By Richie Murray
Barberville, Florida (February 14, 2023)………Fifteen months ago, Daison Pursley lay in a hospital bed facing an uncertain future.
A violent crash during a midget race at Arizona Speedway in November 2021 left the Locust Grove, Okla. native with a severe spinal cord injury that jeopardized not only his racing career but his physical well-being, the consequences of which still linger to this day.
Fifteen months later, Pursley had overcome the personal setbacks, the physical pain, the strenuous daily rehab regimen and a full laundry list of obstacles in pursuit of returning to the sport he loved and lived for.
For Pursley, it culminated in him facing the task to overcome a field of 21 competitors to earn his greatest triumph yet on his racing comeback journey.
The 18-year-old midget racing standout and newly turned USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship Rookie of the Year contender defied the odds while also defying the challenge presented to him by fellow 18-year-old Emerson Axsom late in Tuesday night’s $10,000-to-win, non-stop, caution free DIRTcar Nationals 30-lap non-points special event feature at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park.
Pursley remembers first-hand how far he’s come since that fateful night. He realizes that this is a night to forever cherish – a night he’ll forever remember.
“It’s pretty unbelievable; this is definitely one I’ll remember forever,” Pursley exclaimed. “It’s crazy to look back at where I was a year ago, watching this stuff on TV. I don’t get very emotional, and I don’t show my emotions that much. I just kind of stay calm, cool and collected. Later tonight, when I’m getting ready for bed, I bet this one will hit pretty hard.”
Starting from the pole position, Pursley led the first 18 laps while clinging with all his might to a narrow lead over Axsom. But only for a bit. Axsom burst his way to the front on the 19th trip, utilizing the bottom of turn two around the 1/2-mile dirt oval.
Just like his fight to return the racetrack, there was no quit in Pursley on this night. As the two frontrunners worked lapped traffic, Pursley left the bottom for the first time, swinging wide and setting up top on the cushion. There, he found a power surge that pushed him past Axsom for good.
Entering the night, Pursley’s entire sprint car career consisted of two starts in both 2021 and 2022, plus one more the previous evening. The first of those five previous opportunities came for KO Motorsports who gave him a chance to wheel a sprint car and also stuck by him through his injury and recovery by providing him a car when he was officially back and ready to wheel the Hutson John Deere – S & C Machine – Peterbilt/Flea RC/J & D Chevy.
“KO Motorsports gave me my first sprint car start and it’s so cool to be able to get my first win with them,” Pursley said. “It’s just crazy to look back at everything, from getting my first USAC Midget win to now getting my first USAC Sprint Car win all within two years. I’m just extremely thankful and blessed to be surrounded by great people like Kent (Schmidt), Flea (Ruzic) and Brian (Davis) and everyone who’s a part of this deal. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to drive such a great piece.”
In February of 2022, Pursley remained in an Atlanta, Georgia rehab center where, at night, he passed the time by watching the live stream of the sprint car races at Volusia, yearning for the day he’d get his chance to return to the racetrack himself.
That itch and the desire to go racing once again was relentless for Pursley. Through the guidance of a seven-time USAC National champion, Pursley’s goal remained steadfast, and soon enough, that itch would need to be scratched, and ultimately, that dream soon became a realization.
“I took a lot of good things out of something bad that happened to me last year,” Pursley explained. “I talked to Levi Jones throughout the whole deal, and as he put it when he texted me, you’ll have an itch to go racing again and sometimes that’s a good thing when you have to lay in a bed and take a couple months off. I feel like he’s right and I definitely have another gear in me to perform and do what’s best; I think that’s a good thing.”
There are a myriad of rhymes and reasons why a common individual wouldn’t return after an ordeal such as the one Pursley experienced. But Pursley has demonstrated he’s not common in that sense despite the after effects that he feels every day. Overall, Pursley is doing just fine, thank you.
“I feel really good; I don’t have any pain and I’m off my medications,” Pursley revealed. “My left hand still gives me issues – not inside of the racecar necessarily – but those fine motor things like when I hook up my HANS Device up or put my Raceiver in, just those little things that can get annoying. It’s something I can live with, and to be honest, I don’t even know what a good working left hand feels like anymore. This is my new normal and I think this is where it’s going to be at for the rest of my life. I’m just very thankful for the path God put me through and the path he’s continuing to put me through is pretty special as well.”
Pursley readily admitted that he didn’t think he’d be winning in his and the team’s first weekend together. However, he was hooked up on the bottom from the word ‘go’ until encountering lapped traffic at the midway point of the contest. On the 16th lap, Pursley drifted off the bottom in turn one, opening the door for Axsom to slide by for P1. Without hesitation, Pursley punched the throttle and tracked down Axsom on the way to turn three, slicing through the middle between Axsom and the newly lapped car of Cameron Smith.
Three laps later, however, Pursley shot high in turns one and two on the 19th circuit while Axsom stuck the bottom and motored into the race lead. With that said, Axsom was anything but in the clear. A few ticks later, Axsom encountered a triumvirate convoy of tail-end lead lap cars driven three-wide directly in his path by Tom Harris, Joey Amantea and Jadon Rogers.
Just as Axsom attempted to sneak under Harris in three and four, he found himself boxed in near the inner rail. Meanwhile, Pursley took his talents to the top in turn four and ripped around both to secure the race lead with just six laps remaining.
As Axsom reloaded for another run, Pursley possessed a full head of steam on his path to the finish line in a high speed game of “catch me if you can.” Pursley had a straightforward mission and he wasn’t going to allow himself to be caught on this night as he closed out his victorious run with a 0.697 second margin of victory over Axsom, C.J. Leary, new one-lap track record holder Thomas Meseraull and Monday night Volusia victor Jake Swanson.
Soon after crossing the line, smoke began to billow out of Pursley’s ride, but the story had already been written, the checkered had been taken and the check had been cashed. Pursley had officially arrived.
Axsom (Franklin, Ind.), last season’s USAC National Sprint Car Rookie of the Year, put up a whale of a fight for the victory, leading six times across the line between laps 19-24 to score a second place finish in his Clauson Marshall Racing/Driven2SaveLives – ZMax Race Lubricants/Spike/Kistler Chevy.
Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) overcame near disaster following opening lap contact between he and Robert Ballou on the back straightaway during the feature. Leary put in his best performance so far with BGE Dougherty Motorsports, coming home third in his Altoz – Hornbeck Concrete – Highsmith Guns – Elliott’s/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
By virtue of his first and fifth place feature finishes and the accumulation of the most points during the two nights of racing at Volusia, Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) collected the “big gator” as the overall DIRTcar Nationals champion in his Team AZ Racing/Apache Transport – Stratis Construction – USW Cat Construction/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SPECIAL EVENT RACE RESULTS: February 14, 2023 – Volusia Speedway Park – Barberville, Florida – Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals – 1/2-Mile Dirt Track
QUALIFYING: 1. Thomas Meseraull, 20, Dyson-16.362 (New Track Record); 2. Jason McDougal, 5m, KO-16.411; 3. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-16.423; 4. Emerson Axsom, 47BC, Clauson Marshall-16.485; 5. C.J. Leary, 15x, BGE Dougherty-16.497; 6. Daison Pursley, 5p, KO-16.506; 7. Carson Garrett, 15, BGE Dougherty-16.588; 8. Tom Harris, 84, Harris-16.668; 9. Brady Bacon, 98, Wedgewood-16.689; 10. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-16.698; 11. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-16.782; 12. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-16.824; 13. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-16.829; 14. Kevin Thomas Jr., 17GP, Dutcher-17.018; 15. Mitchel Moles, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-17.140; 16. Eddie Tafoya Jr., 51T, Tafoya-17.212; 17. Garrett Aitken, 32, Aitken-17.223; 18. Logan Seavey, 2B, 2B Racing-17.261; 19. Jadon Rogers, 5, Baldwin/Fox-17.274; 20. Brian Ruhlman, 49, Ruhlman-17.542; 21. Cameron Smith, 96, Kauffman-17.596; 22. Steve Irwin, 0, Flying Zero-17.647; 23. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-17.704; 24. Joey Amantea, 88J, JPA-18.010; 25. Hunter Maddox, 24m, Maddox-18.134; 26. John Mollick, 4J, Clever-18.403.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. Jake Swanson, 2. Carson Garrett, 3. Thomas Meseraull, 4. Matt Westfall, 5. Emerson Axsom, 6. Eddie Tafoya Jr., 7. Jadon Rogers, 8. Steve Irwin, 9. Hunter Maddox. 2:17.38 (New Track Record)
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. C.J. Leary, 2. Chase Stockon, 3. Garrett Aitken, 4. Tom Harris, 5. Jason McDougal, 6. Kevin Thomas Jr., 7. Brandon Mattox, 8. Brian Ruhlman, 9. John Mollick. NT
ROD END SUPPLY / T.J. FORGED THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. Brady Bacon, 2. Robert Ballou, 3. Mitchel Moles, 4. Daison Pursley, 5. Logan Seavey, 6. Justin Grant, 7. Joey Amantea, 8. Cameron Smith. 2:21.46
ELLIOTT’S CUSTOM TRAILERS & CARTS SEMI: (10 laps, top-7 transfer to the feature) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr., 2. Jadon Rogers, 3. Justin Grant, 4. Eddie Tafoya Jr., 5. Joey Amantea, 6. Cameron Smith, 7. Brian Ruhlman, 8. Brandon Mattox, 9. Steve Irwin, 10. John Mollick, 11. Hunter Maddox. 2:57.95 (New Track Record)
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Daison Pursley (1), 2. Emerson Axsom (3), 3. C.J. Leary (2), 4. Thomas Meseraull (6), 5. Jake Swanson (8), 6. Jason McDougal (5), 7. Brady Bacon (7), 8. Robert Ballou (4), 9. Chase Stockon (12), 10. Matt Westfall (11), 11. Kevin Thomas Jr. (14), 12. Justin Grant (13), 13. Eddie Tafoya Jr. (16), 14. Carson Garrett (9), 15. Logan Seavey (18), 16. Joey Amantea (22), 17. Tom Harris (10), 18. Garrett Aitken (17), 19. Jadon Rogers (19), 20. Cameron Smith (21), 21. Brian Ruhlman (20), 22. Mitchel Moles (15). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-18 Daison Pursley, Laps 19-24 Emerson Axsom, Laps 25-30 Daison Pursley.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACES: February 16-17-18, 2023 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – Winter Dirt Games XIV – 3/8-Mile Dirt Track
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
Dirt Draft Hot Laps Fastest Driver: Jake Swanson (18.304)
Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner: Jake Swanson
Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner: C.J. Leary
Rod End Supply Third Heat Winner: Brady Bacon
Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts Semi Winner: Kevin Thomas Jr.
Irvin King Hard Charger: Joey Amantea (22nd to 16th)