Heading into night two of the Knoxville Nationals on Aug. 13, 2015, Kevin Swindell was on the rise and had the motorsports world seemingly within his grip.
He was on top of his game in sprint car and midget competition and had received opportunities to race stock cars as well.
However, in a split second, everything changed for the third-generation driver from Germantown, Tenn.
Coming to the green flag for the second heat race of the night, a car on the inside of Swindell’s No. 71 Indy Race Parts sprinter rode up over the inside berm at the half-mile Marion County Fairgrounds dirt track and moved into Swindell’s path.
Swindell’s car veered right as a result, caught air and flipped before coming to rest hard on all four wheels. A hush fell over the Sprint Car Capital of the World.
The 26-year-old driver was airlifted to a hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was treated for spinal injuries that left him partially paralyzed from the waist down. His driving days were over and everything Swindell had worked toward since he was young was pulled from his grasp.
It was a life-altering moment for the son of legendary sprint car racer Sammy Swindell.
“Everything became different after that night,” Swindell told SPEED SPORT.
Where Swindell was once focused on winning races and leaving his mark behind the wheel, his focus after the accident was, understandably, in a different place.
At first, it was on learning to function with his new situation. Then, it became trying to regain whatever movement he could in his lower extremities.
But now, five years after the crash that ended his driving career prematurely, Swindell’s eyes are back on the prize of winning races, just in a slightly different sense than in the past.
Swindell has found new competitive homes, both in the real world and in the virtual world.
When it comes to real-life racing, he owns the No. 39 Swindell SpeedLab sprint car that he and his wife, Jordan, have taken on the road since 2016.
Inside the growing realm of esports, Swindell launched his own iRacing team a couple of years ago and has built it into one of the premier operations in sim racing. His Swindell SpeedLab esports team fields multiple drivers who contend for wins and championships each season in the World of Outlaws-sanctioned championships for virtual sprint cars and late models.
He’s even jumped behind the wheel — virtually — utilizing a specially designed sim rig with hand controls to earn several World of Outlaws iRacing Invitational victories this spring.
While winning on the iRacing simulation platform doesn’t quite carry the same thrill as when he was in his real-life sprint car several years ago, Swindell says sim racing is as close as he can get to being in a race car for real, and that he’s enjoyed being able to reignite his competitive fire.
“It’s been really good to get back to mixing it up with a lot of these guys; I’ve really enjoyed it,” Swindell said. “I’ve honestly been pretty comfortable throughout this whole process. I think there’s a lot to be said for what being competitive does for a driver, and a lot of the guys I’m familiar with and have sim raced against. I ran a lot with Logan (Seavey) and those guys in the rFactor (simulation) days. A lot of us haven’t run together very much in the last couple of years.
“It was a lot of fun to hang out and use TeamSpeak during heat races to laugh about certain stuff earlier this year, while the Outlaws were doing their iRacing series. It has really been a good time.”
Perhaps appropriately, Swindell earned his first iRacing Invitational victory on April 8 at the simulated version of the very track that altered his life five years earlier.
It was something that wasn’t lost on the third-generation driver, even if he wasn’t necessarily thinking about the fact at the time.
“I’ll be honest with you; I didn’t really think about it much,” Swindell admitted. “I was just basically worried about taking down a win at all. Really, I knew that I kind of gave away or didn’t quite do enough at Charlotte (during a prior iRacing Invitational) and probably wasn’t as good there as I should have been. Just to get rid of all those mistakes and finally put one away was a good feeling.
“That’s really what I was thinking about more than, ‘Hey, I won at Knoxville,’ but winning at Knoxville in anything is always special, even if it is on iRacing,” he added. “We all know the history the track has and how important it is to sprint car racing. It’s just a neat place and it was good to get the job done.”
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