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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Carelli Returns to Glory After Near-Fatal Crash

September 15, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Forgive Rick Carelli if that big ol' smile continues to crease his face for a good long while.

The 45-year-old driver from Arvada, Colo., long known as racing's "High Plains Drifter," won the Kroger 200 last week at Richmond, Va., punctuating a remarkable 16-month comeback from a near-fatal crash in which he suffered a fractured skull, among other injuries.

"It sort of put an exclamation point on everything that I've been through," Carelli said this week of his fourth NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory and first since his truck collided with a wall at Memphis, Tenn., on May 8, 1999, after a front tire blew.

Carelli, a former Winston West and Southwest Tour champion and a familiar figure at Southern California short tracks for many years, held off challenges from the powerhouse Roush Racing tandem of Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch over the final 20 laps in front of 40,000 at Richmond International Raceway.

Afterward, Carelli damaged his truck so badly during an exuberant, tire-smoking victory lap that his Ford had to be pushed home while he walked to victory lane.

He might well have floated.

"When I crossed the finish line, I had so much emotion," he told reporters. "I can't explain it. There was elation and a lot of tears."

Back home with his wife, Cathy, and their three children--two sons and a daughter--Carelli was more composed but still a little stunned.

"I was looking at the trophy," he said, "and I realized what we went through, Cathy and myself, to get to this point and to be competitive enough to win. It just shows that when you don't give up and believe in yourself and everything you do, nothing's impossible.

"It put a big ol' smile on my face, I'll tell you that much."

Sixteen months earlier, at Memphis Motorsports Park, Carelli's face was gripped with fear as he saw the wall rapidly approaching.

It had been less than a month since he'd won a race at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, and he was sixth in the points standings as he competed in the Memphis 200.

But here came that wall.

"I remember saying, 'Oh [bleep], this is going to hurt,' " Carelli later told the Denver Post.

Moments earlier, the left front of Carelli's truck had collided with the back end of Lance Norrick's truck, the metal from the damage scraping Carelli's left front tire as he continued to circle the track, smoke billowing from the tire.

A spotter told Carelli over the radio that he needed to pit, but Carelli wanted to ride out one more lap.

Before he could, the tire blew and his truck headed into the wall.

After the collision, Carelli remembers, he tried to jerk his helmet off because he felt "claustrophobic." He knew something was wrong. Once he got his helmet off, he grabbed his face and saw the blood. He was bleeding, heavily, from his ears.

"There was so much adrenalin rolling in me," he told the Denver Post. "I said, 'Whatever it was going to be, I'm not going to leave this world.' "

Cathy, who attended every race and managed his team, climbed into the ambulance beside him.

"I put us in a pickle now, hon," Carelli told his wife.

He had suffered a concussion, a cracked skull, nerve damage, blood clots and considerable bleeding internally and through his ears. The skull fracture caused major vision problems and left him with no depth perception.

Taken to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center, Carelli saw two of everything. He had double vision. He would remain hospitalized for 14 days, eight in intensive care.

Over the next three weeks, he would lose about 25 pounds.

Slowly and patiently, however, he would fully recover.

Despite his numerous injuries, the rehabilitation process consisted largely of letting his head heal. There were no complications from a stretched carotid artery, which could have led to a stroke.

Ear surgery was needed to restore his equilibrium and allow him to fly, but no other surgery was required. Tests showed the bleeding in his ears was from a ruptured blood vessel in his sinus cavity.

Told that his double vision would last for about a year, Carelli said he was seeing as well as ever after only four months.

Still, the accident so spooked his team owner, Marshall Chesrown, that Chesrown, as much a friend as an employer, folded the team.

"In Marshall's defense, a couple of days into the hospital stay he turned to me and said, 'I don't ever want to see him in a race car again,' " Cathy Carelli told the Chicago Tribune. "It was a personal decision."

But it was a decision that left Carelli without a ride.

Last September, he signed on to manage teams on the Winston West Series and Featherlite Southwest Tour, but what he really wanted was to race.

In November, he got behind the wheel again, testing for team owner Dale Phelon in Phoenix.

In February, he was a winner again on the Featherlite Southwest Tour, leading wire to wire in the Copper World Classic at Phoenix.

Racing for Phelon Motorsports of Aiken, S.C., Carelli was back on the track for the truck season opener at Daytona Beach, Fla., where he finished seventh.

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