Michael Annett’s Long Road to Recovery
By Summer Bedgood – Tony Stewart. Bobby Labonte. Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex Jr.
These are the names of several of the drivers who have been injured this season, either while behind the wheel of a car or participating in their extracurricular activities. It’s been a season full of excruciating headlines, filled with cringe-worthy stories.
There is one there that is not like the rest, though, and one driver you may have forgotten about. Every single driver on that list is a Sprint Cup Series regular except for Annett, and almost all of their injuries were relatively recent.
Annett’s injury, however, happened at the beginning of the season and was overshadowed from the beginning. The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series opening race at Daytona International Speedway was ripe with storylines, and almost none of which were positive. As the field headed to the checkered flag, a massive wreck ensued that wound up with Kyle Larson’s car flying into the catchfence, sending his engine, a tire, and many other shards of debris into the grandstands. It injured several race fans, made national news, and stole the breath of everyone who saw it.
Meanwhile, Annett was in a hospital room.
Though Larson’s crash was admittedly more dramatic, time has faded the memories of race fans who may not recall the huge crash that happened not too long before the finish. On lap 117, a 13 car pileup began when Annett got loose while drafting Elliott Sadler. Annett clipped the left rear of Austin Dillon, who was in a higher groove, and careened into the outside retaining wall closer to the backstretch.
By all accounts, it looked harmless. A hard hit, for sure, but nothing that we hadn’t seen before.
What we didn’t know is that Annett would be out for the next three months, a broken sternum sustained in that vicious hit acting as the culprit.
“When I went to unzip my suit, the sternum—it wasn’t sticking through the skin but it felt like a golf ball right there,” said Annett. “And the zipper actually got caught on that when I tried to unzip my suit and I knew right away what bone it was and that it had to be broken in half.”
At that moment, Annett knew his season had changed in an instant. A season that, he felt, was filled with promise.
“The hardest part was we had such high hopes and goals for the season,” said Annett.” “… We definitely were going into this year thinking we had a real good try running up for a championship and you sit out for three months in the offseason…
“We sat out three months in the offseason just going through things and having all these ideas that we wanted to try throughout the year, and then we make only 90 laps at Daytona and have to sit out for another three months,” he continued. “So obviously I was out of the car for six months total from the time from Homestead to Charlotte.”
From there, it was a waiting game. Annett sat at home, and occasionally on the pit box at the track, watching someone else drive his racecar. Though Aric Almirola first drove Annett’s racecar in Phoenix, the first week Annett had to sit out due to an injury, Reed Sorenson was the driver of choice for the team.
The choice of Sorenson was, according to Annett, no accident. Though no driver ever wants to be in the position of having to see another driver in their car, let alone have to pick one, Annett made the most of the situation by giving a nod to a driver he felt deserved it.
“Reed and I are really good friends and he has a relationship with Richard Petty Motorsports already,” Annett explained. “And just looking at the drivers that were out there, it just felt like to me that Reed hadn’t been in a quality Nationwide car in over a year and I felt like it was just a great chance to be able to help a friend out. Obviously I felt like he definitely has the talent to go out there and win races in the car and I thought he’d be the best for it.”
After Almirola finished ninth in Phoenix, the pressure was on for Sorenson to perform in the next race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sorenson would finish in the 16th position in that race and, in seven races with the team, would only accumulate one top 10 finish: a 10th place at Richmond in the spring.
So when Annett came back in the seat, the adrenaline was pumping. Three months of doctor’s orders—no lifting ten pounds, no working out, no driving in a passenger car—had him frothing at the mouth to get back here he belonged when he returned to the driver’s seat in Charlotte.
“Just thinking about as soon as I get back, we’re going to win that first race and it’s gonna be a great story,” Annett says, recalling his excitement. “Then we went out and finished 12th and reality sets back in. This is still the same series and still just as difficult to have success.”
Still, Annett embraced the challenges ahead, despite the fact that he was having to play catch-up in what he described as “trying to catch up in math class” after missing the first three months in school.
Since returning to the car, Annett has had mixed results. Only two top 10s in sixteen starts leaves much to be desired, which is unfortunate to a race team Annett repeatedly said had the potential to win races this season.
One positive about this injury, though, is the mindset it brings: perspective. Pressure and disappointment aside, Annett knows how close he was to possibly never racing again. The sternum is located inside the chest, and the potential for a more serious injury was one reason that he didn’t return to the car for so long, despite the fact that the pain itself was not as big of an issue to Annett as you might think.
“When I met with the surgeon for the first time, there were no ifs, ands, or buts. He said you’re going to be out two to three months,” Annett said, recalling the first time he heard how badly he was injured. “The biggest reason—it wasn’t so much pain-wise, [the sternum] is just pretty much where all your blood is running to your heart and all the ventricles are all just right around there. He was afraid of what would happen if I took another impact. He said I was really fortunate to not have anything like that happen with the initial wreck. He was very cautions of myself taking another impact and if the sternum would be able to hold itself in place and sever any of those arteries.”
The short version? The race at Daytona could have been Annett’s last.
“I didn’t have half an inch one way or the other with the way that bone broke and I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” he recalled. “Definitely, that part’s humbling and it just makes me appreciate what I get to do much more and treasure each time I get to climb through that window and drive the racecar.”
As much as Annett has done to come back, though, he is quick to mention a support system. One that involved several crew members on his team, including crew chief Philippe Lopez, and many family members. As anyone who has been through some sort of rough patch can tell you, a support system is everything.
“Philippe, the crew chief on the car, he was probably one of the ones that after each time I’d go to the doctor and get scanned he was always the first one to text or call me to find out,” said Annett. “I could picture him in my head. He almost thought that a bone was going to be able to grow overnight and I just remember how disappointed he’d be when I said no, it would still be another month. He was always the first one there to want to get results and find out where the progress was.
“But as far as people that did the most, my mom moved down here pretty much for the three months that I was out because I couldn’t drive a passenger car either. So she moved down here for three months and drove me around Mooresville and Charlotte, and she was by far probably the biggest help.”
Anyone who is a mother might automatically think how terrible it must have been to see a child of yours in a crash and know that they have been seriously injured. However, a background as a hockey player as a kid and a racing family means that not panicking and recognizing the potential for injuries is helpful in getting through the toughest times.
“We’re a pretty mellow and calm family,” said Annett. “No one ever gets too upset about anything. We’ve dealt with injuries before, and obviously nothing quite to this extent, but everyone kept pretty cool.”
Support from family and friends is, obviously, incredibly helpful during tough times. But nothing could prepare Annett, though, for the response from an entire crowd of people he had never met: the fans. With social media becoming more and more prevalent in this sport, fans have more access to the drivers. In this case, it brought a smile to a face that needed one.
“The outpouring from people you’ve never met and how much they care about your wellbeing is definitely humbling and a good reminder how much we affect people in the sport that we’ve never met that can still care that much about you,” he said, recalling the amount of Twitter and Facebook messages he received after that race.
For now, Annett looks ahead to the season and believes that a victory could be in the works for his race team. Injury or not, his eye is on Victory Lane and looking into the future and a possible championship for 2014. For a driver that flies so far under the radar, Annett and this No. 43 team have high hopes to change the conversation race fans are having.
As far as the next race in Daytona, he is certainly not concerned about stepping back into the racecar, nor does he worry that a similar injury could happen again in the future.
“If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen and it’s out of my control,” he said. “I just do everything that I always have when I get in the car and I have the latest and greatest safety devices in the car and I just do everything that way to prepare if something like this does ever happen again.”
And the track itself?
“I don’t see what they could do to do different,” Annett said of NASCAR and the racetracks. “We’re in this sport for a reason and just because not everybody can do it. Not everybody wants to take that risk. That’s why I think our sport is so exciting is that there is always going to be that risk of possibly being able to get hurt. I think just at the speeds that these cars are at to see the very few amount of injuries we do is just a huge testament to NASCAR and everything we have in place right now.”
It takes courage to get in a racecar, but it takes heart to keep getting back in despite it being detrimental to your health. Though Annett is not a name you often hear on a week to week basis—a concept he hopes to change in the near future—the passion, grit, and determination behind that name perhaps deserves more recognition than it appears.
For now, the only remnants of the injury Annett deals with is a slight “sting” in some movements close to the sternum due to the screws that were put in for surgery. A small price to pay for what could have been a career ending injury.
The lesson from all of this? Don’t overlook someone just because of their somewhat quiet, outward demeanor. Inwardly, there may just be one heck of a story.
EMAIL SUMMER AT email@example.com
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @SummerBedgood