BriSCA F1 world champion STUART SMITH JNR talks to NEIL RANDON about events on October 28 when he began the day as National Points Shootout leader but ended it with surgery for a life-threatening injury.
Stuart Smith Jnr received his awards as World Champion and Driver of the Year at the BSCDA Awards and Dinner Dance last Saturday night to the loudest reception of the evening.
It was recognition not just for a remarkable season during which Smith Jnr had won both the World and British Championships, but also for the fact he was actually there at all, standing in front of the flashguns posing for photographs with his award a month after the most traumatic night of his life.
The angels have been smiling on Smith Jnr in recent weeks. It was either luck or good fortune he survived the ruptured spleen and fractured neck he sustained while continuing to race at Northampton Shaleway on October 28. On any other day, had the wind been blowing in another direction, this feature might have been written as an obituary for a great champion and a personal friend.
As it is, Smith Jnr and his wife Katie have had to come to terms with a life full of uncertainty looking towards the future.
Katie Smith has an engaging personality and it is very rare to see her with anything other than a beaming smile on her face. As a result, she is very popular among the other drivers, their wives and girlfriends. She is someone who brings people together. As far as she is concerned, life is too short to let stock car rivalries affect relationships in the stock car pits. People should put those to one side and have a good time.
But as a consequence of Stuart racing at Northampton, Katie has had little to smile about. When speaking with her recently, she has sounded tired, strained. So it was good to see her and husband Stuart smiling again last Saturday night – their first evening out together since that fateful day.
“It was really, really scary. I seriously thought he was going to die at one point,” she admits, when reflecting on that Sunday in October. As events unfolded that night it became clear he could have done…
Northampton Shaleway, October 28
The BriSCA F1 show travelled to Northampton for round eight of the National Points Championship Shootout, with Smith Jnr still leading the series and with an outstanding chance of becoming the first driver to successfully defend a National Points Shootout title.
But by the end of the day, any thoughts of heading to Stoke and Belle Vue for the last two rounds to seal the title came to a frightening end.
At Northampton the meeting was notable for a massive pile-up in heat two that involved all the leading Shootout contenders. Michael Scriven had hit an inside marker tyre going into turn three and having rained heavily overnight, the tyre was full of rain water which was then ejected on to the track. As a result, the surface became a skating rink and the next cars that entered the turn lost traction and with speed unabated hit the fence.
There was little time to react. A train of cars added to an increasingly large parking lot. Mark Woodhall and Ryan Harrison both piled in. And they went in hard. Fifty metres down the track Mat Newson and Smith Jnr were battling for position. Newson hurtled into the wreckage head on. Behind him Smith Jnr had accelerated out of turn two sideways and had just negotiated Bobby Griffin when he was confronted with the parking lot. His first reaction was to pitch his car to try and drive out of it but with no grip and travelling too fast, he slid sideways into the parking lot. He came to an abrupt halt.
Behind him, Griffin and Frankie Wainman Jnr whacked into the side of the Smith Jnr car, while Danny Wainman managed to glance off his brother and continue in the race.
“The track was OK when it was dry, but subsequently quite fast,” says Smith Jnr. “But when he hit the tyres it shot a lot of water 15 feet into the air that sprinkled down on the track and created an ice rink.
“I saw the water on the track and I tried to throw the car up the inside of the pile up. We were doing between 60-80mph and to stop dead, there are obviously things inside you that keep on going.
“If I had gone in straight I don’t think I would have had a problem. I would have had a stiff neck and lots of damage but it was the side impact that did me really.”
Smith Jnr was immediately in a lot of pain. “The crutch strap cut through my overalls, so I obviously moved quite a lot,” he says. “And I thought it was that causing the pain but when I felt down there it didn’t feel like I had been hit.
If it had been a normal meeting I would have probably loaded up. I was in a lot of pain but you just bolt yourself in and carry on
“But I was so focused on winning the points nothing would stop me – even if my leg was hanging off. I would have still carried on.
“Katie gave me painkillers and she said I shouldn’t go back out, but I said ‘I’ve got to’. If it had been a normal meeting I would have probably loaded up. I was in a lot of pain but you just bolt yourself in and carry on.”
And carry on he did. Smith Jnr managed to return to the track in the consolation event and finish third, and followed up with fifth in the final. He retired from the Grand National in which his main rival for the title, Frankie Wainman Jnr, won and the meeting ended with both drivers sharing the lead in the series.
“I could have been paralysed, or torn my spleen even more,” says Smith Jnr. “Stupid really. We were so deep into competition we can’t see the dangers.”
Back home that night
After the long journey home, Smith Jnr began to feel worse. He and Katie stayed up to watch some TV. After drinking a glass of water Smith Jnr felt something pop in his stomach. “It was weird and then I started getting a sharp, shooting pain in my stomach,” he explains. “When I stood up, it took my breath away and dropped me to my knees – it was that bad.
“And literally 20 minutes after that, because I had lost a lot of blood and blood pressure, I was unconscious. Then, of course, Katie had to deal with that and try and get an ambulance.”
On top of that, she also had two young children to look after. She rang Hilary Smith, Andy’s mother, who lived locally and she immediately drove round to look after Stuart Jr and Josephine.
He had no blood pressure, no veins and his hands and feet were freezing. He had no colour and I knew then it was a bit dangerous
Later that night Katie rang Smith Jnr’s brother Andy and his wife Lisa, who arrived the next morning to help look after the children.
Katie became increasingly aware, from experience working in the NHS, that the situation was serious. “I thought he must have internal bleeding,” she says. “He had no blood pressure, no veins and his hands and feet were freezing. He had no colour and I knew then it was a bit dangerous.”
Lying on the floor, Smith Jnr came round, but after sitting up his blood pressure immediately dropped and he again lost consciousness.
The paramedics arrived but couldn’t find a pulse because his blood pressure was so low due to the internal bleeding. They were concerned that Smith Jnr could have a cardiac arrest.
It was nearly two hours after he became seriously ill that he eventually arrived at Manchester Royal Hospital.
When the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Katie immediately knew how life-threatening the situation was. “When we arrived there was a whole team of people waiting for him,” she says. “When you work in a hospital you know straight away what everyone is there for…”
Smith Jnr remembers arriving at Manchester. “When I got to the hospital, I went through two or three doors and into a scanning room, and there were about 10-15 doctors and nurses there,” he says.
He was given an immediate blood transfusion and a full body CT scan. Now armed with the information the patient had torn his spleen, and that his situation was becoming increasingly more critical, Smith Jnr was immediately operated on in the scanning room itself while he was still conscious.
“But within 40 minutes, that was it!” says Smith Jnr. “They said ‘OK, you’re alright. Oh, by the way, you’ve broken your neck as well…’
“The repair of the spleen is something quite new. It wasn’t that long ago that if there was any damage to the spleen they would just take it out, but now they can repair it so the spleen can do a percentage of the job it does.”
The spleen acts as a filter for the blood and helps fight infections. It also helps control the amount of blood in the body, by destroying old and damaged blood cells. It is possible to live without one, as the liver takes over some of the spleen’s functions, but someone without the organ is inevitably prone to infections.
“The doctors just hope I don’t have to be on antibiotics for the rest of my life because I am so young,” says Smith Jnr. “They can thin your stomach wall when you get into your 50s and 60s.
“I realised then it had been a lot more serious than I first thought. If we had gone straight to bed that night who knows what would have happened, but for some reason we stayed up and watched a bit of telly.”
Because of the neck fracture, Smith Jnr also has to wear a neck and upper back brace 24 hours a day for six weeks. “I take it off when I am sitting down,” Smith Jnr says. “Because it is unpleasant, but when I am mobile and walking around I wear it all the time then.”
Smith Jnr spent eight days in hospital before returning home. “I just stayed at home and didn’t do anything but watch daytime TV and I wasn’t in pain. Katie has been like my carer. Early on I couldn’t bath or shower by myself or go to the toilet. It certainly brings you closer together as a married couple! Katie has been great.
“But then I started having massive pain again and went back to Oldham Hospital at about four in the morning and had another scan.”
My recovery is going to be longer than I first thought. I have an appointment halfway through January as regards to my spleen
It was discovered he had fluid on the lung and a blood clot and so he stayed in hospital for another four days.
“My recovery is going to be longer than I first thought,” Smith Jnr admits. “I have an appointment halfway through January as regards to my spleen.”
The other major issue is work. Running his own business takes time and commitment but Smith Jnr is unable to go back full-time for the time being.
“I can’t drive at the moment, but I’ve been in the office a few times and can organise things but I can’t do any work,” he says.
Life has changed dramatically for the 37-year-old and his family. Only two months ago Smith Jnr was celebrating his first World Championship victory in 11 years – and then a month later he found himself being rushed to hospital with a life-threatening injury.
There is no knowing if or when he will return to the track. It is dependent on his recovery and how well his damaged spleen responds to treatment.
“There is the thought that doctors think you can’t do anything that is potentially dangerous, but I will speak to them and see what they say,” Smith Jnr says. “If I do come back I’m not sure when that would be. If I was preparing for next year I am already a month behind now, so I don’t know if next season will be a late start or what. We will just have to see.”
Neil Randon 2018
Photos courtesy of Dave Bastock and Colin Casserley