“This Must Be My Lucky Day”
Flemington Fair Speedway - April 22, 1978
As provided to The Vault by Motorsports Photographer Jack Kromer
Saturday April 22 was like any normal Saturday for me. I couldn’t wait to get to Flemington to shoot a race. I was a photographer for Area Auto Racing News for three years and it was my second season shooting at Flemington with a press pass. It was a hard place to get a press pass, probably because of the wild racing action and flips. Everyone wanted to shoot there. Like most racing photographers, we did it for free, because we loved the sport. We wanted to be closer to the action too.
The race on April 22 was supposed to be just another fun night at the races, get the best pictures that I could and rush home to the darkroom to process them. I always heard that your worst day at a race is still better than your best day at work. Ninety-nine percent of the time that is true. Not this time. I never made it home that night.
A pit pass, just like any other night, but the faint blood stains on the fold and opposite ends still visible 35 years later never let the events of April 22nd, 1978 seem that long ago....
There are so many details of that night that are burned into my head, so crystal clear. Those will never go away. Other parts of that night are totally gone. I spent many nights lying awake in bed trying to remember any of the missing moments. I gave up on that after a few years--they’re gone.
I did dress differently that night. I usually wore some old racing t-shirt to the track and for some reason I decided to wear a nice shirt, a blue and white gauze shirt. You might not remember those from the 1970’s, but they looked like gauze. It was ironic that I was wearing a gauze shirt because it was soaked in blood before the night was over. So it was like wearing a big bandage. I ended up with a little racing superstition for a few years after that--never wear a nice shirt to the track.
Early on at the event, it seemed wherever I stood, a wild flip or crash occurred right in front of me and I got it on film. That was rare. Before those flips one car went through the boards in turn three in front of me and splattered the boards onto the infield. I thought nothing of it. Just thought, oh well, that was close.
...This would have been my last picture ever taken if I didn’t survive my Flemington accident.
After I filmed that second flip, a female photographer, I’m not sure who it was, walked up to me from the other turn. She walked up to me and I’ll never forget our conversation. She said “Wow, you got both those flips already.” I smiled and replied, “Yup. This must be my lucky day!” A few hours later, I was fighting for my life.
I never said that “lucky day” thing again. I won’t. Only if I’m telling the story of what happened that night, will I use it.
Photographer's Row in between turns 1 & 2 at Flemington Speedway on any Saturday Night....
A while later I walked down between turn one and two to shoot. Usually it was packed with photographers. That night it wasn’t. Some guys went to Reading for the USAC sprints. This was the weekend that all those USAC officials died in a plane crash while going home from their Reading and Trenton races. That night photographer Bob Snyder went to Dorney Park to shoot some pictures for their program. The Flemington photographers were very territorial. Most had their spots to stand in. I was new so I couldn’t stand in their spot. An unwritten rule, I guess. I thought well heck, Snyder is not here tonight, I’m going to stand in his spot because he gets a lot of great action shots there. So I did, but I wasn’t there long.
Karl Freyer crashed into the inside wall in between turn one and two after losing his steering and brakes and the boards flew into me as I ran, I’m told. Karl is a nice guy and I never blamed him for the accident. Ever. I wanted to be shooting from that spot. It was my choice. Warren Wetzel and Dale Snyder filmed the crash on 8mm movies. Later, we were let down when they got the film back and they both missed me in the crash. I was just off the screen out of the picture to the right. We wanted to see what happened. I guess it’s better that way. No nightmares. I haven’t had any. The Freyer crash is on Dale Snyder’s Flemington Uncut DVD, the one that includes 1978. I haven’t seen Warren’s version in 30 years. I was watching Dale’s Flemington DVD alone in the basement family room (no race fans in this house, but me) one night a year or so ago and I was surprised when that crash came on the TV. It took me back. Reran it several times, then I called my family down stairs. I showed my wife and kids the accident. There were several photographers in that area. I was told photographer Larry Riveland was standing near me. Nobody else got hit. Must have been my lucky day, right?
On the Ground
I have no memory of the accident. None. I tried for years after by rerunning it in my head trying to find the missing pieces of that night. The last thing I remember is that the cars were going by real slow, so maybe that was the parade lap of the heat or consi, not sure what event it was. I always thought it happened somewhere around 8:00pm. Recently I found the ER papers and that confirmed the time. According to the firemen, the boards flew, I turned to run and one hit me in the back and I did some airtime. I landed on the stone/dirt road a few feet back. I still have three racing stripe like scars on the right side of my face from when I landed in the stones.
I was unconscious. The first thing I remember was sensing people leaning over me, all around. I couldn’t see a thing-just dark and quiet. Then I heard a rescue worker’s voice that kept asking me if I hurt anywhere. “Do you have any pain, where does it hurt?” I tried to talk, but nothing was coming out. He asked again about the pain and I answered “ My back and my mouth.” That’s all I could get out. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t breathe and my back and mouth were just killing me. I’m not sure whether I was temporarily blinded from the head injury or what at that point, but I just couldn’t see. I remember hearing a lot that night, but have very few visual memories. I always wondered if your sense of hearing was just stronger than your sense of sight at that point with a head injury or because of the closed head injury it just temporarily knocked out my sight sense or the memory of it.
They said they were going to load me in the ambulance. I was real shy and quiet back then and I felt embarrassed that I was going on a stretcher and it’s weird how you think, but I remember when I was on the stretcher that I crossed my legs to show that nothing bad was going on here, just relaxing and to also send a message to the photographers there that this is no big deal, I’m okay. Warren or Dale mentioned in the hospital, a week later, that they saw me crossing my legs and thought I was okay. So I laughed and told him” Oh yeah, that’s why I did that. It worked.” I wasn’t okay though, just the opposite.
The First Ambulance Ride Of The Night
In the ambulance, on the way to Hunterdon Medical Center I remember finally seeing my first sight- a bright light! Years after the accident, I would kid my family that I thought I was heading toward the light, like when you die! Not the case. It was just the dome light in the ambulance!
The ambulance guy kept asking me who I was and where was I? He asked again- what is your name? I answered, “I don’t know.” Where are you? “I don’t know.” That really scared me. I never had that feeling of not knowing who I was, before. Then, he gave me a hint and asked if I was Jack. “Yes, yes” I replied. What’s your name, he asked? “Jack Kromer”. Where are you? “Flemington Speedway”, I answered. The ambulance attendant replied, “That’s right. Okay, very good, that’s better.” Man, that made me happy that I knew something, finally. Weeks later I prayed. “Please don’t let me ever wake up again and not know who I am or where I am.” That held up so far, except one time it almost didn’t.
On a side note-I was in a car crash in 1990 in a town where I knew no one. A guy ran a stop sign on a main road and I hit him in the intersection and totaled my car. I hit my head in the visor area of the inside roof, even with seat belts on. I was unconscious- again. I woke up and had that feeling. I knew that feeling- the one of not knowing anything, who I was and why was I there. I remember thinking ”Oh no, not again-noooo!” Then a woman rushed out of her apartment nearby and ran up to my car window and told me not to move. I was pretty much out of it, but still I recognized her from when I was subbing on a mail route in Nazareth. I said “Hey, you are Stacy and you live at…….” She laughed and asked how did I know that? I was so happy that I woke up from an accident and actually knew stuff! I kept saying, “ I know you, I know you.” She had worked on an ambulance crew before, so she knew the signs of a concussion and she understood why I was acting weird. Man, I can’t tell you what a relief that was to know someone after that second concussion. That prayer still held up.
Back to the Flemington ambulance trip, I have no memory of anything but that light and the guy asking me questions.
The First ER Of The Night-Hunterdon Medical Center
The next thing I remember is lying in the ER and a drunk guy was a little out of control in the gurney next to me and he fell out of it and hit my gurney. Oh man, did that hurt. I heard them getting a hold of that guy and getting him out of there. No sight memory again, only sounds. The staff apologized and told me he was gone. They said it was crazy in there that night- it was a full moon. I was shivering cold at that point and even in my condition, I tried to crack a joke, but no one laughed. I told them I was freezing and joked-“Man it’s cold in here, didn’t you pay your heating bill this month?” It’s weird how you can remember things, but it’s clear as day.
My big fear in the ER was with my teeth. I asked for a doctor and I kept asking about my teeth. They felt like Chiclet’s gum moving around in my mouth. A doctor I barely remember seeing, then stuck his hand in my mouth and tried to stick my teeth back in. Somehow I only lost one in the mess, but needed eight root canals on the other bent teeth. My nice straight teeth are still bent from that accident today. I hate it on one hand and on the other it reminds me of what I survived. I should have hit the track up for braces, but who wants them. Nobody wanted braces when I was a kid. That sure changed. My kids couldn’t wait to get braces. I guess they are cool now. Go figure! The doc only pushed my teeth in for a few seconds and then he said there were other bigger issues here and he disappeared. I always thought he pushed on my teeth, just to make me feel at ease and that it really did nothing to save them. I learned differently recently at my dentist, when I asked her about that. She said, “No, he was pushing them back into the sockets and that saved your teeth.” I never knew that.
The next memory is that I felt like I had to throw up. I started thinking that I can’t just throw up here; I need a bucket or something. All of a sudden I couldn’t hold it back and I just coughed and threw up. My first thought was something wasn’t right. Something was very different. Then I realized that it didn’t taste like any other time I vomited. I realized that taste was mostly blood. That got my attention. I knew I was in real trouble then.
Things got real busy in a hurry around me, like on any medical ER TV show. Sometime in the ER and I don’t know if it was before the blood cough/ vomit thing or after, but my dad showed up. I can still see him leaning over me. Weird, but I can’t remember seeing any medical workers or staff, except for maybe the doc that pushed my teeth back in- just my dad and one other person at Hunterdon. Dad looked so sad and he was shaking, trembling as he talked. That sight of him just won’t go away. He asked me how I’m doing and I told him-“Tell Ressler (my boss) that I won’t be in on Monday” and I asked, “ How’s my camera?” That’s all I could get out. Dad just turned his head to someone, like in disbelief and with a trembling voice, just said “He’s worried about his camera, HIS CAMERA!” and Dad disappeared. He knew this was real bad and here I was worried about my camera. My sisters came to the hospital with Dad. They didn’t tell them much. They told him to bring a pillow and he thought it was to make me comfortable for the ride home that night. I didn’t get home for another 25 or so days. Dad was blindsided by it all. He almost passed out in the waiting room and my sister Janet drove him home later. That was a rough weekend for the family. Mom needed surgery on Monday and now on that Saturday I had a 50/50 chance of living. They didn’t tell me that until way after the accident. Years later I told Dad several times that I really felt bad that he had to go through that. In his final days I remember telling him again. He said “Don’t worry about it; there was nothing you could do about it.” Dad knew how much I loved racing photography.
My sister Janet wanted to see me that night, but they wouldn’t let her back there, even though she was over 18. I was told later that I was a bloody mess and not in good condition and they didn’t want her to see me like that.
The OR - Hunterdon
The next memory I have was that I felt I was in a different room. It was in the Operating Room, I assume. I might have been unconscious now and then through that night, because a lot of time is missing. There were a lot of times when they would be questioning me, trying to keep me awake. I was told later that they don’t want you to fall asleep with head injuries because you could slip into a coma. There is so much time missing from then, I just don’t know. My only memory of the OR was hearing the nurse and the surgeon talking and the pain. The nurse seemed to be in charge of keeping me comfortable and I guess, watching my vital signs. She took my hand and then she told me that when it hurts, not if it hurts, I should squeeze her hand. She said to channel the pain by squeezing her hand. Focus on that. They told me that I had a local anesthesia for the surgery. I don’t believe it worked. I had a ton of internal bleeding and they didn’t know where it was coming from. I had no idea what was going happen next, but it was the worst moment ever in my life. They were going to cut me and put in a half-inch chest tube to drain the blood that was in my lung. He started cutting, pushing and cutting on my chest. I never felt pain like that-ever. I squeezed her hand and as cold as I was earlier, I was now really sweating. The nurse was wiping the sweat from my forehead and talking medical stuff with the doctor. The pain was so unreal during that surgery and I can tell you, when you feel pain like that you want to scream, but you can’t. You just can’t. It overtakes you. The doctor kept cutting and I squeezed the nurse’s hand so hard I thought I would break it. Suddenly, she said clear as day, “Doctor, he’s not going to take much more” and for a split second I’m thinking- yes, please listen to her, stop cutting now. On the other hand, I thought this might be it for me. This is where I’m going to die. The doctor kept cutting and I heard him say “ I’m almost there, almost done” and that was just enough to keep me hanging in there. Seconds later I could feel his knife basically hit air when he hit my collapsed lung and the painful pressure subsided after he cut through my chest muscle finally. His knife felt like you were sticking a knife through a tire as hard as you could and then you hit air inside the tire and the knife just flies in. That’s what I felt. I don’t know who that nurse was, but in the OR, I was alone with strangers and I felt like she was my only friend. Like she was on my side when she told the doctor to stop. She really got me through that moment. That surgery was the worst moment of my life. Period! I’ve had other bad moments- we all have, but that moment is still number one on my worst list. Either the local anesthesia didn’t work or the fact that he was pushing down on all my injuries while he was cutting made it so painful. It was like a full on frontal wide-awake stabbing. At a follow up doctor visit months later, I asked the doctor (he wasn’t there that night), why didn’t they knock me out for that first surgery? He said either because of my head injury- they didn’t want me knocked out or because of my broken neck. They usually tilt your head back for better breathing during anesthesia and they couldn’t do that. So, I had to be awake for everything.
I always wanted to thank that nurse. They were all trying to save me, but the doctor was putting a world of hurt on me, so he didn’t feel like a friend at the time. I’ll always wonder who she was. Nurses have to put up with so much. I don’t know how they do it. I visited the Hunterdon ER months later when I was going to Flemington Speedway. I told them who I was and when I got hurt. I told them I wanted to thank the staff that was on that night. They were busy this night and just said, “ Yeah, I don’t know who was on that night. We’re glad you are getting better.” Oh, well. I tried. I never went back, but I still drive by there and I always think back to that worst moment in my life.
After that surgery there was a long gap where I don’t remember any thing. All blank.
Next thing I remember is that they are wheeling me outside. The cold air hitting my face must have startled me. I looked over and I just caught a glimpse of racing movie film guy and good friend Dale Snyder’s face and he looked real sad. That was it- the only two people I remember seeing for sure that night were Dad and Dale. Dale later told me in the hospital that he just couldn’t believe how much blood there was all over me and around me, when he saw me getting wheeled by. He said it looked liked one of those Vietnam news clips that you saw on TV back in the 70’s, where the guys were just all shot up and bloody when they were loading them on the helicopters. Dale Snyder was nice enough to drive my car home that night. Bobby Snyder was nice enough to develop my film from that night and send my flip pictures from that race to Area Auto Racing News.
The 2nd Hospital Of The Night - Raritan Valley Hospital
I was being transferred to Raritan Valley Hospital now. Hunterdon either couldn’t fix me or their machine that they needed to find out where all my bleeding was coming from, was down that night. They sent my sister and Dad home then. He was in rough shape after seeing me and they told them that I might be going through tests all through the night anyway. They told them I was stable, but not out of the woods. They didn’t tell Dad that I had a 50/50 shot at living until days later and Dad didn’t tell me until way after that. They said they would call him if anything changed. I still didn’t know what my injuries were. I was in survival mode, I guess. I did very little talking that night. I was used up.
I was on my way to Raritan Valley and all I know was that it hurt like hell when the ambulance went around a turn or hit a bump. I asked the guy in the back to tell the ambulance driver to please go slow around the turns. I don’t think I spoke more than 30 words in the first 24 hours after the accident. I couldn’t. It hurt to talk and I found out why later.
Next thing I remember is waking up in the ER or OR at Raritan. I didn’t know where I was, but it was different. I sensed people surrounding me. I could hear them. One told me that I was bleeding inside too much and they were going to do second chest tube operation to drain the blood from my lung. One tube was not enough. I really got bummed then, knowing that I just went through hell earlier during that first tube operation. I heard a man’s voice behind me and he seemed to be in charge. He asked someone on my left “Where would you make the incision?” A guy on the left said something like- “Here, between this rib and that rib” and he was marking the area on me using his finger like a pen. The doctor behind me said, and I kid you not, words to the affect, “If you go in there you will hit the patients heart. You just lost your patient.” I’ve always laughed about this moment for years after, but at the time I just lost it, I was so pissed. You have to understand that I was so used up at that point. I was not in good shape, could hardly talk and I’m listening to all this talk and getting scared. I got an adrenalin rush or something. I yelled with all I had left in me-“ I want a real doctor, get me out of here.”
With that the doctor behind me said, “No, no you’re fine! I’m doctor so and so and I’m in charge here. These are medical students. This is a teaching hospital.” He asked, “Is it all right with you that these students are in here observing?” I chilled out and said, “It’s okay, fine.” They started working on me. I dreaded this next tube surgery, but for whatever reason, it was nothing near as bad as the first one. Maybe because they cut in through my side and the muscle there is softer, nothing like the thicker chest muscle in the front. Maybe the anesthesia really worked this time.
Next thing I remember after a long gap of missing time was that I was in another room and I was now seeing more or at least I was remembering what I was looking at. I had a ton of x-rays done. Later, they said they had to find out where I was bleeding and they were going to inject some radioactive dye in me and do a test. They said it was going to feel real hot. They did that and later came back and said it didn’t work and they have to do it again. I thought, damn they are going to kill me with all these x-rays and now two doses of this radioactive junk. They did the second test and it worked fine. Then they pushed me into a dimly lit room and the doctor said they thought that one of my ribs went into my aorta. There was that much bleeding inside me. I was shocked and scared that my heart was damaged. I seemed to be alone for the first time since all this happened and I was in that quiet dark room after all the x-rays, surgery and tests were done. It was then that I saw a clock for the first time. I was surprised it was about 2:20 or 3:20 am, not sure, it’s still blurry. I thought, besides having the crap knocked out of me, no wonder I felt so tired, it’s early morning.
I’m sure someone was watching me through the glass behind me because of my condition, but yet I felt all alone for the first time all night. No one was there. That’s when I started praying. I prayed, “Please God, not my heart, not my heart, please.” I was real scared at that point that heart problems were going to be the end of me being active. No more shooting races. I liked playing tennis and biking back then. I thought that was all gone. I’m sure I probably prayed one of those prayers where you say you will go to church every week if you get me through this. Well I’m gonna pay for that one, because I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.
A hospital worker came out minutes later and said that my heart was fine. What a relief. At that point I still didn’t know what was wrong with me, so I asked the guy, “What are my injuries, nobody will tell me anything? Tell me the truth. Don’t hold back. I want to know now!”
He came back later with a piece of paper that listed some of my injuries. He told me that I had a broken neck and I’m like, “What??? Noooo!” Weeks later a doctor told me that I was very lucky to be alive. I asked why? He said that I had broken my neck between C-1 and C-2. He added that there is a small finger-like bone in the spine that holds the bones in line. That bone was cracked all the way around and was hanging on by a thread. It didn’t move though. It was a non-displaced fracture. A little harder hit, he said I would either have been a quadriplegic or it could have been lights out. Bob Snyder said that there was talk that it helped that it was cold that night and that I had my Snorkel winter jacket on and it might have added some padding for the hit. Plus, I started lifting weights months earlier and I always thought that it might have helped my survival that night. My broken neck was hanging on by a thread and my ribs just missed going through my heart, so I think that extra muscle might have been enough to prevent a fatal injury. Maybe??? Who knows?
Side note: Sometimes it pays to remember medical details and that came in handy in my 1990 auto crash that I talked about earlier. My head hit the visor area in the car roof and the visor edge left a nice temporary dent in my forehead. Even with my second concussion, I remembered my Flemington injuries and it saved me a lot of grief and medical expenses. I was in the ER from the car crash and the doctor said ”I’m sorry, but you have a broken neck” and I said “Awe, come on. Damn it, not again.” That stopped the doctor in his tracks and he asked what did I mean by again? I told him I broke it in 1978. I rattled off -“Broke it between C-1 and C-2. Non-displaced fracture. The bone that sticks up between there and holds it together was cracked almost all the way around”. He laughed and said “You don’t have a broken neck, then.” So I was confused and asked what are you talking about. He said that I just described exactly what he saw on the x-ray of my neck. He said that must be an old injury that he was looking at now. What a relief!
Back at Raritan, the medical worker then said, all my left side ribs are broken. I saw an x-ray of my ribs at a follow up doctor appointment months later and the doctor told me that I had crushing injuries to my chest. I never thought of it that way. That really hit me- pun intended. I felt luckier to be here. Every now and then you have to be reminded. Some of my ribs were broken in two places, some three. The x-ray of my ribs looked like a bag of broken pretzels. They were just all over the place. The hospital worker then said that I had a broken jaw- upper and lower. I had a broken collarbone -that was split in half length wise. That was visible for a long time and eventually was twice as thick as the other side. It looks fairly normal now. It still amazes me now what the body can do as far as healing goes. I also had a broken shoulder blade. The doctor told me later that the shoulder blade is hard to break. It acts like a shield, that’s why it’s there. When something is flying at you the normal reaction built in to all of us is to turn and use that shoulder blade as a shield. I had a collapsed lung. I had a split tongue, right down the middle. That hurt. When I landed on the ground and my face got smashed, my tongue must have been forced out and it got sliced by my teeth when my jaw got slammed shut. I had cracked bones around my eye sockets, a concussion and my left shoulder was a mess. I had nerve damage to my mouth and lower lip. That got a little better through the years. Early on the nerves were so messed up that when I would run my finger across the bottom of my chin, I couldn’t feel it there, but I could feel it going across my lower lip and I wasn’t even touching my lip. It was like the wires got crossed. Today there is still an area in my mouth where my jaw broke, which is real sensitive. My dental hygienist sure knows that area. If you rub my gums it feels numb to me there, but if you touch it with a sharp object, like when you get your teeth cleaned, I go through the roof and can feel it shooting down to my toes. Weird stuff, those nerves.
I couldn’t believe it. I had about 25-28 breaks or cracks in my bones from that accident. Those were Evel Knievel numbers here for bone breaks and I sure felt it one night in late fall when it got cold for the first time. I was hanging out at Bill Tanzosh’s race shop. I think bad weather was moving in and when I left and went outside my ribs were killing me. I mean, bad. I thought something broke again. Then, someone said that I’m gonna feel that way when it gets cold after all those broken ribs. I know I thought that this is going to be a long, bad winter, if I feel this every time it gets cold or bad weather hits. That didn’t happen, thank God. It only happened a few times.
I still have that piece of paper listing my breaks. I found it recently and I flipped the paper over and what was on the other side creeped me out. The paper was from the hospital morgue. It was a paper to list the possessions that you had on you when you died and it was also the undertaker’s receipt. I’m glad I didn’t see that for decades.
The hospital staff left at that point and I thought there for a moment. As cliché as it sounds and I’m not kidding, something came over me. Heck maybe it was the painkillers, lol. I told myself right then and I’m not a positive person, that I was coming back from this. I’m still going to shoot races. I’m telling you I felt something- a lift. I was gonna come back. I was gonna beat this. Only problem was that it didn’t go as fast as I planned.
The Intensive Care Unit-Raritan Valley
Next stop was the Intensive Care Unit. I was in critical condition. I spent Sunday through Tuesday there. It was the most God-awful boring place on this Earth. You just lie there and you either make it out of there or you don’t. Nothing to do but lie there. You can’t eat. I wanted to eat food so badly, so I asked. They said they would get me something soon, not yet though. Soon was forever. I was fed through IV’s for days, then some liquids, then soft food. I didn’t get to eat, to chew real food for months later. I felt lied to, but they were just doing their job. Ever since then, I usually snack on something every two hours or less. I guess that fear of not being able to eat for months never went away after the accident.
Pretty sure my ICU bed was the 2nd from the right...
I remember seeing a wall in the ICU and the ceiling of course, the dim lights and the beeping sounds from medical equipment. I was so bored. I asked a nurse if I could have a TV. She laughed and said there is no TV in ICU. Later, I asked her if I could at least have a radio. I mean, I pleaded with her because I was so bored. She told me, “Let me see what I can do.” She came back later and said she borrowed a small radio from another nurse and since there was nobody in the beds next to me, I could listen to it. I was glad to hear that. She asked what I wanted to hear and she put on a local station. I thanked her. I lasted through only two songs and I couldn’t take it anymore. I remember those songs vividly. I’m reminded of that night in the ICU every time I hear those songs- even today. The first song was “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione and I didn’t feel so good at that time. I thought, “man, people are out having fun listening to music and I’m stuck in here. The second song was “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and when he got to the “just one more year and then you’ll be happy” lyrics, it hit me hard. I then realized that it might be a year until I’ll be happy; that this ordeal is going to go on for a while until I’m all fixed and back to normal. It’s gonna be a year until I’m healed up. I hit the nurse call button and told her “Get that radio out of here. Just get it out of here, now.” She had to be thinking, “what??” Those poor nurses have to put up with so much bullshit. I felt bad afterward. That nice nurse went out of her way to get me a radio and then I wanted it out of there just that quick. Both songs seemed real sad to me. It might have been the meds, the head injury or the realization that I’m not going home to sleep in my own bed for a long time. I just wanted out of there. Mentally, that was the lowest point - the ICU. Physically, the worst was still that first chest tube surgery earlier.
There was one funny moment in the ICU, when I thought I died. I had four tubes in me and several wires attached to me. I heard the constant beeping of the vital sign monitors. Suddenly it just beeped solid, like I flat lined. I thought oh crap this is it. An alarm sounded, I guess, because several nurses came flying over to my bed. Then, I heard one say, “Oh, the wire came off.” She said that again to the others there, then looked at me smiling and said it again. I told her that I thought I died. She reattached it. We all laughed at it and they walked away. That was the only bright moment in the ICU. Well, that and the day they said that I could go up to a regular room.
A Regular Room
It was Tuesday and I finally made it to a regular room. What a relief. I could now have visitors and a TV. It was room 313W. The W- I got a window seat! There are two numbers that still get my instant attention today -313 (my room number) and 422 (the accident date). Every time I see those numbers on the clock or on a road sign or anywhere, I get a little jolt inside and I remember back to that ordeal. It doesn’t ruin my day or anything, but it takes me back and I’ll always start thinking about it. Always. Sometimes for a few seconds and sometimes a looooong time. Depends.
It was so nice to have visitors, but I had a lot of doctor visits also and they were always rubbing a sharp object along my toes and feet. They were always asking if I could feel it. They were concerned about my spinal injuries and they checked for numbness and paralysis constantly in my arms and legs.
All my relatives made the long trek down. Mom couldn’t make it, as she had her surgery that Monday after I was in fairly stable condition in the ICU. That was a tough time for Dad and my sister Janet. Dad would visit me every day, but one. He missed one time when he worked at Martin Guitar. He was a foreman and the plant went on strike. He had to work and people who worked that day ended up with nails in their tires. He rushed out of work to make the long drive down to Green Brook, N.J. to see me and he ended up with four flat tires. That was real upsetting for him because Martin’s was a small town factory then and everyone knew Willard’s kid was hurt bad. It killed him that they did that to him at such a bad time. My sister Janet would head off in a different direction. Each day after work, she was in charge of visiting and taking care of Mom in the hospital in PA. It was a stressful time for both of them and my youngest sister Jennie and brother Jesse. They all held it together at home during that crisis.
Well wishes from those in the racing community meant a lot during this time, and mean just as much today...
All my racing photographer buddies, editors, my family and friends came down to the hospital. The gang that I hung out with from Tanzosh’s race shop was there. A total surprise was when Kevin (Buskirk) Collins and his crew showed up one day. I couldn’t believe they took the time from their busy race schedule to see me.
The card from Bill & Barb Pursell, along with the patches and Kevin Collins sticker did a lot for my spirits...
A funny thing happened when my cousin Jeff and friend Randy Ressler came for a visit. This was only days after the accident and I was looking real bad. I had tubes coming out of my chest with blood moving through them as it was being sucked out of my lung and into a clear plastic tank that bubbled like a fish tank filter. My upper body was rarely covered up then. Not sure why, maybe it was because of all my tubes, wires and the sling. I was black and blue and even green and purple. I was totally bruised all over on my upper torso and had lots of abrasions on my head. I was gross looking I’m told. Anyway Jeff and Randy were there to see me. Not long after, Jeff disappeared. I asked Randy where did Jeff go? He didn’t know. He thought maybe he went out for a smoke or a soda. A while later, a nurse comes in and asks me, if I had a relative named Jeff visiting me. I said yes, where is he? She said,” Well, he is now a patient.” Randy and I were like,"what???" She said he was in the ER and doing better. She said he took one look at me and went out in the hall and passed out. Man, did I feel bad then. Later and still today we laugh about that one. It wasn’t funny then, though.
Some time in the room, someone brought me some Flemington programs to read. That was nice until I read about my accident in one issue. That program said that I had possible internal injuries, a concussion, some cuts and lacerations. Man that pissed me off at the time. Here I just went through hell with all these injuries and was almost dead. I was thinking that whoever reads this is going to think that all I have is a headache and some cuts. Like a couple of Band-Aids and some Tylenol and I’m good to go. My condition was the opposite. I was mad for years over that, but later realized that is what tracks do. They minimize the problem to lessen the bad press.
At one point Ace Lane asked me if it was okay if he organized a fundraiser for me at Flemington. He wanted to get some drivers to go through the stands to raise some money for me since I was out of work. There was talk that the track didn’t want that, because they thought I would sue them. I told Ace that I am not going to sue them and I wanted to be standing there that night and that I signed the release. I told him to tell the track that I was not going to sue. No way. They collected a couple hundred dollars. That was nice of Ace.
It took a long time, but I could finally have soft food--applesauce, pudding. I wanted to know why I couldn’t eat, so a nurse showed me. She got a mirror and told me to look in the back of my mouth. She showed me that my second from the back bottom tooth was split right down the middle and the back part was pushed up about an eighth of an inch. There was some sort of red meat looking, kind of bubble thing sticking up through the middle of that tooth. It might have been gum tissue. It grossed me out. She asked, “Doesn’t that hurt?” I told her no. She said it should. She said that’s why you can’t chew. Your jaw is broken and is pushed up in the back. A month later when I saw my camera equipment from that night, I started studying it. By the scratch marks, I could tell my camera was around my neck and upside down, when I landed on the road. The camera hit my face and upper torso. The top of my big potato masher style flash was heavily scratched which told me it was upside down on the ground landing impact and the solid inch and a half wide plastic handle bottom must have punched the back of my left jaw and shoved it upward with my molar getting split right down the middle. The front of the tooth stayed with the front jaw and back tooth part stayed with the back jawbone. That’s where my jaw stayed for weeks, with the back part sticking up a little. I asked why they wouldn’t fix my jaw. They told me they didn’t want to risk moving anything in my neck for a few weeks, plus my collapsed lung was not inflating. So every day I got a chest x-ray for 20 some days after all that, plus I had all those x-rays early on. I told them that they were going to kill me with all this radiation. They said it was necessary. I thought I’d be dead in ten years from cancer from all that radiation.
One of the most dreadful times in my hospital room was when the “pillow patrol” came marching in. With all the old blood in my lung, they told me that blood had to come out or I would have real bad problems, even death. The nurse said that I had to cough up that old blood. Sounded easy. I tried and could hardly cough. Remember, my ribs were shattered and now I’m supposed to cough as hard as I can. Yeah, right. I told them, no way. I can’t do it. It hurt so badly, even while on pain meds the whole time. The nurse left and returned with about four more nurses with pillows. Sounds like a great fantasy, right? Lots of nurses walking in sync just like the ladies moving in that Robert Palmer music video. You know the one where they are all dressed alike and look alike. Yup, a real dream come true-all these nurses coming in for me. Nope! It was a nightmare! They said you will cough as hard as you can now. That blood has to come out. So, all the nurses packed me with pillows all around my rib cage and pressed. They held me together with pillows as I coughed. God did that hurt. I coughed up a chunk and they were satisfied. It looked like a chunk of red brown Jell-O. Gross. When I hear people say they were so sick that they coughed up a lung, I tell them that I did cough up a lung back then or at least it felt and looked like it. Damn, I hated seeing that pillow patrol entering my room. That went on for days.
Another low point in my room was food related. I was craving a McDonald’s cheeseburger so badly. I could only eat soft or liquified food and I was just dreaming about eating a cheeseburger constantly. I rarely had a roommate, but one time I did and the guy’s buddies brought in food to eat and I could smell it. I smelled McDonald’s cheeseburgers and I just wanted to die. It was torture. God, did that smell good. I told the patient that it smelled so good. He was nice enough to offer me one. I told him that I couldn’t eat with a broken jaw. He said he was sorry, he didn’t know.
A high point in my room was watching TV. I watched the Gong Show and thought it was a riot, the funniest show ever. I couldn’t wait to watch the Gong Show. When I got home weeks later, I watched the Gong Show and thought, heck, it’s not that funny. Maybe it was my hospital meds that made it so funny!
The best racing moment on TV in the hospital was watching local guy Toby Tobias win at Terre Haute on national TV in his sprint car. Damn, that made me so happy. That was a real rare, happy moment in the hospital. I got to see a race while in the hospital and Toby won it. That was cool. I had to get better soon now, because the USAC sprints were coming to Flemington in June.
A side note: A couple years back at Motorsports, I was sitting in Dale Snyder’s booth and I saw something on a TV screen that looked familiar across the isle in Rich Tobias’ booth. I asked Rich if that was a copy of the Terre Haute race from 1978 when his dad won. He confirmed and I just stared at that TV, thinking back. The only time I ever saw that broadcast was from my hospital bed in ’78. I thanked Rich for showing that. It meant something to me for sure.
My lung finally inflated. I had my jaw operation and jaw wired shut finally. They took all my chest tubes out. They wouldn’t let me go home until I went to the bathroom. Funny as that sounds, I really didn’t want go on a bedpan the whole time I was there and somehow I didn’t even think about going. Yup, I had to pee a lot, but somehow I didn’t go the other for 24 days or so. Heck, I was on a liquid diet, mostly. So, I guess I didn’t need to go. They told me that I couldn’t leave until I went to the bathroom. So, it was off to fulfill my final hospital order. All I’m going to say is- Brunswick sixteen pound bowling ball. LOL.
The doctors also told me that they might have to operate on my shoulder later, but for now just go home and try it. Doctors laugh at that today. They can’t believe that they didn’t even do any physical therapy back then. So, I tried it after I tossed the sling and I couldn’t even lift ten pounds. That was a bummer. After I got the neck brace off, I started hitting the weights slowly and eventually that messed up shoulder bench pressed 340 pounds, but it took twelve years. Old age has taken a lot of that back now. Looking back, I’m amazed at what the body can do after being so broken.
Sometime in mid May, I got to go home. I remember Dad driving me through Nazareth and all I could notice was that everything was so green. As a young kid, I never noticed that stuff, but now I was just amazed how green the trees and the grass were and there were flowers blooming. It was a beautiful sight. I kept telling Dad “Wow, everything is so green.” I felt that I missed a whole season or something. When I went to that race on April 22, it was cold and there were hardly any leaves on the trees that I remember and now I came home and everything looked so nice, so colorful.
Being home was a relief but it was so different. I got used to hitting the nurse's call button in the hospital if I had a problem. Now that was gone.
All my food for the next four weeks had to be run through the blender. Mom made my favorite meals and then ran them through the blender, so I could at least get the taste of them. Some were really gross in liquid form. Every meal like that was an experiment. I think we even threw in a McDonald’s cheeseburger that I so dreamed of eating. Even the local Tastykake vendor John, brought me a box of my favorite cakes that I used to special order from him every week at the store where I worked. Mom tossed one in the blender with milk and it wasn’t bad. I could taste it! The whole time my jaw was wired shut, I had to carry wire cutters on me at all times. If you throw up you will choke to death, so you had to be ready to cut four wires to get your mouth open. We had several wire cutters throughout the house. Luckily I never needed them.
One scare that I had at home was while I was sleeping; a centipede bug crawled across my mouth. Of course, that had to be the only time that ever happened in my life- while I was so busted up. Great timing. It startled me. I woke up and just sat up as fast as I could. Oh, my God did that hurt and it scared the crap out of me. I was scared that I reinjured my broken neck. I still had my brace on, but the strain on my unused neck muscles really hurt. I thought I re-broke it. Oh, man, that quick movement killed my ribs, too. I shouldn’t have jumped up because that bug wasn’t going to be able to crawl in my mouth-it was still wired shut.
The Jaw Experiment
Weeks later I went to my jaw doctor in Piscataway, N.J. for my first jaw checkup. They x-rayed me and my jaw didn’t heal one bit. That was a huge letdown. All that time wired shut for nothing. They found infection and some mystery spot on my x-ray. They had no idea what was in there. Finally, the doctor figured out the spot was a tooth filling at the bottom of my jaw, right in the crack. When my jaw broke, it probably pushed forward as it split, then my tooth split in half and that filling piece fell down in the crack of my broken jaw and landed on the bottom. Amazing.
That doctor was as upset as I was, that there was no healing so far, and he felt so bad for me. I told him, “I’m giving up; I can’t take anymore.” I had enough of the bad stuff. I just wanted to eat food again. On a funny note: I got pretty good at talking with my mouth closed. Probably could have been a ventriloquist after all that. The doctor sent me home and told me not to give up, that he would figure something out. He called back days later with an idea. He said he wanted to try something that would allow me to keep my mouth open while my jaw healed. He told my dad to bring me to his office. He wanted to try something on my jaw in his office and if it didn’t work, he was going to have the hospital operating room on emergency stand-by. I thought, “Oh great.”
So we went there in my ’76 Camaro with Dad driving. That was weird having him drive my car. He wanted to know if I wanted to listen to music and I think I still had an eight track player in there and I played a Foreigner tape. I felt strange making Dad listen to rock music, so I told him we don’t have to listen to it. He said he didn’t mind. I still think of that car ride when I hear Foreigner songs from the ’78 era.
The doctor explained that he was basically doing an experiment. He was going to make a mouth piece that fit around my jawbone on the inside. Then add a metal band to my teeth like a brace. He was then going to take these wires and put a needle on them, like a needle and thread. Then stick them through my face and pull the needle and wire out through my mouth under my tongue. Then take both ends and yank on them so the wire cuts through my face skin and sits tight up against my jaw and that mouthpiece. Then he was going to tie the wires tight around the mouthpiece to the metal bar, with my jaw anchored tight against that piece with these wires. It was crazy to watch him do that with those wires, like he was sewing my face and jaw; just going through my face and pulling them out of my mouth. He struggled with that experimental procedure. The doctor was really exhausted after it. He just sat there for a minute afterwards, sweating. He said that I’m going to have some facial dimples for a while from where the wires cut through my skin and that they would go away in time. He was right. I went home with some heavy painkillers and antibiotics. My face just blew up huge the next day and I thought the worst--infection. Ready to just give up, my parents called the doctor and he said to hang in there, hopefully my face swelling will go away with the meds. Give it another day or so, he said. The meds worked. Thank God. At least I could have my mouth open now. We waited a few weeks then went back for a checkup. It was healing and he said I could finally try to eat something, but don’t go crazy, don’t eat tough stuff.
Finally Real Food - McDonalds!
The first thing I asked Dad to do on the way home was go to McDonald’s. I wanted that cheeseburger that I’ve been dying for. I couldn’t wait to chew real food. I still remember sitting in our kitchen and they were watching me eat that burger. I was all happy. I bit into it and it was weird. I couldn’t chew. My mouth was just going up and down. After all this time without chewing, I had to learn to eat again. It was like none of my muscles or my tongue knew what to do to eat. They had to learn to fire in a certain order just to eat. Man, you take chewing for granted, like it’s nothing. It’s not. I was so bummed that it didn’t work. So frustrated that I couldn’t eat. I threw the cheeseburger away. It seemed like I wasn’t making any progress toward getting better and it got to me.
I kept trying to eat a little each day and slowly every muscle got back in unison to eat. It started coming around. The doctor’s experiment worked. I went back to see him months later for my final checkup and his medical personnel showed me a medical journal in which my doctor won a medical award for coming up with an alternative way of wiring broken jaws. They were so proud of that and so was I. That was cool. Finally, things were moving in a positive direction on the recovery side.
Back At The Track
I was dying to get back at the racetrack, no pun intended. My cousin Jeff drove me to Nazareth Speedway for my first race since the accident. That might have been in early June, not sure. I had an infield car pass, so we took my car. That way I got to hang out in turn one and two with the Nazareth gang and when I got tired, which I did, I could just watch from my car.
Death At The Track
I really wanted to see the USAC sprints at Flemington. I wanted to take still pictures, but I wasn’t ready to get up close by the inside wall. Plus, I was still in a neck brace, maybe a sling and I’m not sure of the timetable, but I could have still had my jaw wired shut. Dale Snyder had an offer for me. He couldn’t go the USAC show, so he suggested that I take his movie camera and shoot movies that night and just stand way back by the infield fence where it was safer. That way I could ease back in to racing photography. Toby Tobias, the racer who put a smile on my face when he won Terre Haute on TV while I was hospitalized was going to race there that night, so that made it neater. So, I filmed that race and I happened to film Toby when he had his fatal crash. Such a sad night, you just knew he was gone. The guy who thrilled me on TV in the hospital was dead.
I always wanted to tell Richie Tobias how his dad cheered me up while I was hospitalized and how horrible it was when I was there when he died. I never got up the nerve until one night a few years back at Selinsgrove. Richie rode up on his bike and stopped by me in turn three. During a caution break, I told him the story. When I told him how horrible it was when his dad crashed, he shocked me by saying that he was sitting in the first turn stands that night and saw his dad crash. Man, that made my hair stand up. I felt so bad for him. How horrible for Richie. He was only a young kid and he had to witness that. Racing can be so horrible.
Never Going To A Race Again
I never was at a racetrack when someone died. What a horrible feeling. That night was one of the worst nights for me at a race. And that made two real bad nights in a row for me at Flemington. On the way home I really did a lot of soul searching. I wanted to quit racing forever. I questioned why would anyone like this racing stuff.
Here I was still busted up from my accident and now I just saw someone die at the same place. I thought about it for weeks and then finally decided that I can’t stop now. I went through too much, to just walk away from it now.
Weeks later I decided to shoot still pictures again, first at Nazareth then try Flemington. I didn’t know it, but that was so hard on my parents- having me just go off to a race at Flemington again. They never said anything to me about it. As a parent now, I can see how tough that would be to watch your kid just go off to a race after all that. That was also one thing I learned when decades later I read the book titled "Down Around Midnight." The book was about a guy who survived a plane crash with some bad injuries a year after my accident. I wondered if there were some things that he went through that would have been similar to my experience. The thought intrigued me, so I read the book. There were about four points in that book, which I never realized before, and I could relate to them from my accident:
I learned from that book was that you move on from your accident rather quickly, but it takes your parents a long time to get over it.
The guy in the plane crash also was a real positive guy before the crash. Now, he still was happy and okay, but in the back of his mind he now feared losing everything instantly and becoming destitute. I can relate to that when things are clicking along smoothly, things are going too good, I just used to think- well something bad is just around the corner-the sh*t is going to hit the fan, but it doesn’t. I definitely got more negative and was more of a worrier after getting hurt. Dad told me a few years ago, that the accident really changed me. He told me later that I got real moody when there was a full moon for a year or so after my accident. It was a full moon the night I got hurt. I never noticed.
Accidents like this are considered in life ”halftime events”- You refer to things in your life as before the accident or after. The accident was halftime.
You remember just certain moments from your accident vividly forever. That explains how and why I remember certain things from that night so clearly. Those are called “flashbulb memories” he said and they go back to early man. That is a survival mechanism built in to us, even in the caveman days. Example: A caveman sticks his arm in a dark cave and pulls his arm out and his hand is gone. That “flashbulb” goes off in his head of that scene, like taking a picture and he remembers what he sees for that second and will never forget it. Hence, he will never stick his hand in a dark cave again. Survival chances are now increased.
Back Shooting Still Pics - Finally
My first time back shooting still pictures at Flemington was going fine. I kept inching up to the new heavier, higher inside wall. Then a car went into a long slide and spun out in front of me. Not a big deal, just a long slow slide by me. Normally, it wouldn’t faze me at all. This time I ran right away and didn’t even take a picture. My heart was pounding so much after that. It scared me. I thought that something was seriously wrong with my heart. It felt like it was going to just pound right out of my chest. At that point I really thought they missed something at the hospital when they thought I had a tear in my heart. I really thought I might die right there from a heart attack. Looking back I found that interesting. That heart pounding told me that I saw the car sliding in my accident, even though I don’t have any memory of it. Something inside me saw that crash happen. When Freyer hit the wall in front of me, it was the same long slide I was told. So I saw this crash now and my inner body was reacting to this latest slide and spin and that’s why my heart was pounding like never before. It took about five or so more crashes before that heart-pounding thing went away.
I didn’t shoot many races that year. I just took it easy all summer waiting to heal up. I started going to more races after I went back to work in September and after I got rid of the neck brace.
Frustration And Thoughts Of Lawsuits
Another problem came up that summer. I was supposed to get $100 a week from the track’s insurance company while I was out of work. I think I got around three of those checks and then they stopped. I kept calling the track to find out what was wrong. They said call the insurance company. So, I got nowhere with the insurance people and I was starting to get pissed off by it all. I went through all this torture and now they wouldn’t even pay the measly $100 a week. That hurt. I felt let down by the track and I was getting angry. I did say earlier that I wasn’t going to sue the track--no way. Now, this was the only time I was really mad at the speedway, all because of this run-around. Weeks went by and I finally thought that I’m going to have to see a lawyer and I really, really didn’t want that. I went to a top lawyer in the area and explained my problem. Of course he wanted to sue the track. He thought he could beat the release that I signed. He did write up a letter to the insurance company for me to get my missing money back. I mentioned this to the photographers and they were hoping that I wouldn’t sue the track because they were afraid the tracks would never allow photographers in again. I understood their view. Bobby Snyder then arraigned a meeting for me to talk with Nazareth Speedway promoters Jerry Fried and Jimmy Hontz. I went down to Jerry’s trailer one day and told them that I might have to sue Flemington’s insurance company because they weren’t paying me what I was due and I was just plain mad at the situation now. I had enough. What also stinks when you get hurt, your own personal insurance pays all your accident bills first, and then the track picks up the smaller leftover part. Doesn’t seem right, but that’s the way it worked.
The total cost of my accident was just over $13,000. Seems like a bargain now. I got 25 or so days in the hospital, two visits to the ER and three to the OR, three days of ICU, two ambulance rides, four surgeries, so many x-rays for $13,000 in 1978. Now what does that buy in medical terms? Recently our daughter had shoulder surgery for a few hours that didn’t require a hospital stay and that bill was for $13,000. Incredible. Talk about inflation.
Anyway, I asked Jerry and Jimmy what would happen if I sued. They both agreed that I would be banned from most all the local tracks. We talked a little and I went home to think it over. Like I said earlier, I never wanted to sue the track. I loved racing photography too much. I loved going to Flemington. Lord knows why though. After all, I did it for free and now I was badly injured. Doesn’t sound like a fun hobby.
Just the thought of not being able to do racing photography was enough to steer me to the side of not suing. So I didn’t. People outside of racing told me that I was crazy not to sue. They didn’t understand my attachment to it. Some weeks later a letter arrived from the track’s insurance company and I was a surprised to see a check in it. The check was for the full amount of what they owed me. I guess the lawyer’s letter fixed the problem. That sure was a relief, a huge relief. Now I could focus (pun intended) on getting back to racing photography.
Back To Racing Photography
Here’s a John Reilly picture of Photographer Bob Snyder and me sitting on the boards in the 70’s, right where I got hit. The cars go by slowly under caution prior to the start of the next event...
I decided to see where this photography road was going take me. It was the right choice because I ended up meeting so many neat people, so many real characters. I saw a lot of great races and ended up with a few decent racing photos. I just can’t quit this racing bug. I can’t just walk away after getting hurt. My blood is in this sport - some is still there in the ground where turn one and two used to be.
I could have died or have been a quadriplegic that day. So, in the end, I guess it was “my lucky day.”
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