CONCORD, N.C. – NASCAR driver Brian Vickers will be sidelined for a minimum of six months due to a deep venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms in both lungs. It's unclear when the driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota will return to competition.
Vickers experienced chest pains and had trouble breathing Tuesday while in Washington, D.C. At 26, and a self-described thrill seeker in presumably good health, he dismissed the discomfort.
When the symptoms persisted overnight, he contacted Dr. Jerry Petty, a medical liaison to the NASCAR community, who insisted Vickers seek immediate attention.
Still, Vickers hesitated. He thought Petty's advice was "overkill" despite experiencing "the most excruciating pain" of his life.
"I didn't want to go to the doctor because they were going to take me out of the car," Vickers said.
Petty finally convinced Vickers to go to the emergency room and he had a CT scan.
"When they laid me down was where I was having the most problems and the most pains," Vickers said. "Going through the CT scans I had some more problems, they took me out, found the blood clots in both lungs, my left leg, and immediately started me on Lovenox, Heparin, I believe it is, and Coumadin. The Lovenox is the bridge until the Coumadin kicks in, which takes some time."
Coumadin, a common treatment for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and/or pulmonary embolus, is not listed in Section 19-3 "Prohibited Acts and Substances" under NASCAR's Substance Abuse Policy.
However, Dr. Steven A. Limentani, a Charlotte-based hematologist and oncologist who is treating Vickers, said it is not advisable to race while on blood thinners. He recommends a six-month break from racing because "the risk of recurrent problems is significantly lower (at) six months rather than three months."
Limentani added it would "take a number of weeks" before Vickers' tests come back and a conclusion could be made as to the reason for his condition. According to Gilman Tyler M.D., a general and vascular surgeon based in Tampa, air travel, sitting for extended periods of time, dehydration and heredity all can be contributing factors for blood clots.
"A blood clot is a dangerous thing," Dr. Tyler said. "When you get a blood clot in your leg, one of the things it can do is break loose and go to your lung, and that's called a pulmonary embolus. It is a significant health problem.
"It's sort of surprising to me that we haven't seen more of that in NASCAR because those guys probably get pretty dehydrated and they're sitting in one position for hours at a time. I'm sort of surprised we haven't heard of more of that because those are risk factors for sure."
Kurt Busch expressed interest in Vickers' long-term results, but acknowledged it's a "private matter." He recently experienced a situation with his mother, Gaye, developing blood clots following surgery.
"It's a pretty serious matter when you have the blood clots and then you're on the blood thinners and different medicines," Busch said. "The activity levels that you're used to doing, now everything changes. Hopefully, everything goes well for Brian and he can be out on the track next year."
For now, Casey Mears will be the substitute driver for the No. 83 Toyota, although a road course ringer could be brought in for Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Red Bull GM Jay Frye calls Vickers' time out "a huge loss" because the team had made such gains over the past two years -- particularly after making the Chase last season. Although the No. 83 had consecutive DNFs last month, Frye felt the team "was turning things around" before Vickers' illness.
"We're very optimistic and encouraged that Brian will return," Frye said. "Right now he needs to take time to get healthy.
"Casey is a friend of Brian's and he has something to prove. He's motivated; we were lucky to secure him at this time. Hopefully, we can finish the year strong and take that momentum into next year when Brian comes back."
Vickers' plan is to return six months from now "in the best shape (he's) ever been in." And Limentani is an advocate for Vickers to continue an active lifestyle -- within reason.
"The most common scenario where people develop that problem is inactivity," Limentani said. "So conversely, activity, be it just moving around or vigorous exercise, is good.
"The limitation -- and there are a lot of ways that you can describe it, but if you have to wear a helmet to do it, it's probably not a good idea."
Jeff Gordon watched Vickers' rise through the NASCAR ranks, first through the Nationwide Series as a teenager and into Sprint Cup under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. He considers Vickers "a good friend" and feels for both the driver and the team.
"He's handling it really well," Gordon said. "It's a tough thing to go through. He's smart enough and he's got good people around him that are giving him good advice; that is helping. The most important thing is for him to get healthy. I know how much racing means to him.
"He's also a guy that enjoys a lot of things outside of racing, and I think that's as tough on him right now as anything else is. I just remind him that racing can go on for a long time. Hopefully, he can find things during this time to turn something positive out of it and enjoy things that maybe he couldn't do because of racing."
Vickers has enjoyed the benefits of being a Red Bull athlete. Unfortunately, his condition will limit what he can stay busy with.
"Everything just kind of increases in risk, whether it's racecar driving or doing the things I love," Vickers said. "So basically, I can't do most of the things I love because most of the things I love are pretty crazy. Like skydiving, driving race cars, snowboarding, skiing, wakeboarding -- I could go on down the list. Motorcycles.
"Anytime you are on blood thinners, you run a risk of bleeding, internally or externally. That's basically my limiting factor. As far as exercise, training, diet or any of that is concerned, all of that will be normal and I plan on being in the best shape that I've ever been in starting the Daytona 500."