"CJ" Comes Full Circle - Will Race "Rimer Rocket" Once Again by Matt Kentfield
Ten Months After Accident, Chris James Back Behind the Wheel
Chris James, left, chats with fellow Redneck Racer Bob Dillner before a race last year. (51 Photos)
Ten months ago, Drye’s shop stood quiet. There were a dozen or so racecars in various states of completion, but no one was there working on them.
Instead, Drye, his son, his co-workers that tinker on racecars at the shop each night and a few others that work on their cars in their spare time had switched their attention to a hospital room in Charlotte, where their co-worker, friend and racing colleague Chris James, often referred to as just “CJ,” laid after being involved in a non-racing accident on May 24th, 2006.
The accident took both of James’ legs, but it did not take his passion for life and it certainly did not take his enthusiasm for racing. Even as he continued his recovery process, re-learning how to walk with two prosthetic legs in late fall, James found himself back in the race shop more and more in the winter months.
Once he felt up to it, James would join his buddies at the track, visiting with them during the CRASHCar events of Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout and the
final races of last year’s Redneck Racing Series, watching his friends and colleagues have fun on the racetrack, wishing badly that he could re-join them sometime soon.
It was just last year that James was in a bed in an Intensive Care unit hoping just to get out of the hospital soon, let alone get back to driving a racecar.
As the Redneck Racing Series launches its 2007 season, James will not just be there laughing and tinkering with his buddies at the track, he’ll be strapping on a firesuit.
James’ recovery to the point to where he will pilot his “Rimer Rocket” again is a story that transcends racing. But for James, his recovery means he can get back to what he wants to do the most – race.
The ultra-bright blue glow reflected brilliantly in Chris James’ welding mask. Sparks flew from the fender of his racecar as he welded the new bodywork to the front end of the #38 “Rimer Rocket.” The sizzles and crackles of the welding process filled the entire shop, making everyone else inside Rusty Drye’s race shop in Rockwell, North Carolina have to shout over James’ clamor.
Nobody at the shop minded the noise, however. It’s all a part of the racecar-building process, after all. Plus when they consider the source of the sound, it makes it even more acceptable.
CJ will be back behind the wheel of his re-skinned "Rimer Rocket" #38 this year.
“I’ve been a good spectator for a while now and it’s fun, but it ain’t my cup of tea,” said James. “I like to be a part of it. I like going and being a part of it but I don’t care much for sitting there and watching the race. I appreciate the guys at Lowe’s letting me go up into the suites and watch the races and stuff like that. I got to meet a lot of people, but it’s not the same as being out there with the people that I have fun with at the track.”
Even his fellow racers could see how much James wanted to be back banging fenders with the rest of the field.
“You really saw it in his eyes,” said fellow CRASHCar/Redneck driver and James’ shop buddy Jeremy Troiano. “It was killing him to be in the pits and not be a part of the action. He wanted to be out there racing with all of us just as much as we wanted
him out there racing. He’s not a guy that’s just satisfied with sitting around and working. He loves racing these cars and you just knew when he was in the pit area that he’d be back there racing.”
James spent weeks in the hospital, undergoing numerous procedures and surgeries, including the amputation of both of his legs. But just a few weeks after leaving the hospital, James was back at Lowe’s Motor Speedway to hang out with the rest of the CRASHCar drivers. The itch to go back racing was there from the moment his wheelchair hit the Lowe’s infield, and it’s an itch that he is excited about scratching finally in the first Redneck Racing Series races of the year at Concord Motorsport Park on March 31st and the following weekend at Hickory Motor Speedway on April 7th.
He will be racing with two prosthetic legs and a few modifications to his car that will allow him to scratch that racing itch. But even though it will be an emotional moment when James fires up his “Rimer Rocket” for the first time at the track, it will be a familiar setting for James behind the wheel.
“It’s going to be the same feeling as always – just excitement for that green flag to drop. I can’t wait to go. It’s been a long journey, but that won’t even be in my mind. I’ve been taking every day for what it’s worth all along, and I’m going to keep living that way.”
James (right) will be sporting his new legs inside the racecar, battling with fellow Redneck drivers like Jeremy Troiano (left) this year.
For the people that James works with and races against, it will be just like old times, having Chris James’s “Rimer Rocket” out there on the track with them. But it won’t be the same Chris James behind the wheel. It will be the Chris James whose courageousness that is the envy of all.
“Really, when I heard about the accident, all I wanted was for him to be ok,” said Troiano. “Then, when I knew he was ok, all I wanted was for him to be able to get around. Then, once I knew he was going to be able to get around and walk again, I just really hoped that maybe one day, he’d be back at the track and working with us.
“I never really thought he’d race again, but then again, I know CJ. He’s strong willed and right from the start, all he talked about was being back at the track as a driver. I knew he’d do it eventually.”
James touched everyone he raced with, with his winning smile and positive attitude, both before his accident and after. That is why everyone was pulling for him just to live a regular life again, but the racing is just an incredible bonus.
“There is no way that I can sit here right now and in my mind, one year ago, have though that CJ would be back in a racecar, let alone just walking and doing everything that a normal, healthy person does,” said SPEED broadcaster and fellow Redneck Racing Series owner/driver Bob Dillner. “To see him getting around, to know that he’s been working on the cars as hard as he can, and to know that he’s going to be doing it (racing) without hand controls is unfathomable right now.
“For those of us who know him, to see him get back behind the wheel that day will bring tears to a lot of our eyes, I know it. We thought we were going to lose him a year ago. But even those people who don’t know him are going to say, ‘wow, a year ago this guy lost his legs and now he’s not even using hand controls to race again.’
“The will and determination that he’s had over the last year, I don’t know if I could’ve ever done it. If I was in CJ’s spot, I probably would’ve given up, but that’s not what he does and that’s not who he is. The fact that he’s doing this proves how strong he is.”
For Drye, who would burn the midnight oil with James in the shop night after night before the accident and after in recent months, having James back at the track will bring back a sense of normalcy to the tight-knit group of racers.
“I’ve always enjoyed competing against CJ,” said Drye. “We’ve always had fun racing with each other and working side-by-side in the shop. We would always work in the shop on our cars and then go race with each other at the track. That part was missing after his accident. I didn’t want to go in (the shop). It wasn’t the same without CJ there.
CJ was at the track, smiling and laughing with his friends, as much as he could last year. Now he'll back and behind the wheel.
“Now I’m just looking forward to having it all back again.”
James was injured while volunteering to drive a “packer” car at The Dirt Track @ Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Wednesday night prior to the World of Outlaws event at the track. James has driven “packer” cars for several years and was helping to get the track in shape for the night’s racing.
James got out of his car to allegedly remove a piece of debris from the track and was subsequently hit by another “packer” car, pinning him against his car and the wall. James was airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where he remained through his surgeries and procedures. After that, a recovery process began.
Now, James gets around by splitting time between walking and his wheelchair. He has been working around the shop just like the old days. The memories of the accident don’t get in his way of what he’s focused on, having fun and being fast behind the wheel of his Redneck car, which is nicknamed “Rimer Rocket.”
“I don’t worry about what happened. I can’t worry about what happened,” said James. “Back when I went out and packed the track back in November, the first time I went into turn three, I thought about it for a second, but then the next time that thought was gone. After two or three laps, it was just going out there and doing it again.”
James won’t be out there in the first races of the season with any special kind of racecar. No hand controls, no special contraptions to help him in or out of the car - just an infinite amount of ambition and plenty of answered prayers.
“I had been hoping I would be and I had a goal to be back racing by now. I fully expected to be doing it, I just wasn’t really sure if I’d be doing it without hand controls.
“But I’m just going to have a basic racecar – nothing special. The only thing I did was reposition the brake pedals and the gas pedal a little bit and I moved the seat back to give me a little more room getting in and out. I took the stock column out and put a racing column in there to give me a little more leg room, but other than that, everything’s the same. I’m going to drive with my left foot instead of my right, that’s it.”
James has come full-circle. He has competed for wins in the past in his “Rimer Rocket,” and he has been hard at work to make sure he does it again this season. It’s still “CJ” behind the wheel. And when “CJ” is out there, he will have a smile on his face as he always had. And what if the action gets intense between James and the rest of the field, with guys like Rusty Drye?
“I’m going to give him the old ‘Rimer Wave’ out the window and keep on truckin,” said Drye. “Just like CJ and I always have.”