How excited are you to get behind the wheel of a race car?
"Yeah. I don't know how else to put it. Everyone keeps asking me how does it feel to be back? I guess, it feels damn good. You look for all of these words and ways to describe your emotions and your feelings and sometimes there's just nothing to say. I wasn't sure if I would ever be back up here talking to you guys about being in the car again and here I sit. I'm really happy about it. It's been a long year. Last year was a very long year. I'm very excited for 2011. I'm probably at the best place I've ever been personally, professionally, emotionally and I'm ready to go kick butt."
At any point did you not think you were ever going to get back into a race car?
"It's a fair question. It would be silly if I came here and didn't think I would get it. Yeah, there was a lot of emotional states that I went through. Pretty much the full range of everything you can imagine. When everything first happened -- and we've talked about this some over the past eight months -- when everything first took place I kind of attacked the situation head on which is my personality. When things are at their worst, right in the midst of the battle is typically where - - and I guess you learn a lot about yourself going through these situations. Things that I've always felt, but I think when you really put it on the line and when something really bad happens you really learn a lot about yourself. Right in the middle of the battle -- if you want to call it that -- laying in the hospital bed when I told the doctor that I needed to be at practice -- this was Wednesday and I told him, I said, 'Well, whatever we do I just need to be at practice by Friday at 10.' And he kind of tried not to laugh and was like, 'I don't know how to tell you this, but it's going to be a long time before you're ever in a car, if ever.' That's when I was probably my strongest at that moment. Trying to figure out and evaluate saying, 'Okay, you didn't say that I couldn't race.' Kind of like, so you're telling me there's a chance. Like in the movie Dumb and Dumber. One in a million, right. That was kind of my attitude to begin with and my emotional state I guess you could say. And just focused on how can I get back in a race car. First, focus on my staying alive and then obviously next was getting back in a race car. And it really makes you learn a lot about what you really love. The first thing I asked him was when am I going to be back in a race car, not how long do I have to live. Which, don't get me wrong it wasn't like it was that bad, but my lungs were shutting down -- that should've been my first question, not I need to be in the car Friday at 10. At first, through the hospital coming back and trying to evaluate the situation of what's next and what can I do, how can I possibly beat this. And then as some time went on -- a couple weeks went by -- I went to the race track and my first time back at the track, maybe second time back at the track was probably my lowest. My first time back I think I was still dealing with a lot of things and everyone was so supportive -- the fans, the media, the team, everybody top to bottom in NASCAR. So, it was kind of out of site, out of mind. Then the next time back just sitting there on the box trying to be supportive for the team, but it was just tearing me apart inside. I was just a wreck -- a complete wreck. My stress was out of the roof, my medicines weren't working, they were all over the place. That was probably when it hit me. That's what I have kind of always known about myself, but I learned a lot was usually in the middle of the battles when I'm the strongest and then when everything quiets down is when it hits me. It's the same thing when I've lost friends and family or any kind of tragedy that I've gone through. There was a point in time there where I didn't know if I was ever coming back. Not just because of the doctors, but I questioned if I wanted to come back. Maybe it was time to just start a new chapter of my life. Is it worth going back and trying again? What would happen to me emotionally? Trust me, once the doctors said, 'Okay, we feel pretty good about this and we're good with you going back racing if you want.' It's tough talking to a doctor about risk levels and going back racing and all of this stuff because most doctors would tell you that they'd rather you did not race cars to begin with. They're like, 'Okay, let's really think about this. You skydive and you race cars at 200 miles an hour and you're asking me about this. Let's address the first problem.' That's kind of their mentality. Once they told me I could go back racing -- it was funny, for the longest time I just kind of went down this path and I assumed it was a clear cut decision for me when I had approval, but as some time went on I started thinking to myself, 'Maybe it is time to start a new chapter.' You go through a lot of emotional states, I guess, to answer your question. I went through everything you could imagine, but in the end through a lot of traveling, chasing some dreams outside of racing that I always wanted to do and some soul searching and spending time with friends and family I realized that I couldn't not give it another shot. I felt like I had unfinished business. There was something that I left on the table that I always wanted to do which was win a championship. At first that was kind of my drive to come back and in a lot of ways it still is, but in the end what brought me back was just my love for racing. Just being in a car going 200 miles an hour -- whether I win or lose -- I'm happy to be back."
How do you keep yourself from trying too hard and trying to prove immediately that you're back?
"Yeah, I think you can definitely get caught up in a lot of things with the comeback story and wanting to come out of the gate swinging. Obviously, let's face it, my goal is to win the Daytona 500. That's not going to change. But, I would say day to day my focus has been probably more so than ever in my life -- I've always been a planner and very detail oriented -- most would say O.C.D. kind of guy. Everything was always planned out. I was always planning things so far in advance that sometimes you lose the moment. More than anything, just in life personally and professionally, I feel like I truly appreciate living in the moment more than I ever have. I always tried to do that, but probably more so now than ever. And I think the key to being successful for me moving forward is to just do that. Just to appreciate being at a test in Daytona, enjoying drafting with my friends and having fun knowing that something could happen and I may not be in that car tomorrow. I think if I just do that every single day, I go on the race track and I have fun and I go out there with one intention and that is to win and nothing else matters as far as from a competition standpoint. Just treat every day as if it is the last. I think that will solve the problem that you're referring to, which is getting caught up in everything else."
Are you under any restrictions from the doctors?
"No, I am under no restrictions. Now the doctors would say they don't find it wise to jump out of airplanes or race cars at 200, but that was their choice -- they became doctors for that reason, not race car drivers. I'm under no medical restriction whatsoever, I can do whatever I choose."
Have you been working out in your time away?
"I feel great, I feel amazing. I've been able to, like I said earlier, in a lot of ways, I'm in a great place right now from a lot of different angles. One of them is physical -- I've been training a lot lately. I've pretty much been on a bike or swimming laps or swimming in the ocean. Just this past weekend I was swimming a couple miles a day, spear fishing 18 or 20 feet down. I caught a lobster actually that I couldn't even fit two hands around -- I was pretty excited about that. Tasted good too. I'm in great shape, probably the best shape I've ever been in and my goal is to continue down that path and just continue to keep going."
How is having Kasey Kahne as a teammate changing the Red Bull Racing Team?
"As far as Kasey's (Kahne) concerned, I've enjoyed working with Kasey. Kasey and I came in this sport about the same time and we've always had a mutual respect, over 10 years you're always going to have your run-ins here and there, but we sort it out quick and painless. I've always had a good working relationship, even as competitors, so I can't imagine that our partnership, even as teammates is not going to go well. If you can get along as enemies, you ought to be able to get along as brothers, right? The drafting went really well. Kasey's a talented driver and we worked on some stuff and the drafting today went really well and hopefully that will show in the Daytona 500 when it really matters."
Did you have any major surgeries, when did you come off the medication and are you on any medication?
"I think the last time we were together we talked about the heart surgery, that was the last surgery I had and it went really well. Anytime you're having heart surgery, it's not a small thing, but the technology and how the procedures go today is just unbelievable. I was on a bicycle climbing a mountain at 10,000 feet with some friends out west two weeks, right at or a little over two weeks after that surgery. It's phenomenal. Probably the biggest thing they were worried about was with where the incision point was than the actual heart surgery itself. I don't remember the exact date when I got off the Coumadin, it was right at the end of the year, right at Homestead or Phoenix, something like that. I don't remember the exact date, but basically six months from when I went on. Plavix was right after that so all about the same time. It was good. Theoretically I could have been here for the Daytona tire test, but the way Red Bull and all the marketing stuff worked out, they kept moving the tire test on us and we had a photo shoot, our team photo shoot the same day as the tire test so that was actually why I wasn't here, not because of medical reasons. I'm not on any blood thinners moving forward or anything."
What was it like to get back in the race car for the first time?
"It was by far the longest time I've been out of the car. Actually it was eight months to the day that I was out of the race car, almost to the day, I think it was one day give or take. Deep down my gut told me that I was going to get back in not even noticing that I had been gone. You spend eight months and everyday someone asks you, 'So what do you think it will be like when you go back, are you going to remember?' You start kind of asking yourself these questions. Someone asks you a question enough, you start asking it to yourself even if you in your gut don't believe it. When I got back in the car in Orlando, it felt so good. Even before I pulled in the race track, just to sit in the car. All the belts still fit exactly the same, helmet -- it was weird. I don't know really what I expected getting back in the car and I remember how to hook everything up in the same order and it all still fit. I pulled out on the race track and to be honest with you, probably the hardest part was being at a track I had never been to before. I'd never even seen Disney, I didn't even know what shape it was. It's not a normal shape by the way, it's kind of weird. It's a weird little race track, but it was fun. It took me a couple laps to get used to the track and then was right back on times and quick time by like the second or third run out. It felt fantastic. Like an old shoe, fit right back on."
Why wasn't there a big draft pack today in testing?
"I don't know. We went out and drafted some and we were hoping that more guys would go. I don't know. It's just sometimes people are into it and sometimes they're not. I think most of the drivers find it obviously significantly more entertaining for us to be in the draft than single file, but it's really up to the crew chiefs. If they have stuff that they want to work on then there's very little you can work on in drafting sessions. Like speed wise on the car, you have to be single file. It looked like a lot of guys were just working on a lot of stuff today so maybe they're going to be focused on drafting tomorrow. I'm sure before we leave you'll see a pretty big pack. I can't imagine you wouldn't because I know pretty much everybody wants to see how the cars react in that situation, the track and all that stuff."
Did any of the things you wanted to do while away from racing stand out the most to you?
"That's a tough question. A lot of things stood out. Of all the things, at first I wanted to pick a trip, like I had an amazing time in Rome and met some great friends. I'd been to Europe a lot and even to Italy actually, but I hadn't been to Rome, it was my first trip to Rome. I fell in love with the city. It became my favorite city in Europe, hands down. I had a lot of fun there. Upon further evaluation, probably being at home was the best. I've never -- it's been a long time, if ever, that I've been able to sit at home and do nothing for an extended period of time. Through the off-season I try to jam all this traveling in that I want to do and I still barely have time with testing and media and other stuff. I'm always jumping and bouncing around. Bouncing back and forth out of Florida, going to the shop, seeing family, going traveling, spend some time in New York. I'm kind of always over the place. It doesn't bother me that much, but I enjoy it actually. I enjoy being on the move, I enjoy traveling. There's a couple times over the summer that I was just at home and had nothing to do, not a single thing on the agenda -- not a phone interview, not a race, not a test -- nothing, zero obligations for weeks at a time. It was amazing -- it felt fantastic. That was something I was working on personally any way. I have a hard time sitting still. I've always got to be active, I always have to be doing something. If I wake up late, if I sleep in, I get mad at myself because I feel like I've wasted the day. Some of that has always been my personality, some of it more so lately. I kind of set out on a mission from a friend of mine, some of his wisdom and guidance, he said, 'See if you can do nothing and try to accomplish that.' It wasn't easy. I actually had a really hard time doing it. Once I did it, I felt I really enjoyed it, probably more than anything else I did."
Was the May Thurner Syndrome what caused the clots and is there anything you are doing different now?
"In the medical field you never know anything for sure. At the time we felt like the May Thurner could have been a contributing factor -- being in the car, seated for an extended period of time, dehydration, maybe belts -- depending on which doctor you talk to. I had one doctor tell me he felt he leaned more towards the belts, had one say he leaned more towards the seating position, one leaned more towards the dehydration. They all looked at the May Thurner. By itself, would that have caused it? Probably not, but it definitely is not helping the issue. Unfortunately, one thing I have learned in the medical field is that no one ever says anything 100 percent, I guess until they declare you dead. Up until that point, there's always this vague grey area. I've went to some great doctors and I've worked with some of the best doctors and I couldn't say enough positive things about them and how they handled this situation. I genuinely believe they gave me the absolute best advice to the best of their ability, that they could leaving everything else aside. But, medicine is more of an art than a science. There's a lot of questions that are going to go unanswered, and that goes with anything. My situation is not unique to that. In a lot of ways, there will always remain to be unanswered questions. Moving forward they feel good with me going back racing. I feel good with me going back racing. I'm pretty excited about it."
Does knowing you could have died make you appreciate life more?
"True statement and good question. I think it's something that you can allow it in your mind every day and you can use it for empowerment or you can use it for the opposite. It can hold you back or it can push you forward. I believe that's a choice. You wake up every morning and you have a choice. We're getting into some philosophical stuff that's difficult to answer in one question in a 30 second sound bite. I truly believe that in a lot of ways it's a choice. Just because you think about it every day, doesn't mean it has to be a bad thought. In a lot of ways as a race car driver, you kind of build this natural ability or sense where you don't think about those things. You just go do, you just go do. That's what makes us good at what we do. It's not to be able to -- it's funny, every driver, I think and ever daredevil, if you want to call them, Travis Pastrana to Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, they'll do crazy dangerous things and maybe they overcome that in their own way. Some of them like to ignore it, some of them embrace it. I don't know. I've had some talks with some of those guys and I'm not going to answer the question for them, I do believe everyone approaches it differently. In the past, I've just kind of always been pretty much at peace with the idea and if it happens, it happens but until then I'm going to live the life to the fullest. But, in a lot of ways I just didn't think about it. Now I find myself thinking about it more, but in a positive way, not in a bad way. Thinking about more from the standpoint of just making the most of everyday and just trying to enjoy life. I don't think it's going to -- to date it hasn't slowed me down at all. That was a question I asked myself, when I get back in that car, am I going to be thinking about this all the time or not? Once I got back in the car, I didn't think about it one bit. It never even crossed my mind. I just focused on how much fun I was having and how happy I was to be back. Now I've been in the car for a total of three days and that hasn't changed and I don't see it changing going forward. In some ways, I just kind of -- it hasn't held me back at all. I do think about it, but I use it more for empowerment to motivate myself in the current situation than I feel like it's holding me back."
-source: toyota motorsports