CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After having one driver sidelined for open-heart surgery and its newest driver undergoing double-knee surgery in the offseason, Team Red Bull has had its share of health scares. In addition to a crew chief for each driver, maybe this team should add a medic to its ranks.
Kasey Kahne decided to have elective arthroscopic surgery at season's end to repair tissue damage to both knees, including a torn meniscus. But that pales in comparison to teammate Brian Vickers whose bout with blood clots and open-heart surgery is well documented.
During last week's media tour, Vickers reiterated that he will never forget the doctor telling him, "You need heart surgery." Those are words a man never expects to hear at 26.
"That's a hard pill to swallow," Vickers said. "Any time you have heart surgery it's a major deal. It's not like I had my heart replaced -- there are varying degrees to that. But when you hear 'heart surgery' it gets your attention. But it was a problem I had to solve."
Vickers' issues developed in May, when blood clots were discovered in his left leg and lungs. He was forced to take the rest of the season off. Later, a clot developed in a finger on his left hand.
After extensive tests, doctors discovered a hole in his heart between the right and left atrium. He was also diagnosed with May-Thurner Syndrome, a very rare condition that causes a patient to be at greater risk for blood clots and a possible stroke.
Vickers had heart surgery to repair the hole on July 12, yet his future remained in doubt.
"The uncertainty was a huge hurdle to cross," Vickers recalled. "It made the experience much more difficult than a broken leg, where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There was a point in time where I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel and didn't know if I was ever going to come back. I had some personal decisions to make; some medical decisions to make.
"I had to decide if I could come back, did I want to? Those were tough decisions. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to come back; I was committed to it and I'm glad I did it. I was just so excited to be back in the car."
Though faced with a difficult decision, Vickers turned to the experts to guide him in the right direction.
"We weren't sure what caused it, what happened, am I coming off blood thinners? Am I not? Medically we had to answer a lot of those questions," Vickers said. "There was a lot of time there where I wasn't sure if it was even in my hands. Once it was in my hands, I still had a decision to make. If I decided to come back racing, was I going to be thinking about a blood clot every lap? Was I going to be able to focus on my job? Was I still going to love it? Was it time to move on to something else in my life? I had a hard decision to make and there were a lot of things that had to be weighed."
Like most race drivers, Vickers hates watching from the sidelines. He loves to watch races as long as it's a race he is not supposed to be in.
"Dale Earnhardt said one time when he was out of the car that it was like watching his wife cheat on him," Vickers said. "That's pretty much what it felt like sitting on top of that box; I know exactly what he went through.
"I was miserable."
Being out of the car for that long may have actually rejuvenated Vickers. When he returned to the cockpit of the Red Bull Toyota, first at Walt Disney World Speedway and then at Daytona International Speedway, Vickers couldn't get the smile off his face.
"I savored it," Vickers admitted. "I guess you don't really know what to expect, you're not really sure which direction to go, what emotions to feel. When you get back in the car, you're not sure what's going to happen. My gut always told me that I would get right back in it and it would be just like an old pair of shoes or riding a bicycle, but everyone starts asking you, 'It's been eight months, do you remember how to drive?' It's not that you really start believing it, but you start wondering what that experience is really going to be like.
"But when I got back in that car, the belts fit, I remember how to put them on -- nobody had to tell me how. In so many ways, I think I truly appreciated it more, but at the same time it was almost like I hadn't even been gone. It just felt so comfortable, it felt so good, it felt so normal to be back in that seat. I got in, climbed in the car, the belts still fit, the helmet fit and I put it all on and went racing."
Vickers wants to use his experience to create awareness about blood clot issues. But after the Daytona 500, he wants to talk about winning races; not blood clots.
Kahne can relate. He had an uncomfortable buildup of Plica, a tissue that grew into his joints and caused pain.
"We're all born with Plica and most of it goes away but mine didn't," Kahne explained. "Mine got bigger and filled up my joints. It was rubbing on my joints and my kneecap and things like that. It was kind of a pain. I tore the Meniscus on my right knee March of last year. I just lived with that all year and got lucky that something didn't happen there because it got much worse."
But Kahne kept going.
"I kept racing," Kahne said. "I was able to blow mine off until the end of the season. But the Meniscus was torn and it could have fallen into the joint at any time. At that point they would have pulled me out of the car and put me in an ambulance. The other stuff, I was just kind of tired of it and limping around. I didn't need to be there yet."
Though he doesn't plan on playing basketball any time soon, Kahne believes he is still in great shape, running and riding every day. The knees have not caused him any issues as he continues to build himself back up for the grueling 36-race Sprint Cup season.
"When the whole thing went down with Kasey, we knew that he was going to do that in the offseason," said Team Red Bull general Jay Frye. "We saw him walking around and he was OK. He got it done because he was uncomfortable and had time to do it, so every expectation was he was going to be fine.
"As for Brian, I've been through situations like that before with serious injuries to Ernie Irvan and Jerry Nadeau. And, it was the same things that we had to work on by keeping morale, and keeping the guys going and bringing guys in to help. I would say both of those guys are healthier than they were six months ago. They got their issues taken care of and they are both ready to roll."
Kahne wants to make a lot happen in his season at Team Red Bull before heading to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012.
When he signed the contract with Hendrick, some thought he would ultimately replace Martin this season. But Martin held firm to his full-season status, prompting Kahne to look elsewhere for a 2011 ride.
"Rick Hendrick told me whatever it was I need to make sure it was right," Kahne said. "This whole Red Bull thing came together and it is right. It's as good as anything I've ever had if not the best of what I've ever had. I look forward this season to make it work for everybody and keep everybody excited for what we have here."
Kahne feels fortunate to be away from last year's mess at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Vickers feels fortunate that he is back in a race car, period.