DAYTONA BEACH — A horrific 2009 injury nearly ended Ricky Ehrgott's dreams of becoming a professional race car driver, but today the Jesuit High graduate will compete at Daytona in the midst of a miraculous comeback.
The former sprint car driver will race the No. 16 Coulter Motorsports Chevy in today's ARCA opener, the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 at Daytona International Speedway.
In Friday's qualifying, Ehrgott was seventh-fastest among 40, and was the fastest rookie.
"It's hard to describe actually," said Ehrgott, who grew up in Riverview. "You try and explain to people how it feels. You've got that nervous anxiety before the race, and you're not sure what's going to happen. It's kind of dual feeling, I guess. I'm excited, but I'm also at the same time very anxious and focused on my job in the car when I get in there."
Now 25, he began his racing career as part of the Ford Focus Midget Series, then progressed through the ranks. But a 2009 accident in qualifying at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway in a dirt midget changed everything.
Ehrgott hit a rut that sent his car flipping about 30 feet in the air. He was knocked unconscious, and awoke 45 minutes later at a hospital surrounded by medical personnel and unable to name the president. He later learned he had an artery that was torn 70 percent from the base of his neck to the top of his skull.
"I've been in the racing industry 40 years, and I've dealt with many drivers and seen drivers that recovered from injuries in different stages, but no one that ever had an injury as life-threatening or serious as Ricky's was," said Larry Curry, his manager, whose former drivers include NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
It got worse. Three months later, Ehrgott developed an aneurysm. He was 21.
"I didn't know what to think," Ehrgott said. "I think I was so young, and I think when you're that young, you kind of feel like you're invincible. I didn't realize the severity of it until after it was all done, healed up, and I sat down and really thought about it. Then I was like 'Wow, that was really close.' "
Ehrgott had surgery in which doctors removed a vein from his leg and put it in his neck. Because the aneurysm was at the base of his skull, doctors had to dislocate Ehrgott's jaw and remove nerves from his face.
"I couldn't move my cheek or anything like that," he said. "That's been the hardest part of the recovery, the nerves growing back. It's really, really painful, shooting pain through my face because of the nerves that are growing back in my face. I'm still in recovery. My face is a lot better, a lot of the nerves have grown back. It's still a little soft on the right side, but it's much better than it was."
During his recovery period, he worked on his degree in economics from Fordham University and graduated in December. But Ehrgott's love for racing never wavered.
Fellow driver Tom Hessert encouraged Ehrgott to attend a racing school and driving contest operated by Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg. A two-time ARCA 200 winner, Hillenburg's school conducted the Fast Track Blue Collar Challenge in June.
Ehrgott won among 50 drivers, and went on to make his ARCA debut Aug. 11 at the Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., where he finished 16th.
"Keep in mind, he hadn't competed in three years," Curry said.
With Curry's help, Ehrgott is trying to secure enough sponsorship to run the full 21-race ARCA schedule. He hopes this will be the beginning of great things along his long comeback road.
"I've had some influential people say, 'You've got some talent, you just need someone to help you make it,' " Ehrgott said. "I believe we're going to get this worked out."
NASCAR: Matt Kenseth triggered a five-car accident in the opening practice for tonight's nonpoints Sprint Unlimited race. Kurt Busch's No. 78 Chevrolet sustained the most damage, forcing his Furniture Row team to switch to a backup car for tonight.
NHRA: Tony Schumacher led Top Fuel qualifying and was uninjured when his parachutes failed to open at the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. He had a 3.758-second run at 328.14 mph before his car stopped in the sand trap at the end of the track. Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) also led their classes.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Information from Times wires was used in this report.
. fast facts
Fan voting closed Thursday on the format for tonight's Sprint Unlimited (formerly known as the Bud Shootout) at Daytona International Speedway. The three segments will be 30 laps, 25 laps and 20 laps. Other parts of the format will be determined today. Fans can vote at nascar.com or with the NASCAR mobile app on the type of pit stop to be made after the first segment, and the number of cars to be eliminated after the second segment.