Injured Driver Speaks Of Accident, Recovery, Future
Billy Venturini remembers his Daytona accident like it was yesterday. The ARCA veteran was seriously injured in the late-race accident back in February when his car was hit by another car as it was sitting at a complete stop during the multi-car accident. Following the accident, Venturini had immediate surgery to repair a broken neck, among other various injuries. He was eventually released and continues to recuperate from the injuries back home in North Carolina.
In the meantime, Venturini and his team have put Jason Jarrett behind the wheel of the #25 until Venturini can return to the seat.
Our Bob Dillner recently sat down with Billy at his Concord, NC, raceshop for an in-depth interview for both SPEED Channel and Speed51.com.
when I think the 7 car of (Kyle) Krisiloff got into me. He had gotten hit and I don’t think it was anything of his doing. He got into my right rear and I nosed into the wall. I slid against the wall nose first most of the way down the back straightaway. I came to a rest and keyed the mic and told the crew I was fine and they said “hold one, they are still coming.” It was about three seconds later, I got blasted.
BD: You told me you knew exactly which hit broke your neck.
BV: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. That is it. I stayed conscious the whole time. The first wreck was no big deal. I felt fine. The next hit hurt me. It was a direct side impact. Someone hit right into the side of my car as I was stopped. I knew which wreck hurt me.
BD: How do you climb out of a car with a broken neck?
BV: The car was on fire, so I didn’t have much choice. I knew my neck hurt. I didn’t know it was broken. When it is on fire, though, you have to do something. You are not going to stay in there. So I climbed out and I twisted my head pretty good. Anyone that has tried to get out of these cars in a helmet knows you have to maneuver pretty aggressively when you need to get out. I got out and told the Safety Crew that my neck hurt and they did their job to keep me safe.
Venturini (#25) was invovled in the last lap accident at Daytona. After climbing out of the car, he was transported to the hospital (bottom, right), where he had immediate surgery on his neck. (Daytona Beach News Journal Photos)
BOB DILLNER: Do you remember anything about the wreck?
BILLY VENTURINI: Oh yeah, I remember everything about the wreck. I never blacked out and I think that is what has made the recovery a little bit easier is that there was no head injury. I stayed conscious the entire time. I even climbed out of the wreck myself. I remember everything that happened in that whole deal.
BD: It was such a big melee and dirt was flying all over the place. You were sort of lost in the shuffle, right?
BV: Yeah. I was ahead of the wreck from what they were showing (on TV).
BD: What happened?
BV: My part of the wreck was this. I was right behind Todd (Kluever) and Joey Miller. That is where the wreck started. I saw Todd get turned backwards and he was just starting to come off the ground when I went all the way to the inside. I just about had the wreck cleared
BD: When did you get worried?
BV: I don’t know. I haven’t yet. It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it. I was a little bit upset the Saturday night of the accident. I think we had a really good shot and we had a team that could contend with Frank (Kimmel) this year with the sponsorship we have. Now I don’t feel like there is a team that will be able to contend with him the way we would have been able to. I thought we could really contend with him this year and that is what I was upset about that first Saturday night.
Health wise, I never really had a concern. It is probably a good thing I didn’t know all of the details until a couple of days later.
BD:Was there any point before you talked with your family or anything that you were scared at all?
BV: Yeah, for about three or four seconds after the wreck. Like I said, the thing caught fire, and I was thinking “get out quick.” I knew I had neck pain, but the car was on fire, so I knew I had to get out. I went to get out and I couldn’t move my hands. I was trying to figure out why my hands weren’t moving and then I figured out it was because I couldn’t feel them. Then they started tingling and as soon as they started tingling, I could move them and I could feel my belts again. I took my lap belt off and I climbed out. But there was about three or four seconds there that probably felt like an eternity to me at the time.
It wasn’t long, but enough to scare you.
BD:When the doctor first told you “three months out of the car” in the hospital, what were you thinking?
BV: That night, I was mad. I was upset. I was angry. I felt like a real good opportunity this year was slipping away. They’ve told me it will be three to six months. As this whole deal has gone on, three months isn’t going to happen. I should be in a racecar in six months or less hopefully. It is what it is, though. When I saw the details and saw how bad the break was and all the ligament and muscle damage I had, I was pretty fortunate. There really wasn’t’ anything holding the spinal cord in place when I got out of that racecar. Somehow, I can move my toes and fingers and I can live a normal life and I’m going to be able to get back in a racecar.
disparity, there is no way I can risk getting back in the car until I’m fully healed. And when it is fully healed, I’m going to get in the car. But I want to get in the car and be able to go race like I wanna race. I wanna be able to race with no reservations and be able to drive it in like I want to and be aggressive. That has been my style; I don’t want to change it.
BD: Your father has been through this before; has that helped you?
BV: It has. There have been some questions there. It has been good because he has been able to answer. I think mom’s experience has been better than dad’s because she has been able to handle this excellent and take care of me which has made the recovery easy. It has been awfully uncomfortable trying to sleep and it has been a real pain trying to get around with this thing, but actual every day life, I have been able to do everything I was doing before. I guess I’ve been really lucky because of that. I didn’t get beat up too much in the wreck.
Billy knew exactly what hit broke his neck.
BD: Do you remember what you thought when they first told you that you couldn’t race for that long and what you scribbled on the piece of paper?
BV: There was a lot of stuff I scribbled on a piece of paper. I was pretty sarcastic when I was in the ER the whole time. I guess my sense of humor didn’t go away. I was pretty much a smart ass the entire time. They told me three to six months and I wrote down 11 weeks the first time when they told me. That is just the way I am. No matter what they said, I’ve said something else. It is like “Lets Make a Deal.” Every time they said something, I’d say I can do it in this amount of time. At that moment, I was just trying to figure out how to get back in the car. I was trying to figure out how to get in the car for Nashville. As time has passed and the
BD: Talk about he support you’ve gotten.
BV: I didn’t think anyone liked me. I’ve kinda been labeled more or less the bad boy of the series. I found out that I actually have people who like me. I was surprised. Even some of the competitors. Most of them. It has been kinda cool. It has been really neat; the support that I’ve gotten from all of the competitors in all kinds of series, not just ARCA, but from Cup drivers and Busch drivers and owners. I just really appreciate it. It is pretty cool. It is very humbling.
BD: Some big time stars too, right? Even something from your hometown Chicago Cubs.
BV: Oh yeah, I got something from Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. I got some stuff from a bunch of guys on the Phillies. Gary Varsho, a guy that used to play on the Cubs, has been a fan and he’s the hitting coach over there and he got a bunch of the guys to send me some stuff. That was really neat. Oprah sent something. That was really neat. She’s another Chicago-based woman. Jack Nicholas, one of my old sponsors, sent something too. So it has been neat. I guess I’ve been able to collect some cool collectables if nothing else. I’ve had something to do over the last couple of weeks.
BD: Guys like Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace have been supportive as well, right?
BV: They were at the hospital that night. It is awesome. Schrader came back and saw me again. It is really cool because I’ve been able to race with Kenny (Schrader) on the racetrack hard. You have some of these guys that you race against that you never see eye-to-eye because we are all egotistical drivers. We never back down from each other. Then something like this happens and you realize that we are all the same. It is really neat to see that. The minute something like that happens, we are all family.
Frank Kimmel; he and I never see eye-to-eye on anything, but my respect for him is through the roof. But he has made sure and called a couple times. So has his brother and his owner. When it comes down to it, you know who really cares.
BD: What has been the biggest obstacle?
BV: Sleeping! That is it. Everything else has been pretty much the same thing. I need a little help cleaning my bolts.
BD: I was here in the shop when you were getting tons of phone calls with people wanting to drive this car. Talk bout that selection process and how hard it was for you to put someone else in your car.
BV: I accepted that pretty quickly. It is also my race team too. It is a family team. My father owns the team, but I feel like it is my team too because I have put so much into it and it has been such a big part of my whole life.
The team has to go on. I understand that. I am not going to lose my ride, so I’m not worried about that. I think that is what a lot of injured drivers worry about. I don’t care if the guy comes out and wins every race he is in; it is still going to be my ride when I get back.
We ended up having a lot of very good drivers call and show interest. It was actually very flattering that they were all calling and wanting to help out too. Everyone seemed to wanna help. It wasn’t financially driven by a lot of these people. A lot of them were willing to help… including some very big- name drivers, just to help us out of the situation. That was cool. I’m glad that everyone thought enough of us and respected us to do that.
It was hard to put someone in it, but I knew it had to be done.
BD: Even Schrader tried to come to your aide and said he’d drive your car, right?
BV: That is a great thing. A Nextel Cup star like him. He wanted to do it to help the family. If it wasn’t for the situation with A-B-C points and stuff; we really wanted to put someone in it that would be able to help the team the whole time. Ken would have been the best fit we could have found for one race. There isn’t anyone better.
But in order to give the team foundation, we needed to find a driver that we could keep in there and say this is our driver until I’m ready to get back in. And that driver may even be in a second team for the rest of the season. That is kinda the goal. We are looking to expand this team to a two- or three-car team for next season.
BD: Jason Jarrett is a rival on the track the last few years, now he is in your car. What do you think about that?
BV: Jason is a class act. What he brings on and off the track will be a great asset. I think we are about polar opposites when it comes to “PC” type stuff. He is the most politically correct guy off the track. He is going to be real good for sponsors and he is going to do a good job. He can drive a racecar. He is going to get us some good finishes. He is just a good fit. Personally, I couldn’t’ have picked anyone better. I just think the world of Jason and I’m glad he is in the car. I feel very comfortable with him in the car.
Billy's team has given him a hard time, but they've been there and supportive the entire time as well.
BD: Your crew is just a typical crew, razzing you and everything. Tell me about some of the pranks they’ve pulled on you.
BV: My crew and I are abnormally tight. We are a real tight-nit group. These guys are everything to me. We are best of friends. It is not a normal crew-type deal. We leave this race shop and go and do things together all the time. They were at the hospital all the time. Even when I got back to Charlotte, they were coming to see me every night. They harass me a little bit. I just got my new autograph cards in and they found it necessary to take a Sharpie and draw a little halo on the cards. They know I’m light-hearted about this and you need to be. You just have to understand that I’m just healing from a broken bone.
BD: They say, opposites attract…
BV: If you’ve ever met his wife, you see they are total opposites. They are a great couple, though. Jason and I are about the same way. We have always gotten along excellent. He is probably my closest friend that I’ve ever raced with. I told him last year after I hit him at Lake Erie that I felt guilty. I told him afterwards I need to not be this good of friends with any racecar driver because if I hit you and feel guilty, that is wrong 'cause I can’t do my job then. I try not to become too good of friends with these guys, but me and Jason are.
BD: So you are thinking about starting that second team too?
BV: The perfect scenario is that we can solidify the second team so when I get back in the car, he can hop in the second car and finish out the season. If we can generate the sponsorship that we are working on, that is the plan. Then, for next year, we are looking at possibly starting a third team. In a perfect world, the plan would be having Jason and myself as the veterans and bringing a rookie on who can run a third team.
BD: What is the goal right now for you to get back in a racecar.
BV: Time wise? I would say anything before Lake Erie would be considered gravy. Lake Erie would be just short of that six-month mark. It would kill me not to be in the car for that race. That is one of my favorites. I have the track record there and it is a lot of fun to drive. Anything before that would be gravy. I just am looking forward to getting in the car and running well.
BD: What is the step-by-step process of getting you in the car?
BV: Healing wise, I should hopefully be getting the halo off around April 1st. Then I am going into a hard collar, which I’ll be in for about two or three weeks, then ill be in a soft collar for a week or two. So in about five weeks, I should be able to live a normal life. I could drive a racecar then, just not crash a racecar at that point. That is what it is really all about. We need to be able to make sure I can withstand any type of impact before I get in a car.
BD: And will there be a testing process?
BV: We’ll test a short track and a speedway before I get back in the car to race. I’ll be sharp. Anyone that knows me knows I’m as headstrong as anyone they’ll come across. I refuse to get in that racecar and not do my sponsors justice. When I get in the car, I will run well. I’m going to get everything it will get. Our cars are capable to do that this year because of our sponsors. When I get back in the car, I want to win. I want to win the first race I’m back. I don’t’ want to go out there and run 10th and be happy.
No, I wanna get in the car and be a contender to win the first race out.
Jarrett (left) has been spending a lot of time in the shop since getting the call to sub.