I’m pretty sure I’m going to die today. Or at least soil myself out of fear. Either way, this is not going to end well.
I’m in the passenger seat of a Camry stock car, powered by an 850 horsepower, 358 cubic inch, eight piston-firing V8 engine. In the driver’s seat is Vickers, a 13 year NASCAR vet, and still the youngest driver to ever win a top-three NASCAR series title. He’s also a guy with a history of crashing. Of the 17 races he started in 2013, four ended in flames. There’s a YouTube video called “Brian Vickers on Fire” that I shouldn’t have looked at, especially after I agreed to come out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ride shotgun with him.
I try to look at Vickers, but with the helmet and safety restraints, it’s damn near impossible. There’s a HANS device strapped to my neck and shoulders, which protects me from being paralyzed in case of a crash, and also serves as a reminder that I’m doing something in which being paralyzed is a distinct possibility.
“Any last wishes?” Vickers asks.
“Don’t crash?” I ask, hopefully.
He smiles at me and winks. He actually winks! Like he’s freaking Burt Reynolds in Smokey & the Bandit. Although what we’re about to do is ridiculously dangerous, his demeanor is relaxed and unflappable. He tells me about the last time he got into a crash, and how aside from the the physical pain, it’s really no big deal. “I’ve certainly had some hard hits,” he says, “The split second before you hit the wall, you think ‘This one’s going to hurt.’ And it does.” Somehow this doesn’t quell my fear.
Just a few hours earlier, we were sitting in the relative safety of the Speedway lounge, and he was reading me texts from his cellphone. They were all quotes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, which he’d sent to a friend recently diagnosed with cancer.
“You cannot fear what is next,” he read. “Only continue to push forward; every breath is a blessing for all of us. You and I have the pleasure of knowing how precious they really are.” Vickers paused and smiled. “Pretty good, right? That sums it all up right there.”
I cannot begin to tell you how weird it is to listen to a guy in full NASCAR uniform recite 1st century poeticisms on fear and dying. It’s about the furthest thing from the Talladega Nights Ricky Bobby, God and ‘Merica-loving good ol’ boy NASCAR stereotype. The Vickers of 2014 is a far cry from the young hotshot of ten years ago, nicknamed “The Sheriff” (allegedly because he once showed up to a can-shooting party with a huge magnum revolver), who NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson once claimed “enjoys being a menace.” Today, Vickers—still a young man at just 30 years old—is calmer, more self-assured, and even introspective.
I try to remember some of those Seneca quotes as I listen to Vickers rev the engine, which is scrotum-rattlingly loud. I need the reassuring, which I’m not getting from Vickers. For him, this is just another day at the office. For me, I don’t see how any of this won’t end in me being taken away by that ambulance parked nearby, an unpleasant reminder of the worst case scenario. It’s just occurring to me that maybe I shouldn’t have had so much coffee.
“Some people would call it courageous to race a car at 200 miles an hour,” Vickers shouts over the engine. “Some people would call it dumb. Some would even call it crazy. They’re probably all right.” He pauses and considers this. Then turns to me and shoots me a shit-eating grin. “You do have to be a little crazy.”
“You ready?” he asks. Somehow he’s the only thing in this car that’s not vibrating uncontrollably.
“I think so,” I tell him, wincing. And we’re off.
* * *
NASCAR drivers have to accept a certain degree of risk. From Dale Earnhardt in 2001 to Jason Leffler last summer, the possibility of dying suddenly and violently are just part of the job description. But one way they don’t expect to die is because of a medical issue not caused by a 12-car pileup. That possibility certainly never occurred to Vickers in 2010, when he was just 26 years old and in the best shape of his life. “I was super healthy,” he says. “I trained every day, I raced cars, I sky-dived, I mountain biked, you name it. I thought I was invincible.”
During a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit friends, he started having chest pains and shortness of breath. The pain got worse at night, so he did “the most rational thing possible,” Vickers says. “I took some Tylenol PM and went back to bed.” He called his doctor in the morning, who told him to go to a hospital immediately. Vickers went to lunch instead. But the pain only got worse “Every breathe was literally the most horrible thing I’d ever experienced in my life,” Vickers says. “So my friend and I decided to jog to the hospital. It was all uphill.”
It was reckless behavior, but he had no idea just how serious his condition actually was. Suspecting pneumonia, the doctors prescribed him antibiotics. But a follow-up CT scan revealed a far more deadly diagnosis: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in one or more of the body’s deep veins. “I had clots in my left leg, my lungs, even my fingers,” he says. “A clot actually went through my heart and into my left arm.” The lung clot led to a pulmonary embolism, which is especially deadly.
Of the 600,000 people diagnosed with DVT in the U.S. every year, about a third die from complications. But Vickers wasn’t contemplating his odds of survival. His only concern was getting treated as quickly as possible, so he could make it to his next race. Vickers remembers that the doctor “just looked at me disbelievingly and said, ‘Son, I don’t think you quite understand the severity of the situation. You’re most certainly not racing this weekend, if you ever race again.’ Talk about a shock to the system.” After a year that was shaping up to be one of the best of his career—he’d finished in the top 10 in three of his 11 races—he was facing the very real prospect that it might all be over.
Vickers was prescribed Coumadin, a blood thinner that reduces the body’s ability to clot. Racing was impossible—his doctor advised Vickers to avoid any activity “that involved wearing a helmet”—he also had to restrict his diet and do regular blood monitoring, which involved pricking himself three times a day with a needle. After six months of treatment—in which he missed 26 races—Vickers’ blood clots cleared up and he was ready to race again in time for the Daytona 500 in 2011.
But his health ordeal wasn’t over. In October of 2013, after spending several weeks in an immobilizing boot (because of an ankle injury caused by a crash in Bristol), Vickers noticed some swelling and deep bruising on his right calf. Now more cautious about his health, he immediately scheduled an ultrasound. Sure enough, it was another clot. His doctors prescribed the blood thinner Xarelto, which required no dietary restrictions or needles. And because he caught the clot early, his treatment lasted just three months.
It’s difficult to explain what it means to face death and overcome it—or at least temporarily sidestep it—without speaking in platitudes, but Vickers gives it his best shot. “I was expending so much energy on things that really didn’t effect me as much as I thought,” he says of his life before the clots. “I was all about wrestling control, but the reality is you can only control so much.” When faced with the unpleasant reality that blood clots were forcing him out of the sport he loved, and could quite possibly take his life, he found a happy medium between control and a Zen acceptance. “Obviously you want to do everything you can to better your situation,” he says. “But just as important is learning how to let go.”
“It’s like driving,” he continues. “You control everything you can, and the rest is up to fate. There’s only so much you can do. You can’t look behind you, or look too far in the future, or worry too much about three steps down all the line. All you can do is look out the front windshield, focus on what’s next, and breathe.”
* * *
It takes less than a minute for Vickers to push the car to 160 miles per hour. He’s up on the banking, riding so close to the wall that I could reach out and touch it. Our speed is abundantly obvious because of the open-air window, the net flapping violently in the breeze, my screams muffled by a jet-stream of muggy Nevada air.
You’re damn right I’m screaming. For the entire first lap, about a mile and a half, all I’m thinking is, ‘This is it. This is how I’m going to die.’ Into the second lap, when we hit our top speed—190 mph, I’m told later—it starts to feel unreal, like a video game. ‘Just relax and enjoy it,’ I tell myself. ‘He’s a professional, he knows what he’s doing.’ But by the third lap, the panic returns, and I’m scream-weeping again.
I try to calm myself by thinking of Vickers’ crash advice, back when we were still on solid ground and the world wasn’t whizzing by quite so fast. “Don’t lean away from the impact,” he told me. “If you hit on the right side of the car, your head’s going into the right headrest. It’s going to hit either way. Think of it like a punch. Would you rather be punched from an inch, or punched from a foot?” None of this is comforting. I try to remember Newton’s Law of Motion. Something about a body in motion staying in motion until it’s acted upon by an outside force. Like a fucking concrete wall.
But then I start thinking about those Seneca quotes again, the ones from Vickers’ cellphone that he likes to read out loud to anyone who’ll listen. “Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardship of life. They are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it.”
I glance over at Vickers, and I’ve never seen a guy look more peaceful. He’s so graceful and calm with the stick-shift, he might as well be doing t’ai chi. Before I got into a car with him, it was a little easier to smirk when he spoke of life’s challenges in easy aphorisms. “All you can do is look out the front windshield” sounds like a motivational e-card. But at 190 mph, when nothing is in my control anymore, I’m starting to understand the wisdom.
“I spent so much of my life trying to swim upstream,” Vickers told me. “Just fighting the current, traveling as hard as I could paddle. But after everything that happened, I try to swim downstream now. I’m still swimming, but I’m going with the current. It’s not that you give up and don’t fight. You’re just not expending any more useless energy.”
When the car finally screeches to a stop, it feels like a miracle. Vickers touches my shoulder, just making sure I’m okay and haven’t passed out. All I can do is laugh.
“You want to do it again?” he asks.
He can’t be serious.
“Three more laps,” he suggests. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
I take a deep breathe and try to muster some of the calm wisdom that seems to come so easily to Vickers. I need to be like him, and find the power in accepting your own powerlessness. The control in realizing you only have so much control. “Sure,” I say, unconvincingly.
I look out the windshield, trying not to grimace as Vickers slams his foot down hard on the accelerator. And away we go.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September issue of Men’s Health.)