Kyle Busch’s path to the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship took many twisting, painful turns after he was severely injured last February in a crash at Daytona International Speedway.
But Busch turned a significant corner as he slowly drove his family’s Toyota minivan around a parking lot last spring near his home in Denver, N.C.
Busch was already ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, recovering from a violent crash in the season-opening Xfinity Series race. Busch had metal plates, screws and a rod inserted into his shattered his right leg and broken left foot.
Now, while working diligently with physical therapist Ken Breath, Busch was walking again. But the next step for him was to get back in a race car.
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That brought Busch to the parking lot in his neighborhood, where, with Breath in the passenger’s seat, he was getting the feel of driving a vehicle about as far removed from Sprint Cup car as possible.
Drivers are so detail-oriented, it’s like Kyle was talking to his crew chief.
Physical therapist Ken Breath
As Busch gingerly tested the accelerator, Breath yelled: “Stop!”
Busch’s instincts kicked in. He reacted, hitting the brake pedal and stopping the van.
“Kyle didn’t hesitate,” said Breath. “He about threw us through the windshield; it was a good thing we were wearing seatbelts.
“But that was a kind of an ‘aha’ moment for Kyle. He thought, ‘Why am I not in a race car yet? I can do this.’”
A few weeks later, Busch was racing again. After missing the season’s first 11 Cup races, he began his comeback in the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. He soon began a remarkable run: winning four of five races, qualifying for the Chase with the help of a medical exemption and, finally, winning his first championship at the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sunday, with all the hardware in his legs removed a year later, Busch will start fourth in the Daytona 500 as the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins.
It has been quite a year.
Man behind the scenes
With Busch every step of the way was Breath, 39, a physical therapist on OrthoCarolina’s motorsports team. The group travels weekly to races and works during the week with teams including Busch’s at Joe Gibbs Racing plus Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. Breath worked with driver Tony Stewart after he broke his leg in a sprint car crash in 2013 (Stewart is now recovering from a broken back suffered Jan. 31 in a dune-buggy accident).
When Busch’s Toyota slammed into the wall at Daytona last February, Breath knew it was serious. While Busch spent days recovering in Daytona Beach after his surgery, Breath was already in Busch’s home back in Denver, preparing for the rehab process.
After missing the season’s first 11 races, Busch won four-of-five races at one point and went on to win his first Cup championship.
Breath had rugs removed. Busch’s shower door, which would be an obstacle for him while in a wheel chair, had to be taken out. Bedroom furniture was moved to the living room, which served as a de facto hospital room.
“There are so many things that the general public might not think about,” said Breath. “But when he got home, we had to be able to get him around.”
Then came the physical therapy. Breath said Busch might have been uncertain at first about how intense and difficult the process might be.
The next step
But one thing Busch knew. He wanted to race again, and the sooner the better.
“There wasn’t any doubt he would drive again, it was a matter of how competitively he could do it,” said Breath. “He wanted to be back tomorrow. Some are motivated, but Kyle was super-motivated. But it comes down to honest conversation. There is general tissue healing that’s going on, and you can’t speed that up. I told him that I didn’t mind if he didn’t make progress every day, but I didn’t want any setbacks.”
You wanted to walk again and get in a race car again. But you didn’t want to do too much to quick or too early.
The rehab sessions sometimes lasted as long as 2 1/2 hours and late into the night. And as he went through the grinding process, Busch continued to challenge Breath with a mindset and focus that only those closest to him know, including Busch’s then-pregnant wife, Samantha, and crew chief Adam Stevens.
“With the communication and feedback, it was unlike anything I’d ever gotten from regular patients,” said Breath. “Drivers are so detail-oriented, it’s like Kyle was talking to his crew chief. That made it easier on my part. It allowed us to work at the maximum level each time.”
Busch would ask Breath why he was feeling one kind of pressure in a certain muscle. Why are we doing this exercise? Why does this muscle contract this way?
“Nobody had ever asked me those kinds of questions,” Breath said.
Background with Stewart
Breath said he took some racing-specific knowledge from Tony Stewart during Stwart’s convalescence after his 2013 crash.
“Most people think that your foot is either all the way down on the pedal, or all the way up or somewhere in the middle – three points of discrimination,” said Breath. “Well, a driver needs about 1,000 points.
“Tony said, OK, I’m working my foot and ankle with three points, then it becomes 10, then it becomes 20, and so on,” Breath said.
Breath said Stewart’s race team built a simulator in which he could push down on a pedal. It took a few times before they found the right pressure at which to set it.
“After four minutes of doing it, Tony was exhausted, he’d worn his muscle out,” said Breath. “It really threw him off. So they checked the calibrations and it was almost 10-fold what the normal should be. He got back in and it was that ‘aha’ moment for him. He was ready to get back in the car pretty soon.”
By late March – less than two months after the accident – Busch was walking.
“Once I got up on my feet and walking, things started going pretty quick,” Busch said. “Figuring out the physical and mental strength you have, you had to come back through that. You wanted to walk again and get in a race car again. But you didn’t want to do too much to quick or too early.”
Samantha Busch was pregnant when Kyle was injured and during much of the rehab process. On May 18, two days after Busch returned in the All-Star race, Samantha gave birth to son Brexton, the couple’s first child.
“I think it made us stronger, closer together,” Busch said. “(We) always have to stay together and stay strong.”
And how does Busch remember his time recovering and rehabbing from his injuries?
“It was a natural, steady thing,” he said.
Just as Ken Breath planned.