'High Plains Drifter' Carelli feels just plain lucky By Brett Borden
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 14, 2000) In sports, injuries can do as much damage to the psyche as they do to the body. Speed is usually engineered by the legs or the arm, or in the case of auto racing simply the right foot. When that speed incurs damage to the body, the next time out the athlete tends to dance with it at arm's length.
The athlete has to learn to trust his dance partner again. That broken trust can heal slower than any broken part of the body. And in racing, speed is everything.
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Rick Carelli suffered serious facial injuries in an accident at Memphis Motorsports Park last spring. The impact of his accident took him out of the driver's seat for the rest of the 1999 season, and threatened to keep him out permanently. For a time last year, it looked like his days behind the wheel were done.
"You can't put words together to describe how lucky I am to be here and how lucky I am to get an opportunity to do it again," said Carelli, who is testing at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the series' first race at the 2.5-mile trioval track on Feb. 18.
"I was injured seriously," Carelli said. "I injured my eyes -- I was crooked. I couldn't hear right. Had artery damage and stuff like that. It was just one of those deals where I was very lucky. The doctors when they saw me told me that it would come back.
"They told me at least six months for my eyesight and it came back in like four months. The artery healed. Everything healed. I had my ears operated on right before Thanksgiving. And that all worked out. And then when I went and tested in Phoenix I decided if I wanted to come back and race again and when I got in it it's like I never left it."
Or it never left him. Either way, the "High Plains Drifter" is back. And Carelli sure knows how, or at least where, to make a re-entrance. His first race back is only going to be in arguably the series' biggest race to date, and his first test for that race came on a very windy day. He says it may be tough to come back this way, but he feels like he's up to the task.
"It's never really been easy," Carelli said of his journey to Dale Phelon's No. 66 Carlin Burners & Controls Ford, which began last November with the test he referred to at Phoenix International Raceway.
"Last year was tough," Carelli said. "It was hard on everybody. Hard on my family. Hard on myself. And you know we're coming back to a track that is the 'Super Bowl of Motorsports.' Here we are with a truck at Daytona and actually at first I was a little apprehensive, but it's no big deal.
"I tested at Phoenix and I enjoyed it, ran really well there. I couldn't wait to get started and I just needed to get cleared with all my doctors and stuff and it just worked out right where we're testing here at Daytona, and right now we're just sort of walking up on it.
"With the wind, the biggest thing today was just to get me acclimated to everything actually. You know, there's not a lot to do here at Daytona but ride around. The truck's gotta do all the work. I can move around on the race track and free the truck up. Right now by yourself, believe me it's not really much to do, but I'm sure when you get a bunch of trucks around you it's gonna be a handful.
"But nothing last year was easy, we might as well open up at the toughest race track there is and do it and get through it."
Carelli got through it fine on Friday. He was third fastest in the first day of practice out of 36 teams that tested. Carelli feels like pinching himself right about now.
"I knew how much I've missed something that I've loved so much in my life," he said of getting together with the team for which Mike Stefanik won the NCTS Rookie of the Year title last season. "I got an opportunity to do it again and I'm very fortunate to get involved with Phelon Motorsports. It was a situation where I felt we have excellent equipment and I'm coming to a team that's equal across the board with equipment.
"Right now they have everything going for them with their engine shop, with the new trucks being built and everybody going in the right direction. The biggest thing I need to do is just come out, be consistent, have some good runs and get everything together."
Practice is a different animal than the race itself. But it's a good first step for a man who was face to face with the end of his career just six months ago.
"We're looking forward to getting through here," said Carelli. "To win this race would be one of those ones that everybody wants to win. Get through here with a good one. We're gonna shoot for around the top-5. And things happen, if you're in the top-10 -- in position to win.
"I don't think anyone's gonna run away with it. There's a lot of guys that have a lot of laps here. There's a lot of guys you need to be around when you want to go and make it at the end."
It sounds like Carelli's ready to trust his partner again.