There was nothing particularly unusual Thursday as Aric Almirola packed up to leave his North Carolina home and travel halfway across the country for the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
At least, nothing was different until he told his 5-year-old son, Alex, where he was going for Sunday’s race.
“No, dad, you can’t go to Kansas,” a concerned Alex blurted. “You broke your back there.”
Almirola, 33, left the spring race at Kansas via life-flight helicopter after suffering a compression fracture of the T5 vertebra in the middle of his back from a vicious three-car crash.
He’s a veteran of more than 400 NASCAR races in the Monster Energy Cup Series, Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series, including 16 previous races at Kansas.
“Alex was upset and worried for me, but I drive a race car,” said Almirola, who missed seven races before returning July 16 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “It’s a risky job. I know that, and I assume that risk. Quite frankly, I don’t care. I love to race and have a passion for going fast.”
Almirola’s wife, Janice, “seemed fine” as her husband left for Kansas. She was more nervous last week when he headed to Talladega Superspeedway, a track notorious for high speeds and massive (sometimes fatal) collisions.
Still, during practice Friday at Kansas — the first time he’d returned to the site of “the most violent crash … and certainly the hardest hit” of his racing career — it was hard not to think about that night.
“The first lap of practice, going down the front straightaway at 210 mph when you turn off into turn one, that thought kind of crosses your mind,” Almirola said. “I was like, ‘Hey, the last time I went through this corner, I ended up leaving in a helicopter.’ That definitely crosses your mind. But once you go through there that first time, you kind of get your mind back on driving the race car and making it go faster.”
Almirola, who said he never considered retiring — “Hell, no, if anything, it lit my fire even more” — after the wreck, may be nonchalant about the accident, but it remains a starkly vivid memory.
“I remember everything about it,” Almirola said. “There’s not one detail about anything about that night that I don’t remember.”
The carnage started when Joey Logano’s steering let loose and he slid sideways with his back end against the wall.
Running in the high groove, Danica Patrick, who also was collected in the wreck, had nowhere to go.
Almirola tried to dive inside, but he hit fluid on the track and hydroplaned into Logano at race speed, lifting the back end of his car several feet off the ground before it slammed back down to the asphalt.
“Immediately, when I hit Joey’s car in the wreck and the car went airborne, I knew that I had something major wrong with my back,” Almirola said. “Then, when the car came back down and landed, that feeling of a knife in my back intensified even more.”
The pain and burning sensation was so intense, Almirola actually thought he was on fire.
“It was a really vivid burning sensation in my back,” Almirola said.
He had seen Patrick’s car erupt into flames during the crash.
“So, I assumed that my car was on fire, too,” Almirola said. “That’s why I dropped the window net immediately. I was in a hurry to get out of the car and just running on adrenaline. The pain kind of went away, because I was a little bit panicked trying to get out of the car.”
Moments later, it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to exit the No. 43 Smithfield Ford.
“When I took my steering wheel off and threw it up on the dash, just putting my arms out in front of me, the pain was incredible,” Almirola said. “It took my breath away.”
Fortunately, that’s also when he realized his car wasn’t on fire, but now the waiting game started until help could arrive.
It would be 20 minutes before a Kansas Speedway safety crew could cut through the roof and roll cage, extract Almirola from the car, and immobilize him on a backboard.
“It felt like forever,” he said. “When you’re in a lot of pain like that, seconds feel like minutes and minutes feel like hours.”
Almirola was taken by ambulance — an adventure in and of itself — to the infield care center before being taken by helicopter to the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Of course, Almirola’s not complaining, because the care and diligence of the safety crew allowed him to continue his racing career.
“The injury that I had, it’s actually really important for them to stabilize my spine in getting me out of the car,” Almirola said.
In fact, he even has a sense of humor now about the ambulance getting lost on Kansas Speedway’s infield.
“We had a little miscue there and the guys were yelling at each other,” Almirola said.
Safety crews pre-run routes through the infield to the care center during race week, but the crew got lost trying to duplicate that route under the lights for a night race and with the infield filled with people, cars, and RVs.
“We probably should have stopped at one of the campsites and I should have gotten a beer to help with the pain a little,” Almirola joked.
The injury was no laughing matter, but Almirola is no stranger to the risks.
He suffered the occasional broken shoulder or arm as a young driver, running on dirt or tiny tracks in his native Florida.
When Almirola, who is from Tampa, was 13 he was even taken by helicopter to the hospital after wrecking a dirt bike in the middle of nowhere, splitting his lower leg open with a spiral fracture.
“Having to sit on the couch and watch for eight weeks, I was miserable,” said Almirola, who has driven for Richard Petty Motorsports during all six Cup seasons but is considered a favorite to replace Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing next season. “I’m a racer. I’m a competitive person, and I wanted to be in the race car. Having to sit out was painful — more painful that my hurt back.”