The last thing short-track driver Tim McCreadie remembers, he was leading in the semifinal qualifier at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla.
When he awoke, he had two problems.
His back was broken and he didn’t have health insurance.
“It happened so fast,” McCreadie said. “I went down the front stretch, and when I started through the corner I had no brakes. Right past the flagstand it started vibrating real bad. I thought we broke a motor.”
Instead, McCreadie’s rear axle had malfunctioned, sending his car first sideways and then barrel-rolling over a catch fence. McCreadie suffered a shattered vertebra in his upper back and still has floating bone fragments from the mid-January crash.
“There was way more pain than there should have been,” he said. “I knew I was in bad shape. It was a bad deal.”
There are an estimated 25,000 drivers like McCreadie who are competing on the more than 800 dirt race tracks in the United States. No one keeps a count of how many have insurance, but people in both the racing and insurance businesses say as many as 80 percent of drivers do not carry coverage. The only medical coverage McCreadie carried was through a small policy bought by the promoters of the event.
Dennis Huth, president of American Speed Association, estimates that a typical track’s policy offers $20,000 to $30,000 in medical coverage for injured participants. “But there are tracks out there that carry $5,000 in medical insurance,” Huth said.
McCreadie, the 2006 World Of Outlaws late model champion, and fellow driver Tim Fuller figure the vast majority of drivers don’t buy insurance because they pour their money into their cars.
“The focus is to go faster — that’s the way racers think. They’d rather buy tires and motors than health insurance because, come on, nobody’s ever going to get hurt, right?” Fuller said. “You just don’t think about that stuff. I always wanted health insurance in case of the big one, and the right deal came along. I’m glad that I’ve got it now.”
Laura Hauenstein, president of WSIB Motorsports Insurance, agrees that insurance is not a priority for drivers — in a sport which has had two fatalities in the past five weeks.
“When they get to the racetrack, they really don’t think about” it, she said. “And when you bug them and say, ‘Hey, we need to do this,’ it’s like the last thing that they’re thinking about.”
Jessica Zemken, a 23-year-old sprint car driver from Sprakers, N.Y., said she’d have to choose between insurance and racing. So she doesn’t carry any, nor does her father, who also races.
“What it would cost me for health insurance I wouldn’t be able to put tires on my car,” she said. “If I paid for health insurance I wouldn’t be able to race, so what would I need it for?”
Fuller, whose first race car cost $60 and was fitted with a rollcage made from the rusted pipes from a boat dock, enters up to 70 events a year around the country and drove for more than a decade without coverage. But with a family to protect, he secured a policy, two months before McCreadie’s crash.
“Tim’s accident was an eye-opener for me,” Fuller said. “I just jumped into different cars maybe that weren’t real safe. I just jumped into things to race because I’m a race junkie. Then I started rethinking it: ‘Maybe I should just concentrate on my cars and what I’m doing instead of getting in this and that and taking chances of getting hurt and screwing my life up.”‘
John Bickford, stepfather of NASCAR star Jeff Gordon and the architect of Gordon’s early racing career, said some young drivers under the age of 18 get themselves legally emancipated from their parents so they can try to make a name for themselves on the dirt tracks. But they don’t consider the risk.
“It can impact your insurance if you’re not careful,” Bickford said. “Kids who get themselves emancipated have to really be paying attention to that because they could find themselves being 16 years old, treated like an adult, and they think they have health insurance when in reality they don’t” because they are no longer covered under their parents’ policy.
Bickford agreed that the mindset of a racer plays a large factor.
“I used to tell people that at many of the racetracks you could put a sign up at the sign-in window that says, ‘We do not have any insurance. If you are injured, we will not be able to help you. So if you still want to race, sign here,’ and nobody would pay attention to the sign,” Bickford said.
Mark Richards watched his 21-year-old son, Josh, an up-and-coming late model driver, compete in the Chili Bowl for the family racing team.
McCreadie’s crash caught them off-guard and made Mark Richards review his insurance. Richards, who has been involved in the sport for more than three decades, thought his company policy covered his son. It didn’t. It does now.
“It’s just amazing to me that as many drivers as there are out there that drive these cars and don’t understand that they’re not insured,” Mark Richards said. “Racers at this level should realize that, ‘Hey, you’re gambling with something that could put you in financial ruins.”‘
The 35-year-old McCreadie has been a successful racer most of his adult life, following in the footsteps of his famous dad, “Barefoot” Bob McCreadie, one of the best dirt drivers in history with more than 500 victories.
Bob McCreadie raced more than once with a broken back, sometimes spending a night in a hospital and taking painkillers so he could get to the next track.
Tim McCreadie bought insurance when he briefly drove for Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. But when RCR let him go, McCreadie let the policy lapse. That’s when he got hurt.
“I had to switch a lot of things around. It was just like getting a new job,” he said. “I didn’t have it, and I got hurt in between. … It was partly me being stubborn. I was just worried about racing.”
Tim McCreadie knows he’s fortunate — healthwise and financially — to be able to race again.
“The doctor said the bone break where I broke it is one of the ones you don’t want. It causes a lot of paralysis,” said McCreadie, who did not need surgery. “He said I’m really lucky.”
Now, after months of rehab and a few fundraisers to help pay his medical bills, Tim McCreadie is back racing — he competed late last month for the first time since the accident and he’s insured again.
“The bills are coming. I’d be happy if I could almost break even when it’s all over with,” said McCreadie, who was heartened when several hundred people from his hometown of Watertown — some of whom didn’t even know him — attended a spaghetti dinner in March on his behalf. “I wish I could go back and change it. But only good can come out of this if all of a sudden everybody goes out and gets insurance. If people get hurt, at least they’re covered.”
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