ROSSBURG, Ohio — Thursday, he was medically cleared. Friday, he was back in a racecar. And on Saturday night Robert Ballou returned to victory lane at Eldora Speedway.
The timeline of events that led to Ballou’s triumphant return to the top after an agonizing eight-month recovery from serious neck injuries sustained in a racing accident last September at California’s Calistoga Speedway is as remarkable as it comes.
The storybook journey took the Rocklin, Calif., native and 2015 USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car champion to the front of the field at one of dirt-track racing’s most challenging tracks.
Eldora was a fitting stage for Ballou’s return, but it was just happenstance that the first leg of his road back to the race track took place at a venue that has served him so well over the past decade.
It’s the same place where he earned the first three of his 27 career series victories as well as the first #LetsRaceTwo feature in 2015. But, most importantly, it’s a place – physically and mentally — that put him into a comfort zone as he put into perspective how fortunate he was to have another moment such as the one he had in front of large, raucous crowd Saturday night.
“Being able to come back and race a sprint car again is a victory in my mind,” Ballou said. “I was faced with some circumstances where, in reality, I should’ve died. Obviously, someone wasn’t done with me and I’m still here. It’s sure been a long road. To come back at Eldora, I think everybody was excited fanwise, but I think they were all pretty leery. I’ve always loved this place, though. It comes pretty natural to me.”
Just two days prior, Ballou’s status was still uncertain as he awaited medical clearance from Dr. David Schwartz that would give him the go-ahead to get back behind the wheel of a race car. Thursday night, he received official word and, from that point, it was a bit of a thrash to get everything ready to go for the next two nights.
“Our new Eagle chassis was sitting in the shop and hadn’t been touched until about a week ago,” Ballou acknowledged. “I said, ‘Hey, there might be a chance we could get going in June, so we need to get the ball rolling.’ I had been going to work every day and spending every night in the shop. I didn’t even get stickers or bumpers on the car until 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon.”
Getting back in racing mode is not only difficult on the psyche after a serious incident such as Ballou’s, the stakes are high when your racing career and your livelihood depends on your results on the track. Ballou admits that the situation is dire in some areas, but his level of success over the past three years has paid large dividends, and bills.
Being out of commission for three-quarters of a year, however, put him in a difficult bind when he was sporting a brace instead of a firesuit.
“Fifteen days before I crashed, I bought a house,” Ballou recalled. “I was out of work for 21 weeks and I couldn’t afford my shop and my house at the same time without any income. I was pretty fortunate over the 2014 and ’15 seasons to bring in enough prize money to put a second and third car together and get a truck and trailer. I’ve got all the parts; I just don’t have any money left. If we can keep winning before my parts supply runs out, hopefully we can get our bank account built back up and get back to where we were.”
On the first night back on track, Ballou admits he and crew chief Derrick Bye were a bit behind the curve at the beginning of the night, but each time they hit the track, they got a little more comfortable and a little faster as the competitive juices began to flow again, helping get the two back into the same high-standard mode that drove them to 21 series victories from 2014 to ’16.
“I was pretty rusty Friday night and we have a new chassis that we’re trying to figure out,” Ballou explained. “We probably played it a little too conservative to start. We were trying to play catch up all night. You can’t play catch up in this game. If you get caught behind the eight-ball, the night’s over before you ever get back on the right side. That was ultimately the issue the first night. Tonight, we pretty much picked up where we were left off before the accident.”
Saturday night, it looked like 2015 all over again as the white No. 12 was fast right from the get-go. He timed in fourth, ran second in his heat and began the main event from the outside of the second row.