DECORAH — Faced with where his racing career was concerned, Waterville driver Dan Jones had two options: quit or find a way to forge ahead.
It was 2012, and he was lying in a hospital bed, paralyzed from his T9 vertebrae (just above the waist) down from a logging accident. Jones had won races and been regularly competitive at Upper Iowa Speedway and Fayette County Speedway in his USRA Stock Car. An accident as serious as his would’ve been enough to sideline most people for good.
That was never really a consideration for Jones, though, who’s been racing since 1995. With hand controls, he was back in a racecar in the 2013 racing season. Saturday night at UIS, he was back in Victory Lane for the first time since his accident.
“I wanted to keep doing it, and it was just kind of a determination thing,” Jones said. “My crew and family are why I’m still out there doing it.
“I got kind of choked up and it was a relief to finally win one for my crew, myself and my boy and my daughter. … That night, the grandstand, that was awesome to come around and see the whole grandstand standing and cheering.”
Jones said the friends who make up his crew — Luke Howard, Jim O’Neil and Terry Kolsrud — told him while he was in the hospital they’d make something work to keep racing if he wanted to.
What they came up with was a paddle on the right side of the steering wheel — similar to a paddle shifter on a gaming steering wheel or in a street car — for the throttle, and rigged up the brakes to work by pushing forward on the steering wheel, which is attached to a collapsible steering column.
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Figuring out how to readjust his driving style came down to fighting instincts everyone who drives has. The feel of the racecar in how it handles through the seat was gone. How to navigate traffic on the track took time. Jones said the first night back, he got caught up in an incident where drivers wrecked ahead of him because when he went to push on the steering wheel to brake, he also accidentally pulled on the throttle paddle.
Slowly but surely, though, he got it back.
“After I made a couple laps, I kind of got used to it. I had to learn how to feel what the car was doing through my shoulders and throttle in my hands, where before you could feel through your feet and butt in the seat,” Jones said. “I’m getting more and more used to it the more I drive it and it seems to work pretty good.”
UIS boasts a highly competitive Stock Car class, with side-by-side racing and photo finishes a regular occurrence.
Such was the case again last Saturday night. Jones started on the pole of the main event, and raced wheel-to-wheel with Dillon Anderson every lap of the race. He ended up winning by a bumper, rolling the inside lane with success.
His racecraft still is a work in progress — like every racer — but Jones said his fellow competitors have never been anything but supportive in his coming back from the injury, and have never expressed any concern with racing around him.
As difficult as all the adjustments on and off the racetrack have been, being able to come back to racing without having to worry about naysayers was a relief.
“(The race) was pretty nerve-wracking (and) there wasn’t any time to rest or relax,” Jones said. “Until this day, (other racers) still can’t believe I can race and compete the way I am. I keep telling them I wish everyone had to do it some night; run with hand controls.”
Jones is an understated racer who was very matter-of-fact in discussing his comeback and his win.
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Your circumstances don’t dictate your reality, he said. Your reaction to them does. His days are different now, but finding a way to keep racing was part of finding a way to keep living without being angry or resentful for what happened that day he was hurt.
Winning for his 10-year-old son, 5-year-old daughter and wife LeAnne meant a lot because his son, especially, has wanted it so bad since he came back. Winning and racing for other people injured like him meant just as much.
He forged ahead for himself and his family, sure. But Jones also did it to show people it can be done.
“You never give up,” Jones said. “Sometimes you’re dealt with bad things in life and you’ve just got to deal with it and move on. It wouldn’t do any good to give up. I’ve got a wife and two kids and lots of friends. You’ve got to keep going. It’s not the life I want to be living or have to deal with, but it is what it is now.”
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