Advertisement
  1. Sports

Fennelly: Sebastien Bourdais on the road to recovery following terrifying crash at Indy 500

Indy car racer Sebastien Bourdais, who was in an accident before the Indy 500, smiles during a rehab session in St. Petersburg. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
Indy car racer Sebastien Bourdais, who was in an accident before the Indy 500, smiles during a rehab session in St. Petersburg. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Jun. 29, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The man on crutches was a patient in the physical therapy wing at All Florida Orthopaedic Associates on Fourth Street N. All around him Wednesday morning, working on equipment or on mats, were people on the mend — knee replacements, hip replacements, shoulder surgeries, people recovering off car accidents, just like him.

Well, not like him. He drives 10 minutes to therapy from his Shore Acres home and blends in. He likes blending in.

"Sometimes, I meet people and they ask what happened," Sebastien Bourdais said with a smile. "I just tell them, 'I hit a wall.'"

He hit a wall.

At 227 mph.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais times his leg-lifting exercise during a rehab session Wednesday at All Florida Orthopaedics in St. Petersburg.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais times his leg-lifting exercise during a rehab session Wednesday at All Florida Orthopaedics in St. Petersburg.

Fifteen years ago, before safety walls and other improvements, the affable Bourdais would not have lived to tell the story of what happened in late May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"That would have been it, the end," he said.

Bourdais, 38, who lives in St. Petersburg, had been rolling. In March, he won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the IndyCar season opener, in front of family and friends. He was looking forward to June, defending his class title in the famed 24-hour race in his hometown of Le Mans, France.

RELATED COVERAGE: Susie Wheldon, wife of late IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon opens up about life without him

And on May 20, he had the fastest car during Indianapolis 500 qualifying. "We were like a mile per hour faster than anyone else the first two laps," Bourdais said. "A rocket ship." He seemed a lock for the pole position and the man to beat in the May 28 race.

Then ...

"I just got loose," Bourdais said. "I thought I had it until I didn't."

The car hooked. He saw the outside wall.

"Oh, boy, this is going to be bad."

AP photo

The car driven by Sebastien Bourdais impacts the wall in the second turn during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500.

AP photo

The car driven by Sebastien Bourdais impacts the wall in the second turn during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500.

"That's what I thought," Bourdais said. "There's no time to say anything. The mind sends you pictures. You have just enough time to say it in your head. I didn't have time to back off."

The husband and father of two slammed the wall at 227 mph with a reported 118 Gs of force. Pieces of car littered the track as the car flipped before coming to rest. Even now, on replay, the violence of it is terrifying to watch.

Bourdais fractured his pelvis, a hip, two ribs and his right femur. He underwent three hours of surgery, which left a foot-long scar on his right side. He briefly lost consciousness after impact.

"For about two seconds after the hit and then the lights came back on," Bourdais said. "The guys on the radio asked, 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Uh, sort of.' I knew I was broken at that point. I thought I knew what pain was. I didn't."

He smiled.

"That's racing. You go from the perfect situation to it's all washed away."

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais smiles during a rehab session Wednesday at All Florida Orthopaedics in St. Petersburg.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais smiles during a rehab session Wednesday at All Florida Orthopaedics in St. Petersburg.

You're in an emergency room with your racing suit cut away.

Another smile.

"Butt naked as a baby, on a backboard, people all around you."

Bourdais began rehabilitation while still in intensive care in Indianapolis. He returned to St. Petersburg 10 days after the crash and is doing therapy three days a week at the All Florida facility, 90-minute sessions. Wednesday, he worked on the arm bike and leg bike. He did quad exercises, hamstring exercises and isometric hip exercises.

Nearly six weeks after the crash, he remains on crutches. Bourdais, sixth all time in IndyCar wins, hasn't been cleared for weight-bearing on his right side, but has one goal in mind: driving in the Sept. 17 season finale at Sonoma, Calif.

"If I get the green light, and I get can get in shape, I'd like to do the last two races," Bourdais said.

"He's doing great," said Dan Teaney, an athletic trainer at All Florida. "He's such a great guy. Very laid back. You ask about the accident and he'll tell you. He's very open."

AP photo

Sebastien Bourdais unpacks his helmet as he prepares to drive during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500.

AP photo

Sebastien Bourdais unpacks his helmet as he prepares to drive during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500.

Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Dixon was the first driver to visit Bourdais in the ICU the morning after the crash. Eight days after he hit the wall, Bourdais returned to the speedway for the 500.

"For me, it was important to go see the guys," Bourdais said. "When I did the press conference that day, I thought it was good to show people I was okay, that I didn't look so bad."

Early in the race, Bourdais went to the infield medical care center to visit ... Scott Dixon. Dixon had nothing more than a broken bone in his foot after a chilling crash — his car went airborne, then exploded into pieces after hitting the top of a wall.

Bourdais doesn't ignore the stark reality of his game, which includes the deaths of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and fellow St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Justin Wilson in 2015.

"No matter how hard you try to make the sport safe, at the speed we're traveling, it's an illusion," Bourdais said. "You take my crash. You change the angle (of impact) by a couple of degrees, that's it, it's over. There's no need to be in denial about the risks we take. Personally, I think a lot of us should reflect a little more."

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais uses an arm machine.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais uses crutches and maneuvers between equipment on his way to his next exercise station.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais uses an arm machine.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais uses crutches and maneuvers between equipment on his way to his next exercise station.

Bourdais has often discussed it with his wife, Claire, who was at a friend's home in St. Petersburg, watching her husband on TV, when he hit the wall.

"I don't think she's comfortable asking me to stop," Sebastien said. "We've talked about it. We talked about it after Justin (Wilson). Justin was a friend and in a very similar situation, with two kids. You can't help but relate to that and ask yourself if this is what you want to do or not. But my wife knows how important this is to me."

This is what he wants to do.

"I'm just a simple, regular guy who does stuff not so regular," Bourdais said.

I handed him his crutches.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais works with athletic trainer Dan Teaney during a rehab session.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Sebastien Bourdais works with athletic trainer Dan Teaney during a rehab session.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.