Career-ending injuries destroy dreams, finances

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Don Williams never had his face on the cover of Time or People magazines, nor was he the subject of tearful tributes.

He hit the wall at the Daytona International Speedway with violent consequences on the same week that Dale Earnhardt made his debut at Daytona.

Rescue workers found Williams' limp body sitting behind the steering wheel, just like they found Earnhardt two weeks ago.

The moment was hectic; each passing second seemed to take Williams closer to death, just like Earnhardt.

But unlike Earnhardt, Williams didn't die at impact. His injuries, many feel, were much worse.

He remained in a coma for more than 10 years before finally, and mercifully, becoming a hardly remembered footnote in the sport's proud, but tragic, history.

"Getting back to work is the best thing we could do.

It's the best way we know how to deal with it."

Driver Jimmy Spencer, on dealing with Dale Earnhardt's death

Charlie Daniels once wrote: ''If you break your neck in some damn-fool wreck, they'll forget about you soon.'' How prophetic. Each race seems to take us further from the memory of those who've died in a race car. And for those who are merely maimed, the memory fades even quicker.

The brutality of the sport spreads beyond a hospital bed.

It destroys dreams, empties bank accounts, challenges the emotions of immediate family and changes the way a man makes his living, if he's able to at all.

For all practical purposes, Williams' life ended on Feb. 17, 1979, while preparing for the Daytona 500 the same race that launched Earnhardt's rookie-of-the-year campaign.

Williams was taken home to Madison, Fla., to lie in a vegetative state for more than 10 years. On a good day, he stared blankly at the ceiling and squeezed a rubber ball. His family faithfully watched, always wondering to the very end whether he ever understood what was happening beyond his cloud of darkness.

Such vigils are not new to racing. Neither is the destruction it creates. Rick Baldwin and Butch Lindley both were in comas for years before finally giving up their fights.

Some have survived the carnage created by man's high-speed toys gone awry. Bobby Allison and Mike Alexander suffered head injuries, and the pain of their situations never has gone away. Neither can drive a race car the only way either had ever known to make a living.

''I'm still doing rehab 13 years later,'' Allison said.

Allison was nearly killed at the Pocono International Raceway in 1988 when his car blew a tire, turned sideways in the second turn and was struck in the driver's door by a car driven by Jocko Maggiacomo.

Allison was in a coma for nearly two weeks. He awakened, but only barely. He still has memory lapses and trouble talking all ghostly remnants of brain damage.

''When I got hurt, things were quite a bit different,'' Allison said. ''My wreck took my nest egg. It took my cushion. It wiped it out.

''When I got hurt, NASCAR's insurance was inadequate. I had to pay for a lot of it, not just the hospital bills, but the rehab that came after it. I think my injuries helped NASCAR get better insurance.''

NASCAR's complicated structure makes it difficult for the sanctioning body to provide for its people after they've been thrown from the fast lane. There is no retirement plan and no disability insurance because NASCAR is made up of 43 independent contractors.

The sanctioning body, however, now provides some level of support. It makes $500,000 worth of medical insurance available to everyone in the garage area and kicks in when their personal insurance runs dry.

''What people have to remember is, we have the same plans for the future as people who don't drive race cars,'' said driver Jimmy Spencer. ''You have to have a plan for the day you get out of this race car. You want to make sure your family and your children are taken care of if something happens. That's no different if you drive a race car or work in an office. The last thing you want is to be hurt so bad that you don't know what's going on around you and all it does is drain every dime you've made.''

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