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NASCAR WCUP: Injured crewman returns to scene of 2000 Daytona pit accident

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.,- Seven months and 14 days. That's how long Mike Lingerfelt was sidelined from his tire changing duties on The Home Depot Pontiac after a pit road accident in last year's Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

The 24-year-old Lingerfelt suffered a fractured left femur when he attempted to retrieve an errant tire on the fourth pit stop of the day on lap 157. The front tire changer from Marietta, S.C., was immediately taken to the infield care center where doctor Mark Gillespy made the diagnosis. Lingerfelt was then transported by ambulance to Halifax Medical Center where he underwent surgery.

"They cut me open through my hip, going through all the tissue and the hip joint, and put a 15 and a half inch titanium rod down through the center of my femur," recalled Lingerfelt during some down time prior to Thursday's Gatorade 125 race. "The area where they put the rod in and went though all the tissue still gives me a little bit of trouble, but not enough to stop changing tires - especially here.

"I didn't get to see the finish of last year's Daytona 500, and the injury put me out for a long time. I feel like Daytona kind of owes us one. I'm looking forward to going back. I'm not concerned about it and I'm not scared. I'm just ready to get back and put that chapter behind me."

The chapter Lingerfelt refers to is a long and arduous one.

"The accident happened on Feb. 20," said Lingerfelt, the series of events still crystal clear in his mind, "and I left Daytona on Feb. 23 to fly back to Charlotte (N.C.). The minute I landed at the airport, Al Shuford, our team's physical trainer, picked me up and took me straight to therapy that day. I actually started therapy the day I got back.

"I essentially had to learn how to walk again. The leg just didn't want to work because of the pain and trauma it went through. I had to mentally learn how to walk again, because in my mind I didn't want to use that leg, because I knew that with every step I took it was going to hurt. There was a lot of mental stuff that I had to go through at the very beginning to get that muscle ready to work again.

"But there was never anything that I didn't want to do," continued Lingerfelt, a tire changer since 1994, "because I was so conscience about wanting to hurry up and get back. I think what really helped me more than anything else was when Al finally cleared me to do everything that I wanted to do as far as lifting weights and working out five days a week. That was the turning point, because it allowed me to lift more weight so that I could build that muscle back the best I could."

"Mike's biggest asset in his rehabilitation was Mike," said Shuford. "He was very determined to not just come back from this, but to come back sooner and better than the doctors expected. He was very physically fit before the accident, so that was a big help. But Mike's injury was a serious one, and the pain that he went though, and still goes through to an extent, is masked by his determination. There was never any doubt in his mind that he wouldn't be back changing tires for The Home Depot team at Daytona."

Augmenting Lingerfelt's tenacious approach to his rehabilitation program was the generous support he received from the people around him.

"My mom and dad, of course, were really supportive," said Lingerfelt. "They were naturally worried, and they looked out for me to make sure that I didn't come back too early. My girlfriend, Gayle Thomas, was very instrumental because she was constantly in my ear to do the right thing. If I wanted to push myself further and harder - perhaps too hard, she was the voice of reason letting me know when enough was enough."

The months of rehabilitation paid off last October, when Lingerfelt returned to his over-the-wall duties on Wednesday night prior to the Winston Cup event at Charlotte.

"To get ready for my return to The Home Depot team, I changed tires for Rich Woodland during the ARCA race," said Lingerfelt. "We just did one four-tire stop; a common, simple stop - nothing special. It really surprised me that day because everything went so smoothly."

Lingerfelt's tire-changing stint in the ARCA race readied the veteran racer for his Winston Cup return in the UAW-GM Quality 500.

"The first stop that day felt good," said Lingerfelt. "It was surprisingly calm. I thought that I would be a little bit more nervous than I was, and I figured that it would bother me a little bit more than it did. But it didn't. The rest of the stops that day were all surprisingly calm.

"It made me feel good because I had worked so hard to get back. I had been practicing for about three months beforehand. I started out by just taking the air gun and hitting lugnuts, then I'd run around the car and just change tires on one side, then I finally got to where I was doing a full stop in practice. To finally be able to get back to changing tires for real, after going through all of the practices by myself outside the shop during afternoons and lunch breaks and getting back with the guys who meant so much to me - that was pretty special.

"Coming back here to Daytona means a lot to me," continued Lingerfelt. "Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing supported me through my injury and my recovery. Seeing those guys care so much for me makes me care that much more for them. You've probably heard this one before, but when one person wins everybody wins, and when one person loses everybody loses. I don't think that's anymore evident on any other race team than on this one right here."

Text Provided by Mike Arning

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