Memo Gidley returns to Daytona 3 years after horrific crash

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Memo Gidley stepped onto the dais, clinched his fists and then triumphantly raised both arms above his ahead.

He probably should have taken a bow, too.

Gidley returned to Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the first time since his horrific crash in the early hours of the 2014 Rolex 24. The harrowing accident that left the popular driver in a hospital for weeks, in persistent pain from nerve damage, and in rehab for years. Gidley underwent eight operations, including two knee surgeries and a spinal fusion.

How bad did it get? Simple car rides were miserable, with Gidley feeling agonizing discomfort every time the driver touched the brakes or drove across a road reflector. Sitting, sleeping and eating also were far from routine.

''I basically was on my stomach for a lot of days,'' he said. ''Breakfast, lunch and dinner for about eight months lying on my stomach on a massage table and eating over an edge.''

Although Gidley still has a dull ache near his tailbone because of the nerve damage, he has been cleared to resume all normal activities - including racing. And he's ready to get behind the wheel.

''I'm not scared to be out there,'' he said. ''It's like walking down the street for a lot of people. And, you know, when you're walking down the street every now and again, you trip on something. And that's what happened with me out driving. Something happened unexpected, but I feel good. I really feel good. I'm excited and I want to get back out there.''

Gidley won't race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a twice-around-the-clock endurance event that begins Saturday, but the only thing preventing his return is a car owner giving him a chance. He expects it will happen. He just doesn't know when or where.

''Now that I can drive, I can just start to get my name back out there and let people know I'm here and ready to go,'' he said.

In the meantime, spending a few days at Daytona surely will be a cathartic experience. Gidley plans to visit doctors and nurses at nearby Halifax Health Medical Center on Friday. He took time Thursday to publicly thank IMSA officials who supported him during every phase of his rehab, first-responders who cut him out of his No. 99 Prototype, his wife, his mother and his former car owner, Bob Stallings.

''I'm just really excited to see people and say thanks and then I'm really excited to just close this chapter in my life, which sounds weird, so I'm a little nervous about that,'' he said. ''But I'm just ready to be like the normal Memo was a few years ago. Whether I'm racing or not, if I've got a ride or not, just to be treated like the normal guy.''

Gidley remembers nothing about the accident, but he's seen video and pictures of his mangled sports car. The crash has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube, and anyone who saw it live, won't soon forget it.

Gidley was exiting the ''international horseshoe'' and heading into a kink in the 3.56-mile road course. He turned hard left to pass a slower car, and with the setting sun making it hard to see, Gidley slammed into Matteo Malucelli, who had lost power and was coming to a stop on the side track. Gidley plowed into the back of Malucelli's car at close to full speed. The impact lifted both cars off the ground, spun them around, shredded fiberglass body parts and spewed debris all over the track.

Both drivers were hospitalized.

Gidley remained there for nearly two weeks. He eventually was discharged and cleared to fly back to his home state of California, but it took several more months for him to return home. He bounced from rehab center to rehab center, and then the toughest part hit six weeks later, when the nerve pain kicked in.

''It was a gnarly experience,'' he said. ''The accident was one thing. The recovery was another huge thing. Broken bones are easy. Anybody that's been in pain, nerve pain or anything like that, knows that it puts you in a mood that you're not normally used to being in. I'm a normally pretty happy guy, but there were definitely many times when I was terrible.''

The spinal fusion a year ago helped ease most of the pain.

But his road to recovery also included countless hours of physical therapy, time in a hyperbaric chamber, acupuncture, cryotherapy and numerous other healing techniques.

''It's been two years of hell,'' he said.

He hasn't driven a race car since the accident and doesn't even have a current racing license. He has been in a go-kart, but knows that's just a small step in his quest.

''Racing is what I've been doing for a long time and I just love the environment, love the people and love being out on the race track,'' he said. ''That was the ultimate goal, and that's my current goal.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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