DAYTONA BEACH — When Brian Vickers arrived at Daytona International Speedway last week, he felt so at home, so excited and so much at peace it was like the past nine months had never happened.
Like he'd never missed a NASCAR race in his No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota. Never been sick a day in his life. Never wondered when, or if, he'd ever get behind the wheel of a race car again.
"It feels so good to be back in a race suit," he said. "I appreciate it more now than I did my first year."
In May, Vickers said he would miss the remainder of the season after he was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis in his left leg. Doctors later found blood clots in both lungs, blocking blood vessels, and diagnosed him with a pulmonary embolism.
While Vickers was being treated, extensive testing revealed he had a hole between the right and left atria in his heart and May-Thurner Syndrome, a rare condition that puts a patient at risk of more blood clots and possible stroke. Vickers had heart surgery in July to repair the hole, and a stent was placed in a vein in his left leg a day later.
When the Daytona 500 starts Sunday, the 27-year-old will resume his racing career as a much different person — and driver.
"Going through this is definitely going to change your perspective," Vickers said. "I think what I went through changed me more personally. It changed who I am. I grew a lot as a person. I have no doubt that going through this experience and how it's changed me personally is going to show up on the racetrack. My opinion is it's going to show up in a better way. I think it's going to be a benefit to how I perform and the actions I take on and off the racetrack."
A native of Fort Lauderdale, Vickers still loves skydiving, riding his motorcycle and other thrill-seeking activities. "They make me feel alive, and I love them," he said. While he expects to be as competitive as ever on the track, his perspective about winning has changed.
"Before I decided to come back racing, I wanted to accept mentally and emotionally to be okay with never racing again," he said. "And I got to that point. I was okay with it, I was content, I was happy if I never came back. I wanted to come back, but I was okay with it. And that was something hard to do.
"I think as a competitor you feel like you're afraid that you're going to lose your edge, if you lose that sense of urgency or fear or drive. But the reality is that my edge has actually increased. And I'm okay if I don't win a championship. For the first time, I'd be content and happy with where I am in life if I don't win a championship. That being said, I probably want to win it more than I ever have in my life. I'm not racing just to compete; I'm racing because I want to win it."
Vickers understands there might be questions surrounding his return and whether he's safe to be around. Even he acknowledged he might have reservations racing against someone who has been away from the track as long as he has. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said time on the track is all it will take.
"I think that it's really about being around other cars," said Johnson, a teammate when Vickers was at Hendrick Motorsports from 2003 to 2006. "And working with him I know well that he's very good to draft and be around. About a lap in (during practice), I wasn't paying attention and quickly forgot the situation he was in and off we went. He's got to go through that process with all the drivers. All the practice sessions leading up to the 500, by the time he gets to the 500, he should have everybody forgetting who is driving it. … I think by the time the 500 comes around Brian will be back."
Ultimately, Vickers hopes one day his health won't be the main topic of his career, but he knows it most likely will always be in the conversation.
"I don't want to be defined by that single issue, but I know that to a certain extent it's always going to be there," he said. "It's never going to go away. And that's okay. … You can see it as an opportunity to use that as a way to educate people on clotting or to motivate people who are going through something else that's tough in their life. Don't give up. Just keep fighting."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.