A year ago, the doctors at Stony Brook University Medical Center told Rich Wilson’s parents that there was a good chance he was going to die. Getting back behind the wheel of a race car at the time was the furthest thing from his or anybody else’s mind.
Wilson fell asleep in what was described as an “awkward” position. The blood flow to his extremities was cut off, which caused compartment syndrome to set in. He did not die, but the doctors were forced to take his left leg just above the knee.
“I’m not a man that usually cries, but when I heard that I was definitely getting an amputation I cried for a good ten minutes or so,” Wilson told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “The first thing I said was, ‘That’s a hard pill to swallow.’ After I got over the initial emotions I was already trying to think about how I was going to complete the normal tasks in my life with just one leg.”
One of those “normal tasks” that he asked about was if he’d be able to get back behind the wheel of his No. 12 Charger car at Long Island’s Riverhead Raceway where Wilson lives about a half hour from in Southampton. He was told that the chance did exist, but he would have to use hand controls.
On May 2, Wilson, known as “Rockin’ Rich” to those at the track, returned to Riverhead with a trailer, an orange race car, and his “Dirty Socks Racing” team. The car was similar to every other race car there. Your normal pedal setup was there with a clutch, brake and accelerator. The steering wheel just a wheel. No hand controls were anywhere to be found. But Wilson climbed aboard and raced that Saturday night, along with twelve other drivers in that division, except he did it with one less leg than the rest.
“I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do what I had to do,” he said. “After the practices I felt comfortable enough to run. I felt calmer than ever behind the wheel. It was pure relief.”
Wilson has a prosthetic leg that attaches in the knee area. In the race car he said that he just had to build a platform on the clutch pedal to keep his prosthesis from slipping off. He used his right foot to control the throttle and brake pedals.
Using his right foot to control those pedals was definitely an adjustment, but the learning curve wasn’t as steep as the one he’s fighting as he tries to walk with a prosthetic leg. Wilson still hasn’t mastered walking just yet, but there’s a reason behind that.
“To tell you the truth, my first thought was getting back in the car,” he said. “That was the whole point, for me. Walking was almost secondary. I just tried to strengthen the muscles as much as I could so I could get back out there as fast as I could.”
His goal was to finish all 20 laps of his first race with his car in one piece. It was a bit rough along the way, as a race at the 1/4-mile bullring of Riverhead always is, but he accomplished that goal. Wilson finished tenth with a clutch that started to slip halfway through the race.
“On the green-white-checkered I didn’t have enough bite so I had to let some cars by,” he said. “But my main goal was to finish the race in one piece and feel comfortable in the car again. And I did that. We accomplished what we set out to do.”
But the best part of Wilson’s day wasn’t meeting his goal. It might not even have been getting back in the car. It was how everyone reacted when they saw Wilson pull into the pit area with his trailer in tow.
“Everybody gave me such a warm welcome, and I’m so grateful for that,” said Wilson. “It was just amazing. It seemed like I exceeded everybody’s expectations, which felt phenomenal.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Northeast Editor -Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Mike Jaworecki