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For Will Power, road to glory includes broken back

ST. PETERSBURG

Perhaps you might have expected a celebration. Given the pain Will Power has endured, perhaps you might have expected him to dance from the finish line to the Pier and back again.

Perhaps you would have expected a few tears. Given the distance of his journey back to competition, perhaps you would have expected the water to flow like the weekend's rain.

Instead, Power walked quickly through the emptying crowd, his face passive, his voice calm. For a man who had just won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Power didn't exactly seem overjoyed.

Perhaps, as Power said, it is because he has such a long way to go.

Perhaps, too, it is because Power has come so far already.

How do you explain this? How can a driver come back seven months after breaking his back? How can he be a better, sharper driver on the other side of such an injury? How can he transform from being the racer with the broken vertebra to the man to beat on the IndyCar circuit?

As you search to answer those questions, here's another one.

Could there possibly be a better name for the subject of such a story than a guy named Will Power?

These days, life is good and the days are fast for Power. There is nothing sweeter than victory that was in doubt, nothing finer than success that was not promised. Monday's victory was his second straight, and the third in his past four starts, and the sight of him crossing the finish line no longer surprises anyone. Evidently, not even him.

If you go a few months into reverse, however, things were not as easy for Power.

It was Aug. 22, and Power was running practice laps in Sonoma, Calif. He was a part-time driver for Team Penske in those days, getting his first big break when teammate Helio Castroneves was on trial for tax evasion.

Another driver, rookie Nelson Philippe, had spun to a stop on the far side of a rise in the track. Philippe's car sat on the downslope, out of the view of the approaching cars. Driver EJ Viso clipped the front end of Philippe's car. After that, Power's car plowed into it in a horrifying crash. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, his future doubted by anyone who had seen the wreck.

"I don't remember a lot about it," Power said. "I just remember I was in terrible pain, the worst pain of my life. All I wanted was to get out of that car.

"I'll tell you something. When I first hit, I thought, 'There goes the career.' It was just a split-second thought, and I was in so much pain, I didn't care. I remember moving my legs to make sure I wasn't paralyzed."

By the next day, however, Power's thoughts had returned to racing. With these guys, what else would you expect? Power wondered if he would have a ride. Fellow driver Vitor Meira stopped by the hospital and assured Power that he had had the same injury and that Power would get his strength back.

"The back is still sore, but it doesn't affect me in the car," said Power, 29, a native of Australia. "I'm doing everything I did before. (The rehab) was just gradual, you know. There wasn't anything hard about it. You just had to keep at it.

"One thing, I lost the fitness I had. At that point when I broke my back, I was the fittest I ever was. Then I was at a very low fitness when I started getting back into it."

Say it again. The guy came back from a broken back. The next time you read about a baseball player missing a game with a chest cold or a football player sitting it out with a hangnail, remember that.

Power is a lucky man. Also, it seems, a talented one. He's so good, in fact, that other drivers are pulling for his health.

"I just hope he doesn't break any more bones," second-place finisher Justin Wilson said. "He seems to get faster every time he does."

"Helio and I joke around that we're going to have to break his legs sometime soon," third-place finisher (and Penske teammate) Ryan Briscoe said.

First, of course, they'll have to catch him. From the looks of it, that won't be easy.

And eventually, Power might win so much he breaks out a grin.

"You're trying to get me to show some emotion, aren't you?" Power said as he walked back toward the Penske area after the race. "But it's only two races out of 17. Trust me, if this was the last race and I had won the championship, I'd be crying."

Stay tuned. Eventually, the tears might come.

Given his history, it would be a Powerful sight.

For Will Power, road to glory includes broken back 03/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 1:29am]

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