NASCAR driver teaches a lesson of perseverance

NASCAR driver continues to inspire despite struggles
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NASCAR driver continues to inspire despite struggles 02:16

Story highlights

  • Health issues have sidelined NASCAR driver Brian Vickers for a fourth time in five years
  • In 2010, Vickers was diagnosed with blood clots; then doctors found a hole in his heart
  • Despite the challenges, Vickers remains optimistic and says "My highs have been really high too"

(CNN)You just have to keep fighting and never give up. This is the mantra NASCAR driver Brian Vickers repeats over and over -- to himself, to reporters, to his fans on Twitter. And unfortunately he knows a thing or two about it. At this point he's the poster child for getting back up after being knocked down.

Vickers was gearing up to race in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, California, last month when once again his world came to a halt. While on a flight out to Los Angeles for the race he noticed a familiar uncomfortable feeling.
"I had a little bit of pain in my chest when I was taking deep breaths and I spent half the flight trying to convince myself that I bumped into something along the way. I think deep down I kind of had an idea of what it was," Vickers said.
    He knew exactly what it was and what this meant. It was a recurrence of the blood clots that have periodically plagued him since 2010. And what it meant was he would not be racing that weekend. Treatment for the blood clots requires a regimen of blood thinners for a period of time, and he cannot race on blood thinners. The risk is too large that if injured, he'd bleed out. Once again, he was out of the car and left on the sidelines as a spectator.
    This third occurrence of blood clots came less than two weeks after Vickers made a widely publicized comeback in Las Vegas, the third race of the season. Just three months earlier, Vickers had open-heart surgery to repair the artificial patch in his heart that his body had rejected. CNN was there with Vickers for the entire Las Vegas race weekend. He was full of optimism and a healthy dose of perspective.
    "I've certainly had my fair share of challenges, but I mean, life's just so amazing, and I just feel so fortunate to just be here and enjoy it. I get to do what I love. I'm ready to get on this track and go over 200 miles an hour, which I love, and you know my highs have been really high too,"
    He continues, "I've been really fortunate to have a great family and great friends and my wife, and win races and championships, and pursue a passion and a dream. ... I have very little to complain about."
    His optimism continued even after a 15th-place finish.
    "You always want to win. I'm a competitor, but top 15, considering where we were at three months ago, is more than any victory I could ever ask for. So very blessed. Very thankful to be alive and to be back doing what I love."
    Vickers' grateful joy was short-lived, as more clots were discovered just shy of two weeks later. It's the fourth setback that's taken Vickers away from the sport he loves since the onset, five years ago.
    In 2010, Vickers was a young gun coming off a great 2009 season. He was the one to watch. But his season was cut short when, on a trip to Washington to visit troops at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital, Vickers was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism. Blood clots had formed in his legs, lungs and fingers. This was also when he was diagnosed with a hole in his heart. Doctors repaired the hole with that artificial patch and treated his blood clots with medication.
    Vickers worked hard on his recovery but suffered a different kind of setback just after his return. The team he was racing for, Red Bull Racing, decided to fold and leave the sport altogether. That left Vickers without a ride. But ever the glass-half-full guy, he took that in stride too.
    "I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I always wanted to race sports cars. I always wanted to race 24 Hours of Le Mans. It created an opportunity to run part-time (in NASCAR) with Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip Racing, and still get to follow some dreams that, you know, if you wait too long you may not be able to get."
    He did run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a 24-hour race in France that Vickers describes as a bucket-list item for any race car driver.
    "And one that I never thought I'd actually be able to do. When you're racing full-time in NASCAR, there's no time to take a month and go to France."
    His part-time deal with Michael Waltrip Racing turned into a full-time ride in 2013. Not only was he back, he was succeeding. Vickers won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that July.
    "I wasn't sure if I would ever race again at points. And then to not only be back in the car, to be back with a great team and to be back in Victory Lane was beyond amazing and unequivocally one of the most important special wins of my career," Vickers said.
    He was also making a big impression on his new boss, Michael Waltrip -- well beyond just the win.
    "He's just an inspiration to many people, not only inside of our organization but with NASCAR fans. And folks all across the country have really gravitated to Brian's story. They love his dedication, his commitment, his passion, and what he's overcome," Waltrip said.
    But as seems to be the case with Vickers' story, it's one step forward and one step back. Shortly after that win, doctors found another clot in his right leg. He was out of the car again for three months.
    But he returned and finished the 2014 season on a very strong note. All signs were pointing forward -- until, during the offseason in December 2014, Vickers had pains he couldn't explain. This time it would be worse than the clots. His body was rejecting the artificial patch used to repair the hole in his heart. This required immediate open-heart surgery. Vickers describes the recovery as the "most painful experience of my life."
    "I've always heard the saying, and I do believe it: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And I've added to it that: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but they leave out -- but everything in the middle sucks. Everything in between usually sucks. But that's part of it."
    Remarkably he did recover much faster than doctors expected, and he's very clear that, rather than pity, he hopes his fans find inspiration in his story to help them through whatever trials they may be facing.
    "I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't say woe is me. I don't expect anyone else to feel sorry for me. I think everyone has difficulties and challenges in their life and they're all unique to each situation. But when you're in the ICU and all the beds are full around you, it's not like you can say, 'Why me?' I mean, you're not the only one there. But you can't give up. You just gotta keep pushing forward."
    This is the attitude Vickers is using to deal with this latest setback. And if he's physically capable after his three-month treatment on blood thinners, you'd better believe that Brian Vickers will climb back into that No. 55 Toyota.