By Matt Crossman
Brian Vickers broke into NASCAR's top series 10 years ago this month. He was well on his way to winning the championship in the Busch Series, as it was then called, when he became a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series, too.
I shadowed him the weekend of his second race in the big leagues. A few days before the race, I peeked into his car. Someone on his team had made a hand-drawn map of Atlanta Motor Speedway and taped it to the steering wheel. "Directions for BV," it said. "Turn left," the anonymous cartographer wrote, and that person helpfully added arrows at turns 1, 2, 3 and 4. It was meant to be a joke, of course, showing the rookie how to get from here to there.
I thought of that map today when I read that Vickers will miss the rest of the season with a recurrence of blood clots, which also sidelined him in 2010. If someone had drawn a map of the path Vickers would take from 2003 until now, he never would have followed it.
After winning the Busch Series title in the final race of 2003, Vickers struggled to fulfill the high expectations placed on him in the Sprint Cup Series. Off the track, he endured tragedy. Ricky Hendrick, one of his best friends, died in a plane crash in 2004. In 2010, Vickers missed 25 races after being diagnosed with blood clots and having heart surgery. He lost his job at the Sprint Cup level at the end of the 2011 season when Red Bull Racing closed.
He bounced around after that, cobbling together rides when he could get them. When he won the race at New Hampshire this July, it was one of the great moments in recent NASCAR history. That win led to Vickers getting a full-time job with Michael Waltrip Racing for next year. He called it "one of the special events of my life."
His Twitter bio reads simply, "Never Give Up," and that win seemed like proof he never will. He sees the return of the blood clots as one more thing to overcome. The blood-thinning medication Vickers must take means he won't be able to drive for the rest of the season, but he says he expects to race full time in 2014, for the first time since 2011.
Usually when a driver is labeled "different," as Vickers sometimes is, it's because he's an outsider in an insular sport. Vickers manages to be an outsider and an insider at the same time. He grew up in the sport, as his dad owned a company that supplied parts to teams. He got rides to school from two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte and counted among his close friends the late Adam Petty (grandson of The King, Richard Petty) and Ricky Hendrick (son of Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports.)
But Vickers was not your typical racing kid. He was the valedictorian of his high school class. He loves to read and discuss topics of the day -- his favorite book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and his favorite magazine is The Economist. He travels far more extensively than most drivers. He saw the chance to visit far away places as the bright side of not being able to race when blood clots first sidelined him. At a postseason banquet a few years ago he told reporters he hoped to learn a language in the offseason to make his trips more interesting. He owns the company that handles his media and marketing. It's called Scio Verum, which means, "to know truth."
Vickers was involved in the controversy in September at Richmond in which he and Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer were accused of manipulating the outcome of the race to benefit MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. Vickers wrote an impassioned defense of what he had done and sent it to USA Today. To his credit, he wrote it and sent it himself, without first wetting his finger and sticking it in the air. No other driver would have would've done any of that.
NASCAR fans want their drivers to be outlaws and sponsors want them to be model citizens. Vickers strives to be both. One day he could be getting his hair done before a race, as he did when Garnier Fructis was his sponsor. The next, he could be flying high above Charlotte's Lake Norman in a kite tube, a cross between a kite and an innertube, and every bit as dangerous as it sounds. That used to a favorite hobby of Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears... until Vickers crashed so hard into the water that Johnson and Mears thought he was dead.
One final Vickers anecdote: Several years ago, I spent a race at Michigan following the NASCAR inspectors who investigate crashes. The inspectors watched the race on a TV in a NASCAR trailer in the infield. Vickers' car slid out of control, and he careened helplessly toward water buckets that lined the entrance to pit road. "Don't hit," one of the inspectors said to the TV. "Don't hit."
So far in his young life, it seems like he always does.
But he always returns to race again.
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