Tampa-raised NASCAR driver Aric Almirola: 'I'm very fortunate I'm not paralyzed'

Aric Almirola is seen by his car during warmups in February at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Aric Almirola is seen by his car during warmups in February at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published June 30, 2017

This weekend, Aric Almirola will think about what could have been. The Tampa-raised NASCAR driver will be at Daytona International Speedway, which has been good to him. He won his only race on NASCAR's top racing rung at Daytona, the 2014 Coke Zero 400. Last summer, he won the summer Xfinity series race at Daytona. Last February, he finished fourth in the Daytona 500.

Now he will watch Saturday's Coke Zero 400.

"It's very frustrating," the 33-year-old said over the phone. "To go there and spectate is going to be really challenging."

But then he thinks about what really could have been.

Almirola is recovering from a vicious May 13 wreck during the Monster Energy Cup race at Kansas Speedway, when he slammed into Danica Patrick's car after she wrecked with Joey Logano. Patrick and Logano weren't injured. Safety teams had to cut the roof off Almirola's No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car to remove him. He was airlifted to a hospital with a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra. A broken back. Frightening stuff.

"In the moment, I felt unlucky, woe is me," Almirola said. "But then the switch flipped. I kind of reflected on how lucky I was and how much worse it could have been. I'm very fortunate I'm not paralyzed."

Almirola is walking without a back brace, He continues physical therapy. And he is ahead of schedule. He was originally expected to return to racing in eight to 12 weeks but is now targeting a return in late July, possibly in time for the Brickyard 400. He had an MRI exam scheduled for this week.

"I've got my fingers crossed that the bone is healing and that we'll see a lot of progress," Almirola said.

He remembers every moment of his wreck:

"I didn't think I was paralyzed, because I could wiggle my toes and feel my feet. But I was concerned. The pain was severe. As an athlete, as a competitor, as a car driver, you instantly start thinking, 'Wow, is this the end for me? Will I ever been able to race again?' There are so many unknowns when you haven't made it to the hospital yet."

He has no second thoughts about his chosen profession.

"This is what I love. I'd be less satisfied as a human being, bored and unfulfilled if I didn't pursue racing. My ambition of driving a race car is much greater than my fear of getting hurt."

Three drivers — Billy Johnson, Regan Smith and Bubba Wallace — have driven the 43 car in Almirola's absence. Wallace, the first African-American driver in NASCAR's top level since 2006, will be behind the wheel for the Coke 400.

Almirola is making progress. In so many ways. When he returned to his North Carolina home after the crash, his young children, Alex and Abby, didn't understand why their father couldn't get on the floor to play with them or piggyback ride them to bed.

Dad is back on the bedtime express.

"I've got a 40-pound weight limit," Almirola said with a laugh. "Kids and under."