Wayne Helliwell, Jr. sat at a table with car owner Bruce Bernhardt Friday night and didn’t know if he’d be racing Saturday at White Mountain Motorsports Park. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to race; he just didn’t know if he’d feel well enough to complete 150 laps in the New Hampshire Governor’s Cup.
Helliwell has been battling multiple sclerosis since 2002. Over the last two years, the symptoms have become more troubling at times and impacted his racing career. Instead of competing in long-distance races of 150 laps or more, Helliwell and Bernhardt have been electing to compete in shorter races of 100 laps or less.
With Saturday night's race consisting of 150 laps around the high-banked, quarter-mile oval, he didn't know if he'd be up for it. But when a song from the 1980s came on the radio Friday night while the two friends were sitting around a table, they considered it a sign to load up the trailer and head to North Woodstock, New Hampshire Saturday morning.
That decision ultimately paid off as Helliwell was able to charge from his 14th-place starting position to the lead, and more importantly finish all 150 laps, on the way to his second career New Hampshire Governor’s Cup victory.
“It was excellent. It felt really, really good,” Helliwell said. “It’s been a long battle and it seems to have gotten worse over the last two years. It’s kind of a day-to-day thing. I never really know what to expect and each day is a new day. Towards the end of last week there we were feeling a lot better and we got both cars ready, the Super Late (Model) and Late Model and had them sitting there. Friday night we were sitting at the table talking about working on the cars and next thing you know we had one loaded, and we were going to make the decision Saturday morning whether or not we were going to go. We made the decision to go, and I’m glad we did.”
After pulling into Victory Lane with the checkered flag hanging from his orange No. 27 Late Model, Helliwell admitted that the win didn’t come without a fight. On this night, the fight wasn’t with a fellow competitor; it was once again a fight against the symptoms of multiple sclerosis that have held him back at times.
“It was about midway, about lap 90 or something, we were under a yellow and I could feel that uneasy feeling,” Helliwell explained. “I just put my visor down. Bruce and the guys pitched in and got me one of those cool boxes for the helmet, which has seemed to make a big difference. I was able to just relax in the car and everything came around and just pushed through it at that time. We went back green and everything was good, right back to normal. If the race was even longer I think we would’ve been perfectly fine.”
Helliwell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, but it wasn’t until after his Oxford 250 victory in 2016 that his symptoms began to worsen.
“Going back to the [Oxford] 250 weekend, I had a good friend of mine Jason up from Texas to help out. He was a long-time crew member. We did our practice deal on Saturday, and Saturday night we figured we’d hang out and watch some racing. We had to get up out of the stands and I said that it was time to go because I didn’t feel good. Even that Saturday night I didn’t feel good. Sunday, we had a good draw and I think we picked up the win in the heat. I laid down in the trailer and just tried to relax as much as I could. It’s very uneasy. It’s hard to explain. It is a struggle but like I said earlier, I don’t want to give this up. It’s something that’s in my blood. I grew up at the race track, and we’ll see what happens from here on out.”
At one point during the weeks following the biggest victory of his career, Helliwell found himself stuck in a dark bedroom. He couldn’t even watch television as he awaited word from doctors about the next step.
While appearing on Speed51’s The Morning Bullring on Monday, Helliwell described his symptoms and what his fight has been like.
“There’s varying types. My current issues are: I have a slight loss of vision in my left eye, and the heat and the stress are triggers which give you almost a vertigo or spinning feeling,” he began. “So, if I get overheated, jumping in and out of the car making adjustments on a hot day, wearing that snowsuit, sitting in an oven, it kind of rears its ugly head. It’s just a tough deal.
“Just like anything, I’m not ready to give it up. I think we still have a lot left in us. Between the doctors and everything, we’ve been working hand in hand. They seem to be making things better and as long as I stick to a strict diet and take care of myself, I think we can do this.”
When Helliwell says “we,” he’s not referring to himself. He’s referring to a strong supporting cast that includes his family, sponsors and crew, most notably the crew chief and car owner that has been by his side throughout the process, Bruce Bernhardt.
“I put it back on Bruce. He’s that driving force,” Helliwell began. “He’s right there always with whatever I need. It’s never we have to do this; it’s if we want to do it or if you’re able to do it. He puts that money out there. He never complains. We go and buy three sets of tires at a race and I don’t feel good and we have to bail, you don’t find those kind of guys.
“It’s amazing. That faith that he has, we both have that same drive,” he continued. “To be sick sitting at the garage and talking about ordering a new trailer, ordering parts and talking about building a new car. We built a new Super Late Model and I was sick during that whole time. None of the sponsors ever even hesitated. They re-upped and did their normal deals. You don’t find that nowadays. It’s just the loyalty that we have with a group that we’ve had together for I think 10 or 11 years now. I can’t think them enough for what they do. They never look down or talk bad if we get to the track and have to leave early because I don’t feel well. It’s a great group of guys and we’ve all become really, really close friends.”
After notching a 150-lap victory Saturday night, Helliwell and his team will now prepare for this coming weekend’s Midsummer 250. If the driver is feeling well, the team will once again make the trip north to White Mountain Motorsports Park to chase a $10,000 check.
“We’re just going to treat it like we normally would,” Helliwell explained. “We’re going to get the car prepared, we’ll get everything ready, we’ll get all loaded up and as long as I feel good Saturday morning we’ll make the trip. We’ll just take it step by step.”
If Helliwell is feeling well and the right song plays on the radio, he’ll be a contender to once again visit Victory Lane on Saturday night. The only problem is: nobody knows what song to listen for.
“I don’t remember what the song was, but I’m glad we listened to it.”
-Story by: Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com