One year later, Eric McClure still hurts. His hands, his wrists, his feet -- all are aching reminders of that day at the track when his life changed.
Seven months clear last December, McClure rode a roller coaster at an amusement park without a second thought. The next morning, he woke up light-headed, vomiting and on the phone immediately with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty as he reeled from concussive symptoms.
Even now, with the calendar rolling back into May, there's lingering pain that brings both remembrance and perspective.
"All the scary, scary stuff is better," McClure said last weekend at Richmond International Raceway, motioning to his head and abdomen, "but I wake up every day with a reminder that I hit the wall very hard. It's still to the point where it's like, 'When do I have the surgery on the feet? When do I do this?' That affects what I do at home, how much I can run around with the kids, everything."
On May 5 of last year, McClure was involved in one of the most frightening wrecks of the season in the final laps of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, leaving him with serious injuries that placed his career at a crossroads. On Saturday, he'll return to competition at the 2.66-mile track for the first time since his life-altering accident.
"It's hard to believe it's been a year. There's so many reminders of it," he said. "Every week, when you're waiting to qualify or going out to the race, there's somebody who wants to stop and say 'hey, we're glad you came through that OK' and somebody's always talking about it. That's nice that they care, but it makes it seem like it was more recent than it was. But as far as how we approach things, it seems like a million years ago in that capacity as far as the race cars go.
"It's a lot different now. Things have changed. I'm sure when we first pull in, we'll have the memories of everything that happened, but once we get on track, it'll become just another race."
Thankfully, McClure says, the memories of the crash itself are murky. He remembers his brakes failing before impact, being airlifted from the track and fearing that he'd fall from the helicopter, and his aversion to getting an IV.
His strongest memories, however, were reserved for the reaction from his family -- his wife, Miranda, and his four daughters, now ranging in age from 6 to 1 1/2 -- in the aftermath. It hits even closer to home now -- the McClures are expecting their fifth daughter in mid-August.
"I can take it, I'm a big boy, but to see what Miranda and the girls went through, I can't forget the way they looked," McClure said. "There was a private moment when it was just my wife and I ? that was the biggest single thing that happened. That was the first moment that she hadn't had to hold it all together. I don't think I could ever do it justice, but it was something I will never forget to feel how much love she had for me."
McClure's No. 14 Chevrolet was lined up 20th out of 26 lead-lap cars on the first attempt at a green-white-checker overtime finish as the late-afternoon shadows got longer at Talladega. He quickly gained four spots, but the tense restart went haywire as the field reached full speed on the backstretch.
The jumble at the front of the pack had a trickle-down effect. Caught in the middle was McClure's car, brushed by one car from the right side and collected by another on the left, angling it toward the inside retaining wall.
McClure remembers pressing his brake pedal and nothing happening. As a result, his car scrubbed off very little speed, making it appear in TV replays that his car had sped up before hitting the SAFER barrier nearly head-on. His last memory was the heart-sinking feeling as he braced for impact.
TriStar team owner Mark Smith watched from a big screen behind one of the pit boxes as the car skidded to a stop, his driver not moving.
"You always wait for the window net to drop down, your guy to jump out, get in the ambulance and they drive off," Smith said. "The feeling you go through watching and waiting, then the jaws of life come out."
McClure was cut from the car during the red flag and airlifted to University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center. He remembers, by his count, nine doctors from a trauma team shouting orders over him as he was transported from the helicopter. Once he was transferred to a room that night, he eventually saw his first fuzzy replay of the accident as he checked for an Atlanta Braves score on a small TV. Remarkably, he was released from the hospital just two days later, feeling fortunate to be alert and awake after a concussion and internal bruising.
"When I got to the hospital, I walked in the door and said, 'Wow, he looks really good,' " Smith said. "Honestly, he was sitting up, we talked and I just thought well he's just going to get up and drive home tonight. I'm sure with the adrenaline and everything that's going on at the time, I just thought he was bruised up. Had no idea the extent of the injuries."
As he recuperated, Maryleigh McClure, then 3, checked on her father with a stethoscope. A year later, the McClures' children opt against watching the races, knowing that an element of danger is inherent in the sport.
What McClure also knows is that safety advances by NASCAR and tracks likely saved his life. It's part of why he's been outspoken in showing his appreciation, doing his best to track down and locate every nurse and medical staffer who assisted him in the harrowing hours after the crash.
"That's the overwhelming, overriding feeling is if NASCAR hadn't done what they'd done over the last few years, I wouldn't be here," he said. "I'm glad. Every day."
On May 11, McClure stepped lightly into the Darlington Raceway media center to meet the press and sort through the events of the past six days. He didn't have a clear timetable for his return to racing, but his determination was unwavering. All that was left was medical clearance after a hard road of recovery.
"There was some concern through the recovery process that I wasn't healing as fast as I needed to with my head," McClure said. "I was concerned they would tell me I couldn't come back. For me personally, I wanted to come back and do it and I wanted to show -- we'd been battling so many things before the accident -- I wanted to say I can do this. That was a big deal."
An even bigger deal for McClure was the outpouring of support from the NASCAR community. Fellow drivers who he hadn't crossed paths with were now reaching out to him and offering thoughts, prayers and assistance.
"I'd get a tweet or an email, something on Facebook or people want to shake your hand, I mean, that's really cool," McClure said. "I've been around a long time and I enjoy it, and I feel like we've made our place in the sport and we belong here, but to have people grab you and just say, 'hey man, we prayed for you. We're just so glad to see you back,' that just means the world to us."
His first race back was a pedestrian 21st-place effort at the 4.048-mile Road America circuit, followed two weeks later by an 18th-place at Daytona in his first restrictor-plate race since the accident. As the summer rolled on and he took the first steps toward resuming his driving career, McClure began to wonder about his future in NASCAR, even consulting Smith about a different role with the team.
"About August, there was a lot of soul-searching and I was done," McClure said. "I didn't want to do it any more. I saw how it affected my kids, saw how it affected my wife, and I thought, 'I'm 33 and is it worth it any more?' I'm not going to be a full-time Cup driver and I love what I'm doing here, but there comes a time when you have to prioritize. ?
"And then September, Kentucky weekend, I remember I'd been racing and doing OK, we would have one good race and one bad race. But I woke up, and I felt good. I felt normal. It was the first time since the accident that I felt like everything was normal with my head and everything, and then all of a sudden my performance picked up for the last six races of the year. I had fun again, and it changed everything."
Back to Talladega
Instead of anxiety, there's reason for optimism in McClure's camp for his return to Talladega. His drive through the last-lap melee in the season-opener at Daytona resulted in his best career finish of eighth place, a double shot of milestones by posting his first-ever top-10 effort in his 200th Nationwide start.
That convincing run, plus the equalizing nature of restrictor-plate racing, is what McClure will focus on this weekend, even though spending time and turning laps at the monstrous Alabama track will likely trigger his memory.
"I'm not going to tell you it's not going to be a big deal and I don't want to dramatize it, but I'm not going to tell you it won't cross my mind," McClure said. "In this business, like anybody else that's had accidents before, you can't let it bother you or you don't need to be out there. I think at Daytona we were able to prove that when it's time to race, we race and I don't see where next week will be any different."
The pre-race rituals will be the same for McClure ahead of Saturday's Aaron's 312 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), but he'll buckle in as a changed man. The crash may have exacted a physical toll on the 34-year-old driver, but it's also given him newfound perspective for what matters most, especially as his family prepares to grow again this summer.
"Like anybody that goes through something like this whether it's at the race track or at their house, you hug the kids a little extra tighter," he said. "Whatever they want to do, it becomes now instead of 'OK, I've got to have this conference call,' then maybe it can wait. Maybe I need to make sure to take care of what I need to take care of first. ?
"I am a better person because of what happened. I could talk for two hours about how this has really impacted our lives, but it's way too much drama unless people have gone through something traumatic. It was huge for our family. It just uprooted everything we were used to. It made us think about career steps, family steps, what we need to focus on.
"When people go through things, it affects them differently and not everyone can relate to that situation, but for me, it's just still surreal."
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