On his own terms
Davey Hamilton nearly lost his feet after a horrific crash in 2001. Now, he's back and ready for his Indy 500 return.
By BRANT JAMES
Published May 26, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS - Davey Hamilton was in pain but conscious. He was aware his injuries were serious. A neck brace prevented him from turning his head to better hear the conversation between a paramedic and a dispatcher as he lay on a stretcher in Texas Motor Speedway's infield care center.
"There appears to be a double amputee coming on Life Flight."
"My first thought was, 'Man, somebody really got hurt,' " Hamilton recalled. "And then I thought about it. They were working on me pretty hard, and I asked a nurse I had next to me if they were talking about me, and she just basically said, "Yeah.' "
Nearly six years later, after almost two dozen surgeries to save his feet, three months immobile, five months unable to stand, a year using a wheelchair and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation, the 44-year-old will take a green flag for the first time in Sunday's 91st Indianapolis 500. He has just 30-degree range of motion in his right ankle. His left ankle is fused. His feet have a dozen pins in them. He had to return a six-figure disability payout to be reinsured. Then there was the laborious task of being recertified to race Indy cars.
It will be worth it, he said.
"There wasn't a time I didn't get in that car that I wasn't a little bit nervous or anxious," said Hamilton, who will start 20th. "But when you stick it in gear, it all went away. I hope when I pull it off the grid and let that clutch out, it's all business."
Hamilton was one of the Indy Racing League's best drivers on the morning of June 9, 2001, a series runnerup in 1997 and 1998. But 73 laps into the Casino Magic 500, Jeret Schroeder's engine failed, sending oil onto the track. Hamilton's car hit the oil, spun airborne, then hit the catch fence nose-first, exposing his feet to the steel cable "cheese grater," as Hamilton refers to it. His left ankle joint vaporized. Bones from his right foot were gone.
TMS president Eddie Gossage, a close friend, received a phone call from the track physician as he stared at the accident scene. He was dumbstruck.
"He said it looked like they may have to take the feet, and he wanted to know what we should do," Gossage recalled. "That's not a question a track promoter gets."
The Hamilton family and his doctor decided to try to save his feet and race career, one he had sought since his father attempted to qualify for the 1981 Indy 500. The recovery was arduous. Hamilton's latissimus muscles were partially removed to help reconstruct his feet. At one point he had to lay virtually motionless in his hospital bed for three months, a maddening situation for one whose life was all about speed.
"Just the small details of life, I couldn't do anything," he said.
Tony Stewart, the 1997 IRL champion, strode into his hospital room and was taken aback by the amount of equipment engulfing his friend.
"When he came into the room, he was like, 'What are you doing here?' (I said, ) 'What do you think I'm doing here? Nothing,' " Hamilton said. " 'Oh, man,' was his reaction. ... If you would have told me before the accident I would have been in the hospital that long laying around, I would have told you there was no way I could do it. But you just have to. Tony did make it easier on me, because as soon as he left, two hours later his mom showed up with a PlayStation and a TV and all kinds of stuff."
Hamilton admits there will be apprehension when he enters Turn 1. He has seen replays of his accident as many times as he needs. His lucid recollection of the entire incident (he was conscious until he was sedated when it was determined he had no internal injuries) eliminates fear of the unknown.
And oddly comforting, in a recovery he admits has been more mental than physical, is knowing the accident was not his fault.
"You can't prevent an engine from blowing. You can't prevent oil from getting on a guy's tires," he said. No one made a mistake and slid over. I didn't turn in. That helps a lot, too, knowing I was just a passenger. If I would have made some huge mistake on my own, it would have been very difficult to live with."
Although Hamilton has a one-race deal with Vision Racing, owned by league CEO Tony George, he has said this isn't likely to be "the last time you see me in an Indy Car." Minutes after hearing that Hamilton expressed a desire to race again at Texas, Gossage called his sales department to find him a sponsor.
Leaving Indianapolis and Texas on his own terms is an important part of bringing the story to a close for Hamilton. He has heard the questions about his judgment. He worries more about hurting the family and friends who supported him the past six years than his body again. But he has to do this, he said.
"I know there is a risk, and any time you put on a fire suit or a helmet, there is risk involved. I accept that," he said. "I don't want to go through it all again, but I think the odds are in my favor, hopefully to cross the start/finish line on Sunday and evaluate what I want to do with the rest of my life."