Racer Scott Speed breaks back in crash landing: 'I'm the luckiest man alive'

Scott Speed was injured landing a mega-jump like this at the Nitro World Games at Utah Motorsports Campus over the weekend.

Driver Scott Speed began racing karts when he was 10. He’s 36 now.

In 2006, he debuted in Formula 1, the first American in the series in 23 years. His career includes stints in NASCAR Monster Energy Cup, NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series, IMSA, ARCA, Formula E and at least a dozen other series before landing where he was last Friday, leading the season points in the Americas Rallycross series in a factory ride from Subaru, heading toward a fifth championship.

He has, of course, crashed before. Hard, grinding, spectacular crashes.

This one was different. He knew it immediately: “My back was broken.”

It was hard to even call this a crash. It was merely a bad landing on the other side of one of the jumps at the Nitro World Games, a standalone, non-points spectacular backed by racer, rider and stuntman Travis Pastrana at the Utah Motorsports Campus outside Salt Lake City. Nitro Games feature not only rallycross with racers from the ARX and WRX series, but also Moto Quarterpipe, FMX, Flat Track  and Super Hooligan competition.

Today was a great day! Was able to try solid food.. and drink finally! Man water taste good. Can’t tell you all who have text/called/commented how much the support is helping me get thru this. My dad @mikespeed41 has flown in with the boss lady @amanda_speed so my support team here is amazing! Tomorrow will be first day of PT and will pave the way on how quickly we can recovery from this. We have a plan A and a plan B. I can tell you I have never been so nervous in my life for plan A to work.

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And it wasn’t even track designer Pastrana’s massive trademark jump that crosses over the dirt track below, clearing a 100-foot ramp-to-ramp gap. No, Speed’s downfall was one of the lesser jumps that he took during Friday’s qualifying.

Of all the jumps on the track — which Speed said was, in balance, “truly spectacular” — this jump, coming off the straight, was the only one that seemed a bit off-balance. It was supposed to be a mild single jump, essentially taken wide open. They had just wet the track down, and the first two laps in his Subaru WRX STI were pretty slippery; the jump performed as designed. But on the third lap, the dirt had dried some, “and I gained so much grip powering up the jump — I mean, it was like turbo speed — that I landed on the flat from about 20 feet in the air.”

He knew immediately he had broken his back — he just didn’t know exactly where or how badly. Typically you’d stay in the car and wait for help, “but it was so hot in there I figured I’d die from heat exhaustion before they got me out, and I just wanted to get out of the car as fast as possible and lay on the ground, and that’s what I did.”

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So after the MRI the doctors were on the fence about surgery. We decided that we would try the non surgery option that requires a brace and letting the bone heal naturally. The T6 fracture is quite severe and there is ligamentous damage in that area. Fragments from the T6 moved into the spinal canal about 6mm, but luckily didn’t hit the cord. The deciding factor on whether I would have to have surgery or not was based on if I could stand in the brace and my spine could support my weight. I was 10 times more nervous for this moment then any race I have ever done. The results were miraculously good. We are now starting down the path of natural recovery! This means 6-8 weeks potential recovery time vs. the risk and increased recovery time of surgery. The biggest emotional roller coaster of my life. 🙏🏼🙏🏼💪🏼💪🏼

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So after the MRI the doctors were on the fence about surgery. We decided that we would try the non surgery option that requires a brace and letting the bone heal naturally. The T6 fracture is quite severe and there is ligamentous damage in that area. Fragments from the T6 moved into the spinal canal about 6mm, but luckily didn’t hit the cord. The deciding factor on whether I would have to have surgery or not was based on if I could stand in the brace and my spine could support my weight. I was 10 times more nervous for this moment then any race I have ever done. The results were miraculously good. We are now starting down the path of natural recovery! This means 6-8 weeks potential recovery time vs. the risk and increased recovery time of surgery. The biggest emotional roller coaster of my life. 🙏🏼🙏🏼💪🏼💪🏼

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A University of Utah spine specialist told Speed that he had fractured three vertebrae, with the T6 damage being by far the most severe, in addition to some torn ligaments. “My T6 was squished in half, and some pieces of the bone penetrated the spinal canal to a depth of about 6 millimeters — which was not enough to damage the spinal cord.

“I’m the luckiest man alive,” Speed said from his hospital bed. “It has been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life. The support has been overwhelming. I know when (IndyCar driver) Robert Wickens got hurt, he said how much the support helped. His injury turned out to be more serious than mine, but I know how it feels.”

Wickens crashed one year ago today at Pocono Raceway, suffering multiple serious injuries, including a fracture of the T6 vertebrae. He was among the first to reach out to Speed after his rallycross crash.

Speed was told to begin mentally preparing himself for surgery, but the next morning the top surgeon told him it was a really close call between operating and seeing if the injury could heal on its own. The test would be fitting Speed with a brace, then having him stand up. “The go/no go gauge is simple,” Speed said. If there was pain, and the vertebrae became more compromised, they’d rush him into surgery immediately. If there wasn’t pain, and the vertebrae stood up on its own, he could begin therapy immediately.

That’s what happened, and Speed is hoping for a quick recovery — so quick that he has the date of the next Americas Rallycross race circled on the calendar, Sept. 28-29 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Even if he can’t race, he plans to be there to support his team.

About that team: During the offseason, Speed left the Michael Andretti-run Volkswagen Beetle team that had delivered four straight championships to move to Vermont SportsCar, the factory-backed Subaru WRX STI three-car team.  

“To go from a car that has won the last four championships to a car that didn’t have a podium finish last year, it was a challenge,” Speed said. “But the program has turned around so quickly, and we’re winning races,” and Speed is leading the championship, five points ahead of his friend and former VW teammate Tanner Foust. “I’m super-happy with the new team. Everybody is so nice there, it’s been great. I couldn’t be happier.”

Speed insists that he’ll handle recovery the way he races — with a singular focus, “taking it one step at a time and make good decisions. I’m going to do everything I can to recover. I’m more motivated than I have been in a long time to get well and get back in the car.”

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