Originally created 03/01/01

Career ending injuries destroy dreams

CHARLOTTE - Don Williams never had his face on the cover of Time or People magazine, 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 still 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.

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 if 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 were merely crippled by head injuries, but the pain of their situations has never 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 different independent contractors every Sunday.

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 that 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."

Drivers now make the kind of money that requires financial planners. The new generation of daredevils are building portfolios that will assure their wealth will be left to their loved ones, even if they spend their final years on life support.

"If something were to happen to me and I couldn't support my wife and my children, I wouldn't know what to do," said driver Andy Houston. "I pray to God it never happens.

"What we've learned is, we can't live for the moment. When the day comes I don't, or can't, drive any more, I want to know everything will be all right."

Allison's injuries, coupled with some bad business decisions, left him on the brink of bankruptcy. He had to sell two airplanes and his collection of antique cars to pay medical bills.

He lost his race team when a sponsor failed to fulfill its promises. Two years ago, he lost his home in Hueytown, Ala., and was forced to live with his mother.

"The modern drivers at the top professional level have thought about their health and their welfare - and the welfare of their wives and children," Allison said. "The drivers who started out early on, insurance was a luxury. It was something that was poorly understood and poorly used. Everybody thought getting hurt was something that would never happen to them. And nobody had insurance for rehab.

"We always thought the last wreck we had would be the last wreck we'd ever have."

Allison now works as a spokesman for the State of Alabama and serves as a consultant to a couple of race teams. Financially, he's back on his feet, although he still has days when he can't remember any of his 84 career victories.

"It's always going to be an emotional tragedy," he said.

And it doesn't matter if your name is Allison, Earnhardt, Williams, Alexander, Baldwin or Lindley.


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