CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion, was involved in a multi-car accident last weekend at Kansas Speedway in which he suffered a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra. Almirola held a press conference today at Charlotte Motor Speedway to update his progress. Regan Smith will fill-in for Almirola this weekend.
ARIC ALMIROLA – No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion
“I’m glad to be here, too. I wish I was sitting here in a driver’s uniform, but I’m not. First and foremost, I want to thank God. I didn’t’ think I was lucky. I was pretty upset in the moment and then after meeting with doctors in Kansas and Charlotte I realized how fortunate I was. I want to thank the Good Lord for looking out for me.
“Thank all of the docs and all of the staff at Kansas University Hospital. They treated me really well and did the best they could with the circumstances we had. The NASCAR medical staff and everybody that got to me at the race car. Thank you for taking care of me and getting me out of the race car, and taking all the proper precautions to get me out safely and make sure that I didn’t have any other injury to my spine.
“To my team, and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports and all the guys on my 43 team and everybody that works at the shop, thank you so much for your support. I really appreciate it.
“All of our sponsors – Smithfield Food, U.S. Air Force, Fresh from Florida, STP and Ford Motor Company, thank you so much for the support over the last five years. I think all the people and employees from each of those individual companies have reached out and its amazed me, so the support that I’ve gotten from our team and from our sponsors has been really uplifting.
“To all of my fellow competitors that reached out, I’m taking an IOU on all of the plane rides that everybody offered from Kansas back to Charlotte, and we’ll bank on those here coming up soon. I think I’ve got a prescription to go to the beach, so we’ll turn in those.
“To all of the fans that have reached out, either to the race team or to our fan page and that have written notes, thank you so much for your support. It really does mean a lot and it’s uplifting when you’re sitting on the couch to sit and read through some of that stuff, so thank you.
“And to my family, especially Janice. Thank you. Janice, my wife, has had to be supermom for this last week and supernurse and dealing with all of the things that come along with breaking your back. I would have never known that it would have been this complicated. If I did, I wouldn’t have broke my back (laughter). I can’t even being to tell you the complications that stem from this, but my wife and my family have been amazing through it and we’ll just continue to get through it.”
CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH THE ACCIDENT AND WHAT TRANSPIRED? “I watched the replay and if you put it on full speed, I was just shy of two seconds behind the accident, so in race car driver terms that is a long way. I should have missed the wreck, but I committed to turn one. When I got there the cars that I was racing around went to the bottom, so I committed to the very outside lane and simultaneously when I committed to the outside lane I saw the accident up ahead and they came across the race track very abruptly and went into the outside catchfence. I immediately knew that they were in my line of path, so my car was loose into the corner all night anyway, but I was entering the corner, I saw the wreck – was very aware the wreck was there – and I got on the brakes and turned the steering wheel to the left and my car got loose, and the next thing I knew I was on oil or water or something because my car wouldn’t slow down, it wouldn’t steer. I felt like from that point my car was on railroad tracks and I was just headed straight for the wreck. There was nothing I could do. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I feel like I’ve always been able to miss wrecks, especially from that far back. Yeah, I watched the replay and I feel like an idiot even being involved in the wreck, but there was honestly nothing I could do. My car was on ice and when you watch the replay it looks like I’m going way too fast and I am because my car wouldn’t slow down. I had no grip and I assumed that when Danica’s car blasted the outside wall that it must have knocked the radiator and oil and stuff got in the outside groove and it ran down the race track and I was in it, so that’s how I ended up in the wreck. I knew it was coming. I saw it. I braced for the wreck and immediately when I hit Joey’s car I felt pain in my back. It felt like somebody stuck a knife in my back and then I realized that my car was airborne because I could see the asphalt and when it came back down it felt like somebody took that knife and just twisted it up in my back. I don’t know. I’ve met with NASCAR and obviously I’ve met with a lot of doctors and I don’t know what exactly caused the fracture in my back. I don’t know if it was the frontal impact or the vertical. Both were big impacts, but nonetheless, I was in the wreck and I broke my back. I am really thankful looking back on it and watching the replay, I’m very, very thankful that A, that’s the only thing that happened in that wreck is that I got a broken back. I think if Joey’s car would have been three feet more down the race track and I would have hit him in the door number, that would have been very violent and I think Joey would have been seriously injured. And obviously seeing Danica’s car on fire. If I would have got into the back of her and run into her fuel cell or something like that, it could have been a lot worse than it was. For all relative circumstances, I guess things worked out the best they could.”
DO YOU HAVE A TIMETABLE FOR YOUR RETURN? “I’ve worked with my doctors down in Charlotte and obviously Dr. Bill Heisel here. We’re working on it, but everybody is telling me that with this type of fracture it’s 8-12 weeks, so I’m not happy about that, but Dr. Cork in Charlotte advised me that this is nothing to mess around with, definitely need to make sure that this is properly healed before I get back in a race car. Getting back in a race car two weeks too soon is just gonna add two more starts to my start column and the stat book, but if I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you’re talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down, so I’m not gonna risk that. I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I’d like to dance with my daughter one day at her wedding, so I’m not gonna risk it. Whenever the doctors clear me, I’ll be ready to get back in a race car.”
DID THE SPRINGS COME OUT OF YOUR CAR, SO THERE WAS NOTHING TO BREAK YOUR FALL. IS THAT ACCURATE? “I think so. The springs didn’t actually fall out of the car, like disappear, but I think they came out of the spring buckets. The springs are actually tethered in, but when the car came back to the garage area the springs were not upright in the spring buckets, so I’m not 100 percent sure. NASCAR has reviewed the video – the R&D Center has – and there’s nothing showing the springs are physically out of the car upon impact with Joey’s car, but when the car came back down it violently hit on the left side frame rail and the left side jack post and the R&D Center shows that as well, so I think that violent drop from six, seven feet in the air, coming down and hitting the left side jack post and the left side frame rail put all of that energy right up to my back. I can tell you that at Martinsville when we run really low frame heights and really low air-pressure, when they drop the jack on the left side it’s violent on a pit stop, so I’m fairly confident that dropping a car from six feet into the air down onto the left side jack post is a very big hit.”
BRIAN MOFFITT, CEO, Richard Petty Motorsports
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF COMING UP WITH REGAN SMITH FOR THIS WEEKEND AND DO YOU THINK HE WILL CONTINUE PAST THIS WEEK? “We’re still working through that. We’re working with our partners. The process was we wanted to make sure that Aric was OK when this happened. Our worries were for him and what the future was gonna be and Janice and the kids. We were mainly concerned about Aric when it happened. We have a protocol that we go by and having Aric and Janice and all of our thoughts and prayers were first and foremost. The process that we had was when we got back to North Carolina the King and Drew and Aric and I sat down and came up with a list of people after we knew what the diagnosis was and we’re still working through that with our partners. As soon as we know for the future we’ll be letting you guys know that, but right now we’re thrilled that Regan’s going to be in the car for this weekend.”
ARIC ALMIROLA CONTINUED
DID YOU EVER THINK ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENING AND HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH IT, AND CAN YOU TALK ABOUT GETTING EXTRICATED FROM THE CAR? “No, you don’t think about it in the moment. You don’t ever think about it when you’re in the race car, but as a race car driver you know the risks that are involved. I’m not naïve. I’ve seen people get killed in race cars. I’ve seen people break their backs in race cars. I’ve seen people break their legs in race cars, so you know that, you take that danger and compartmentalize it somewhere in the very, very far back of your brain and you recognize the risk, but the enjoyment of driving a race car and the adrenaline rush and all that has always outweighed the risk for me. It’s what I love to do from the time I was eight years old and I drove a go-kart. The very first go-kart I ever raced I hit a hay bale at 40 miles an hour in a go-kart and slammed a wooden wall and it hurt. I cried and my grandfather asked me if I wanted to load the go-kart up and go home and I said, ‘No.’ And we stayed and raced the feature that night, so from the time I was eight years old I’ve known that you can get hurt and that it’s dangerous, but I love to race and I love to drive a race car. That’s always trumped the fact that there’s risk involved. And then as far as the extrication process, I thought that they did a great job. Obviously, they were very cautious and very careful. My dad is a firefighter, so I’ve always grown up with somewhat that kind of mentality. I know just from being around my dad and understanding that he is a firefighter, I know that the spine is nothing to mess around with. So if you have neck pain in an accident or back pain, it’s extremely important to make sure that you keep the spine stable. I knew right away that I had a severe amount of back pain, like an unbelievable amount. I’ll touch on the fact that I’ve gotten a lot of questions about everybody thought I was okay because I instantly dropped the window net. Well, I saw that Danica was on fire and when I got in the accident I got this intense burning sensation in my back coupled with pain, so I thought I was on fire. I was panicking a little bit trying to get my window net down and get my steering wheel off to get out of the car. I got my window net down just based on pure adrenaline. I got my steering wheel off and when I went to throw my steering wheel up on the dash and I extended my hands out in front of me that pain intensified even more and I knew I had a problem. It kind of took my breath away and I kind of looked around while I caught my breath and realized that I wasn’t on fire, so I just sat there and waited because I knew I had a lot of back pain and I needed to get help getting out of the race car. And then as they got there and I explained what my conditions were and where the pain was coming from, they went through all of their proper protocol to get me out of the car safely without moving my spine and stabilizing my spine.”
THAT 8-12 WEEKS MEANS YOU WON’T MAKE THE PLAYOFFS. IS THAT THE WAY YOU VIEW IT AND DOES THAT TAKE ANY OF THE INCENTIVE TO TRY TO RUSH BACK? “No, not really. I think the incentive to make sure that I can run around in my front yard with my kids is enough for me to not rush back. I’m gonna listen to the doctors. I’m young. I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me. I’ve got a four year old and a three year old at home. I’m not gonna do anything stupid to rush myself back in a race car and risk not being able to feel anything from my belly button down for the rest of my life. That’s most important to me. Being out 8-12 weeks and not having a chance at the Playoffs, obviously that stinks, especially coming off Talladega. When we left Talladega we were only one point out of being in the Playoffs, so I hate it for our race team, for all the guys at Richard Petty Motorsports that work so hard, especially over this off-season – a lot of the change and things we went through to get back on track and perform at a higher level again, and to have this happen and sort of derail all of the momentum and progress that we had made is tough. It’s tough to swallow for sure, but it’s fate or whatever and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t go back. I can’t change it, so we’ll have to figure it out and move forward and I’m not gonna rush to get back in the car just because Playoffs are on the line or anything like that. I’m gonna make sure I’m properly healed before I get back in the race car.”
FROM A SAFETY STANDPOINT DOES THIS GIVE YOU A CHANCE TO SPEAK OUT AND BECOME MORE OF AN ADVOCATE FOR WHAT CAN HAPPEN GOING FORWARD AS FAR AS SAFETY IS CONCERNED? “Sure, and I’ve already had some of those discussions with NASCAR and the folks at the R&D Center, so I think that process has already started. I think from just being out of the car you have a chance to look at things in a different light, so I think that’s one thing and then obviously being able to have that first-hand feedback. We go every year in February to Daytona and we sit through the NASCAR safety meetings and I’ll be the first to tell you that we take all of the proper safety precautions very seriously at Richard Petty Motorsports. All of our seats and seat belts and everything inside the driver compartment is by their recommendation, so I want to put that out there first. But, I’ll follow that with I sit in that meeting and you kind of just, ‘Alright, come on. We heard the same thing last year. Let’s go.’ But I can tell you that it is very serious and I think me and Dale Jr. and others that have been in serious accidents can learn from the fact that we have those meetings and they’re for a reason and they’re there for our benefit. Those people aren’t wasting hot air up there, so it’s important to listen to them and we make sure that we do everything we possibly can to make our race cars safe, and I think NASCAR has done an amazing job at making our race cars tremendously safer over the years. I think if you look at the impact, and I’ve reviewed some of the data with NASCAR, if you look at the impact and you look at the g-load that I went through during that wreck, I’m pretty lucky to just have a compression fracture to my T5 vertebra. So I think everything that NASCAR is doing and will continue to do to make the cars safer is really great.”
BRIAN MOFFITT CONTINUED
DOES IT MAKE IT EASIER KNOWING REGAN HAS BEEN IN THIS POSITION BEFORE? “Absolutely. We were looking at a Cup driver for this situation and Regan stepped in and we feel like he’s gonna bring the car home safe and consistency is what we were looking for and he has that type of record. He has that type of record. He drives a lot like Aric and that’s what helped us come to this conclusion.”
ARIC ALMIROLA CONTINUED
CAN YOU COMPARE YOUR PAIN LEVEL TODAY TO SATURDAY WHEN IT HAPPENED? WILL YOU BE IN A BACK BRACE AT SOME POINT? “I’ll let Heisel talk about the brace, but from everything I’ve been told there’s really no necessity for a brace because of where the fracture is at. It’s supported by the ribcage and the sternum and the vertebras above and below, so I have not been fitted for a brace or anything like that. I don’t think there’s gonna be a reason for that. As far as the pain, it’s pretty bad. Immediately, on a scale of 1 to 10 if 10 was excruciating it was a 9.5. It slowly got better and then for whatever reason the last couple days it’s creeped back up. I’ve been trying to get off the pain meds so I could sit up here and talk to you and not look drunk, so I’ve not taken any pain meds in the last 48 hours. I’ve been trying to get off of those and as I do that the pain does intensify. For me, I think the most challenging part is never getting comfort or relief. I’ve broken other bones and I broke my leg in several places in my tibia and fibula. I’ve broken my shoulder blade. I’ve broken a lot of things and as long as you immobilize it and you can sit on the couch and raise it up it doesn’t really hurt until you get off the couch and all the blood rushes to it and it throbs. But with this it’s constant pain all the time and the only thing that gets relief is constant change, so if I sit for too long, I’ve got to stand up. When I stand up it feels better because it elongates the spine. If I stand for too long, it starts to hurt and then I’ve got to sit down. I’m constantly changing position and nothing alleviates the pain, and then sleeping has been really challenging because laying on my back and putting pressure on my spine and my back hurts. Rolling over onto my side hurts – either side it hurts. Rolling over in the bed, I have to roll over like a mummy. I can’t really separate my shoulders and my hips because if you think about it, you see people before they start to work out in the gym. They put their elbows out and twist from their hips and they twist their shoulders and it pops their back or loosens their back up. Well, with a broken back I can tell you that separating the axis of my shoulders and my hips is really painful, so rolling over in the bed or getting up and just get out of a chair to walk away, everything is a very deliberate movement to try and avoid that sharp pain, but the dull ache is constantly there.”
WILLIAM HEISEL PA-C, Director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports
HOW DOES ARIC’S INJURY COMPARE TO DENNY HAMLIN’S AND WHAT TONY STEWART HAD LAST YEAR, AND HOW WILL HIS HEALING PROGRESSION GO TO HELP? “This fracture is at a higher level than the injuries that Denny sustained or that Tony sustained. This fracture though has outstanding healing potential. Because of the location it’s a very stable fracture from the standpoint that the ligaments that connect the bones are all intact and they’re all doing well based on the imaging studies that we’ve obtained so far, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. The bone is, for lack of a better term, crunched and it’s something that first and foremost we’ve got to get some of the edema or some of the blood out of the bone and that is something that is a time phenomenon as much as anything. And then we have a lot of work to do from a physical therapy standpoint. That days that Aric is not available to move around because of the pain and because of the guarding are days that he’s not using those muscles fully and we’re going to have to rehabilitate those. So there’s definitively some physical therapy to come. We want to deal with the acute pain phase first and foremost. Aric alluded to the brace and this is a fracture that we don’t need a brace in this case because his rib cage effectively works as a brace. The term that we use is the rib cage works effectively as an external fixation device because it connects to the spine and connects to the sternum, so the location of it as well also facilitates the healing close to the heart and close to the lungs.”
ARIC ALMIROLA CONTINUED
“I’m not doing any physical therapy just yet, I can tell you that right now. It hurts. I’ve already asked for a prescription to go to the beach.”
HEISEL INTERJECTS. “We’ve got that covered.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE HIGH OF WINNING AT TALLADEGA AND BEING IN VICTORY LANE WITH YOUR KIDS TO BEING HURT THE NEXT WEEK? “That’s tough and that’s our sport at its finest. The emotional rollercoaster that you go through as a NASCAR race car driver is unlike anything else. I think in every other professional sport every weekend you either win or you lose, but in NASCAR you have to identify what success is. It’s not always by winning or losing because there are so many more losers than winners, so throughout the year I feel like this year has been a better year for us. We’ve seen progress. We’ve seen momentum and everything was looking so good and everybody at the team is happy, the moral in the shop is good, everybody just keeps digging harder and working harder because when you see those results it just drives more ambition, so to go through Talladega and have such a great weekend there – to win on Saturday and have Janice and the kids in victory lane with me, and then to have a great run on Sunday – and then literally seven days later to be on a helicopter heading for the hospital, there’s nothing that describes it better other than that’s our sport. One day you’re a hero, one day you’re a zero, although I don’t classify myself as a zero just because I broke my back, but I think it does, it messes with your emotions and that’s where I’m fortunate that I have faith that keeps me level.”
THERE WAS A LOT OF DEBATE ON SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT THE IMAGE TAKEN OF YOU GETTING OUT OF THE CAR. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THAT? “I’m pretty pissed off about it, to be honest with you. I’m glad you asked. I wasn’t gonna talk about it unless somebody asked, but I think that is extremely unprofessional of them. They have no medical expertise whatsoever. They had no idea what was wrong with me. They didn’t know if I was bleeding to death. They didn’t know if I was paralyzed. They didn’t know anything, but they used it as an opportunity to go snap some pictures of me. They were literally three feet away from the accident, hanging through the catchfence with their shutters running wide-open the entire time. I’m pretty upset about that. I feel like it’s wrong. I’ve got a wife and two kids that are sitting at home that have no real idea what’s going on. They’re trying to get in communication with the staff at the race track and our team, so they’re finding out more through looking at images online or during the race broadcast than our PR department or people at the race track getting back to them, and I just think that’s wrong. I was obviously in a very vulnerable situation and I’m disappointed to say the least. I think whatever. If they got $500 for selling it for USA Today I hope they enjoy that $500 because they had no idea when I got pulled out of the race car if they were gonna see a pool of blood all over my uniform, they didn’t know if my legs were going to be attached, they didn’t know any of that and they were just sitting there with their shutters flying wide-open. So I just think it’s extremely unprofessional.”