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On the Road to Recovery: In the Words of Robert Ballou

Ballou (pictured above) joined Steve Butler (1987-88) and Levi Jones (2008-09) as the only back-to-back winners of the "Tony Hulman Classic." (David Nearpass Photo)

Ballou (pictured above) joined Steve Butler (1987-88) and Levi Jones (2008-09) as the only back-to-back winners of the “Tony Hulman Classic.”
(David Nearpass Photo)

From Richie Murray

At this time one year ago, Robert Ballou was headed out west preparing for the final events of his historic 2015 season.

It was a magical season in which the Rocklin, California driver would tally 13 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature victories on his way to his first USAC National title.

Fast-forward to exactly one year later and the setting has drastically changed for Robert. A repeat dream season has been anything but.

You won’t see Robert’s name listed as a driver on this coming weekend’s “Oval Nationals” entry list – an event in which he won the first two nights of last November. For Robert is currently recovering from injuries sustained on the opening night of the “Louie Vermiel Classic” at Calistoga (Calif.) Speedway. Injuries that have sidelined him from the racetrack as time ticks away and his body endures the healing process.

It was a crash that Robert was lucky to survive; a crash he was amazingly able to walk away from, at first.

“It was just one of those deals,” Robert said bluntly. “I was running second and chasing the leader. The lap before, I was four-tenths of a second faster and I felt like I was catching him. Then, suddenly, I went into (turn) one and it just dug in and I started flipping. The fence held me in, but I fell about 15 to 18 feet from the sky onto the cage. There’s not a frame in the world that can hold up to that. It was just a freak accident. They said the left rear shock gave out and may have caused it.”

The crash appeared serious to all onlookers from those at the racetrack to those watching on the live stream. After several, agonizing minutes, a sigh of relief swept across the nation as Robert popped out of his car and was able to exit under his own power. But, first appearances aren’t always as they seem.

“I walked to the ambulance,” Robert recalled. “I then went to one hospital to get checked out, then went to another hospital before I was air-flighted to the hospital in Stanford. The doctors told me my pain was due to whiplash, but the truth is that when the back corner of the cage hit the track, my head hit the dirt. Nothing is going to withstand your head hitting the dirt.”

“In the end, I was told I needed to wear a neck brace for eight weeks, then I’d be fine and could go back to racing,” Robert added. “That sounded almost too good to be true to me. I was released to my parents’ house where I slept for a week. At the end of that week, I felt as good as I was going to be, but I was still in a lot of pain.”

“I went to see Dr. David Schwartz at OrthoIndy and he thought that surgery should have been performed six weeks earlier. I didn’t have surgery until seven weeks after the crash. That meant I had to start all over again. Now, I’m going to be in a cervical spine brace for the next nine weeks.”

In the moments following the impact with the ground, the pain was immediate for Robert. In fact, his pinky and ring fingers went numb and he lost 80 percent of the strength in his hands. Strength that after two months still hasn’t returned to his hands.

“I was diagnosed with a C2 fracture in my neck,” Robert states. “I had a burst fracture of the C7. The bone actually exploded! The doctors had to use cadaver bone to create a new C7 vertebrae. On top of that, I had a compression fracture of the T8 vertebrae.”

The road to recovery is not an easy one away from the race track. There isn’t much fanfare, celebration or the adrenaline rush of an Eldora slide job; it’s pretty much filled with small steps and milestones, which most of us take for granted, with the ultimate goal of returning to a sense of normality.

“Every day I feel like I get a little better,” Robert acknowledges. “These things are just part of the game. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s tough not having any income right now. I had just bought a house a couple of weeks prior to the accident and, on top of owning my own team, it’s just the worst timing. I’m a truck driver 60 hours per week, but I’m not allowed to drive for eight to nine weeks.”

Though he paints a bleak picture at the moment, Robert has his mind set on his eventual return to the seat of a sprint car.
“It will be between eight and 12 months before I can return to racing,” Robert estimates. “It will be anywhere from June to September of 2017 when I come back, possibly for “Eastern Storm,” but the doctors want to make sure everything with me is 100 percent before they release me to race. Since I can’t run for points in any series next year, I’m going to run a little bit of everything – USAC, wing races, anywhere and everywhere.”

Donations for Robert’s recovery fund may be sent to:
Robert Ballou
c/o USAC
4910 W. 16th Street
Speedway, IN 46224