May 24 began as a typical day for Jeremy Pate.
A 20-year veteran driver of Five Flags Speedway, the 39-year-old Pate woke up that morning and arrived downtown at the Port of Pensacola to help unload ships for his family’s business, Pate Stevedore Co., Inc.
But while conducting tasks he had expertly done since his teenage years, Pate slipped and had a freak accident.
“It was bad,” Pate harrowingly recalls.
The near-death experience almost cost him his “gear-shifting arm,” as Pate put it. Two tourniquets were quickly cinched to Pate’s limb as he was rushed to the hospital.
Three surgeons, more than 200 stitches and six hours later, Pate’s arm had been miraculously saved.
“It looked like a spaghetti arm,” Pate said.
For the last three months, his arm has been mobilized by finger casts to prevent his hand from curling up and another crossbow-type contraption on the back of his arm that requires rubber bands to assist with straightening.
Pate knows how lucky he is — the recovery process will, undoubtedly, take years — and the close call has him counting his lucky stars.
“The world works in mysterious ways,” Pate said. “I’m not saying it was a blessing that I have an arm that’s half-dead, but it has focused me on the things I need to be focused on.
“I promise you, I spent all my 30s in the shop trying to achieve my life’s goals. I almost didn’t see them through. You never know what tomorrow brings. This has changed my outlook on a lotta things.”
Amazingly enough, one of those things Pate continues to pursue is a possible Allen Turner Hyundai Pro Late Model track championship at Five Flags Speedway.
Shockingly, the horrific injury hasn’t slowed down Pate’s short-track career, as he has the Bobby Reuse No. 89 PLM tied for second in the season points standings with Junior Niedecken.
Pate, fresh off sixth- and fifth-place finishes during the June 24 twin 50s, trails series leader Bret Holmes by 53 points heading into Friday’s third round of 50-lap doubleheader features at the famed half-mile asphalt oval.
Joining the PLMs on Friday will be the Faith Chapel Super Stocks (30 laps), The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen (30) and the Butler U-Pull-It Bombers (25).
The gates open at 4 p.m. and admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6-11; and free for kids 5 and under.
“Racing is the only thing I can do right now,” said Pate, who owns a handful of Super Late Model wins at Pensacola and sat on the pole at the 2002 Snowball Derby. “I can’t work. I can’t play golf, catch a ball, swim or ski — there’s nothing I can do. But I can race. It’s freakish-looking and a crazy setup, but my only limitation is shifting from second to third gear.”
The million-dollar question: How do you drive, shift and steer with just one arm?
It’s an arduous process that requires Pate to utilize his knee to stabilize the steering wheel, and left elbow and left hand to shift gears.
With crew chief Josh Hamner overseeing the designs, the Reuse Racing Team has made the No. 89 handicap-accessible by attaching a piece of metal on the left side of the steering wheel that creates a “pocket” for Pate to make shifting possible.
Pate braces his elbow in that makeshift pocket, lays his left arm across the diameter of the steering wheel and reaches over with his left hand to shift gears.
“I can only go from third (gear) to fourth (gear) once I get going,” Pate explained. “I take off in second gear on pit road. Once I get rolling I use my left knee to hold the wheel while I shift to third. It’s pretty amazing if you step back and look at it.
“But, believe it or not, that racecar is the only thing calming and peaceful to me. To still be able to do what I love and be competitive is important to me.”
Pate allows, though, that the modifications are nowhere near complete. Restarts are a nightmare and immediately put him at a disadvantage when trying to catch the leaders.
But, he, Hamner and the Reuses are constantly testing, and the group believes they’ve hit on some things that could translate over to a podium finish, if not a win.
“One of the reasons the season has been so successful is we’ve got a good car, and there’s a great group around me,” Pate said. “I feel bad because of the accident, but now we all understand my limitations, and we can all be better for it.
“I’ve been a fourth- or fifth-place car. But we’re making changes to try and leapfrog the No. 2 (Holmes) and maybe put a little pressure on the No. 2. If we can get on the front side of him, you never know what that leads to.”
Just hearing Pate talk race strategy is not just refreshing, but simply mind-boggling. After all, this is a man who has only 1 to 2 percent use of his right hand.
Last week, Pate had worked up the strength to hold a cup of water. However, once the scar tissue built up around his wrist that suddenly became a problem.
His mother has pleaded with him to quit. The sport is a part of Pate now, though, and he’s afraid of what stopping might do to his fragile spirit.
“It’s what I do. I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “Just like with Bryan Clauson and other racers dying, folks ask, ‘Why do it?’ Because we’re racers; simple as that. Real racers go about their life’s work, and the whole time they’re thinking about racing.”
-By Chuck Corder/Five Flags Speedway
-Photo Credit: Five Flags Speedway