A dozen years ago, Tony Stewart was battling for his first NASCAR championship. Jimmie Johnson was battling for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win. And Jack Roush nearly died.
The Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, site of Sunday's Aaron's 499, one of two annual stops for the circuit at the series' largest track.
Stewart will be there. Johnson will be there. And fortunately, Roush will be there, too.
"Whenever I go to Alabama for the Talladega race, it comes to mind that I had a close encounter of the worst kind down there," the 72-year-old car owner said recently. "But it's not on my mind daily."
These days, Roush has other things to occupy his mind and his time. He's co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that fields Cup teams for three drivers: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Roush Fenway also fields a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series entries for drivers Trevor Bayne and Ryan Reed.
Outside of the track, Roush oversees Roush Industries, Inc., an engineering management company that employs more than 1,800 people and provides support and services for a number of other industries unrelated to racing.
But it's Talladega week, and for Roush, thoughts of a plane crash that nearly claimed his life 12 years ago no doubt come drifting back to the surface.
A birthday celebration gone awry left Roush unconscious and submerged in eight feet of water on that Friday, as the plane he was flying struck a power line in Troy, Ala., and crashed into a small lake.
As terrible as the incident was, Roush had two things in his favor: the plane landed in water, and a retired member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Larry Hicks, witnessed the crash.
Had the plane not plummeted into the lake, the impact with the ground likely would have killed Roush. Had Hicks not heard the crash, Roush likely would have drowned.
Hicks, who had underwater rescue training during his tenure with the Marines, rushed to the crash site where, after several attempts, he was able to remove Roush from the pilot's seat. Once on the surface, he administered CPR to Roush, who was unconscious and not breathing.
Emergency personnel soon arrived, and Roush, who suffered a broken leg, collapsed lung, broken ribs and a head injury, spent the next several months recovering from his injuries.
"I talk to Larry three to four times a year," Roush said. "He's a dear friend, based on what he did for me and the friendship we've had from that time.
"He was a game officer with the Alabama state agency there. He's retired from that. He taught college for a while and he's retired from that now.
"He's kicked back and enjoying life, using his bass boat for something other than hauling somebody that fell out of the sky in an airplane in his backyard."
The 2002 crash wasn't the only aircraft mishap for Roush. In 2010, he crash-landed in Oshkosh, Wisc., an incident that left him with a broken back and jaw and resulted in the loss of his left eye.
Today, Roush remains seemingly unfazed by the incidents, and he continues to fly his own planes -- which include two P-51 Mustangs -- at every opportunity.
"I enjoy telling people I don't fly any more," Roush said, grinning. "But I don't fly any less either.
"I'm closer to the end of my flying than I am the beginning. I still enjoy managing the airspace, managing the weather, managing the pilot's physiology and managing all the regulations that go with flying and trying to stay out of trouble."
He will continue to fly, he said, "as long as my vision holds and I'm physically able.
"I enjoy getting up in the morning, opening the hangar door and pushing my airplane outside, flying to where I need to go, parking it and going about my business."
He knows he has been very fortunate. Why is a question he said he still ponders.
"I looked at some of the things that happen to people that they don't deserve and I ask myself occasionally, 'Why me?' " Roush said. "Why did God decide that he would give me another look at things?
"It's either that He wants to punish me or I've got some work I've yet to accomplish; I'm not sure which. Sometimes, it feels like both are going on at the same time."
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