USAC and NASCAR veteran J.J. Yeley has been sidelined since Aug. 22, when the sprint car he was driving at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., flipped and barrel-rolled at least eight times. Although Yeley thought he had nothing more than a sore neck following the crash, he soon learned that he had fractured three vertebrae.
Since that night, Yeley has worn a neck collar and undergone neck surgery, where doctors fused two vertebrae with screws and a metal plate. And now, just a month after the outpatient surgery, the 33-year-old is working out daily to rebuild the muscles in his neck and shoulders. So far, his healing process has been speedy, above average according to the specialists and doctors Yeley has spoken with during the last two months. With one more test to pass, he hopes to be cleared to race again by doctors in December.
Tell us about the accident at Lakeside Speedway?
“For the most part, it was a typical sprint car type of accident. At the start of the race, the racetrack had a lot of grip, so it was real tacky. It was actually the third restart from cars that had already flipped. I just went in the corner by myself, caught a rut, the car bicycled and started flipping off the left side of the cage. It did a good amount of barrel rolls, probably close to eight or 10.
“It hit two or three times really hard, and I'm thinking the next-to-last hit was the one that jarred me in a way that was kind of like a major whiplash that would have stretched my neck and fractured the vertebrae. It wasn't necessarily a break as much as it had taken two of the vertebrate in my neck and perched them on top of each other.”
What kind of rehab have you had to undergo?
“That's the beauty of the surgery that I ended up having. I could have gone the natural healing route, which would've put me in a neck collar for a good three to four months, and at the end of that time the vertebrae would've fused themselves. I chose to go ahead and do the surgery with Dr. (Dom) Coric (a neurosurgeon with Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates in Charlotte) in North Carolina, who is one of the best neck surgeons in the United States. It was an outpatient procedure. I went in at 7 a.m. and was home by 1 o'clock in the afternoon.
“They went through the front of my neck, so I will always have a little tiny scar in the front to show my battle wound. It's the first time I've ever been injured in a racecar. For me, I guess I should consider myself lucky that I've made it right at 16 years racing professionally without any kind of major injury.
“The major thing for me is just basically taking it easy, letting the fusion heal 100 percent where they inserted the screws and the plates. I do some laser treatments. I do some small things that help speed up the process of the fusion with the bone. It's been more than a month now since my surgery, so I can start to get back to a regular exercise program just to kind of make up for the muscle I've lost from not doing much for the last two months.”
You said that you're at a point where you can start exercising and working out to get re-conditioned to get back into a racecar. How long will you have to be in rehab? How long will it be before every day, normal things are easy for you?
“They've been very easy for me, and I know from talking to some of the different doctors and people who have been in related situations to what I've been in that a lot of people are surprised at how far along I already am with my recovery. I'm back to doing all the things I've always been able to do.
“With regard to lifting weights, I'm just taking it easy. I don't want to push myself too far, too fast. But as far as everyday stuff, I'm able to do regular yard work. I've played golf a couple of times and I play just as bad now as I did before I hurt myself, so I guess I'm back to as normal as possible.
“For the most part, I feel fine. I have a little more aches and pains than I did before. Racing as long as I have and just racing in general takes a toll on a body, regardless. I do have some lower back pain that I get all the time, so it's just one added pain that I didn't have before. For the most part, it almost seemed more like a dream of having this happen to me, and next it's back to reality.
“I'm just thankful for all the people who have helped out. I guess I never really thought about it or took it seriously – the fact that another quarter-inch or an eighth-inch of movement in my neck, and I could've been paralyzed or killed, according to the doctors. For me, I had a little bit of a sore neck when I got out of the racecar. Then at the hospital, everybody was in a panic because they thought that it was more severe than I ever would've thought.”