body was sending him. He told his friend to take him to an emergency room. They couldn't catch a cab and had to walk to a hospital.

"They thought I had pneumonia and gave me antibiotics," he recalled. It wasn't pneumonia.

Doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs and legs. Another clot later was found in a finger on his left hand. He was diagnosed with a rare blood-clot disorder called May-Thurner syndrome. He had a hole in his heart, too, between his right and left atria.

He began taking blood thinners, a stent was placed in a vein in his left leg, and surgery repaired the hole in his heart.

Eleven races into 2010, his season was done. Was his career?

"At first my focus was on living," he said. "And then it immediately turned to racing, and how do I get back in the race car? We worked through, 'OK, here's the steps. Here's what we're going to do, you're good to go back in the race car.'

"But then I had to stop and think, 'Do I want to go back in the race car?'"

He always had been a racer. For six months, though, he struggled with whether he wanted to remain one.

His perspective on life had changed.

"I truly feel that I walked away a better person, so I'm thankful for the experience," he said. "I know that sounds weird, but I am."

The procedures and the medication worked. Doctors cleared him to return to racing. The final step, after much thought, was Vickers clearing himself to drive again.

His first time back behind the wheel came in January in a test session at Walt Disney World Speedway. It had been eight months since his last lap, and he didn't want to bring the car off the track.

"I just wanted to keep going," he said. "They were like, 'Well, you're going to be out of fuel soon.'"

He was back.

Vickers comes into Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500 with two top-10s in his last four races. Through six events this season, he's 25th in the points race.

"At first, I thought that I wanted to go back because I hadn't won a championship," he said.

But after "all that," he realized that his return is about more than winning.

He simply loves racing."If I never win a championship, I'll still be happy that I came back," he said, then paused and smiled to set up his next sentence.

"If I do win a championship, I'll be even happier."

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