Finding Memo: A Pro Driver Returns to the Site of His Worst Crash Ever


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Not many of us have the opportunity to watch ourselves nearly die, but Memo Gidley does. And he has. He’s seen the video–from the side, from above, from the rear–of his number 99 Gainsco Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype slamming into the rear of an inexplicably stationary Ferrari at maybe 130 mph. The Ferrari skittered off into an Armco barrier, but Gidley’s car remained on the track, just past where the crash occurred. There was a fire, but it went out, and was the least of Gidley’s problems.

The race–the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, the first event for the newly minted IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship–was red-flagged, and day had literally turned to night by the time racing resumed. We were told Gidley was alive, but that’s usually what they say when a driver is killed, so they can gather the family at the hospital and conduct a proper and private death notification, as they did with Dale Earnhardt. But Gidley really was alive, though his injuries were extensive.

If you don’t recall the crash, you’re likely searching YouTube now, where you’ll have no trouble finding it. Just don’t confuse it with Gidley’s crash in 2001 at the CART Motorola 220 at Road America, when he pancaked the Chip Ganassi Racing Target car into the concrete bridge abutment and flipped upside down, remaining that way seemingly forever until rescue crews arrived to cut the car in half so they could remove what many of us figured was Gidley’s body. But he was alive and surprisingly well, with the worst of his injuries a broken arm. How often can you cheat death after what was, from all appearances, a potentially unsurvivable accident? Gidley is at least two for two.

But his crash at Daytona looked, and was, far worse than the CART crash at Road America, despite the in-car footage that shows Gidley’s arms flailing as the car flipped and landed wheels-up shortly before the camera mercifully stopped recording.

With 92 laps and three hours to go in the 2014 Rolex, it was clear that this was the Gainsco Red Dragon’s year, with the team qualifying on the pole and leading handily. The car was well sorted; the driver lineup–Gidley, Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Darren Law-seasoned and able.

Gidley was leading handily, carving through lapped traffic when he negotiated the right-turn hairpin–that’s the International Horsehoe–then gassed it up the short straight. He came up behind the number 65 Ferrari 458 Italia GT Daytona car, and jogged left to pass it.

And that’s where Memo Gidley met 29-year-old Matteo Malucelli, who was driving the number 62 Risi Ferrari 458 Italia. Malucelli was sharing the car with Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Olivier Beretta.

Malucelli’s car had lost power as he exited the turn, and rather than steer into the grass–as any 8-year-old kart racer knows to do–Malucelli stayed in the racing line as the Ferrari ground to a halt. From the vantage point Gidley had, no driver in the world, except perhaps for Vin Diesel, could have avoided Malucelli. The Ferrari took a hard hit, and Malucelli was removed on a stretcher and taken to nearby Halifax Medical Center. About 24 hours later, Malucelli was released from the hospital, and the next day he was on a plane home to Italy. More about Malucelli later.

Gidley, of course, didn’t fare nearly as well. The old-school, tube-framed Daytona Prototypes really weren’t expected to take a crash like that, and Gidley might not have been injured so badly had he been driving a car with the newer-style carbon fiber tub. But he was, at least, alive.

He spent weeks in the hospital, months in rehabilitation centers. Surgery came first on a broken leg, then a broken arm, then on his broken back; there were eight surgeries altogether. His spine was fused, twice.

The broken bones really weren’t that bad, Gidley said; the issue was the nerve pain in his lower back. “Agony,” he wrote in his blog. “Unmerciful.” None of us knew if we’d ever see Gidley again–maybe he was destined to be one of those (hopefully) walking wounded race drivers who become an answer to a motorsports trivia question.

But he was not. Memo Gidley came back to Daytona International Speedway in January of 2017, just prior to the Rolex 24. It is not unusual for severely injured racers to return to the scene of the crash, often seeking closure and to complete the circle in what was their life-changing event.

But Gidley’s return was different. I interviewed him in the back of the track’s press room; we grabbed a seat on the wooden riser, built up maybe two feet to give video crews a clear shot above the heads of the journalists in the room. It is not a particularly comfortable place to sit. My sciatica was acting up and Gidley, of course, lists back injuries among the multitude of other things that happen when you rear-end a stalled Ferrari, so we both sat there, rocking back and forth a bit, from one thigh to the other, unconsciously searching for a position that didn’t hurt. We both managed. Considering the fact that it was a year and a half after his crash before Gidley could even sit in a chair, my sciatica seemed, by comparison, akin to a pesky hangnail.

What was different about Gidley’s return to Daytona? He did not come back to tip his hat and wave to the crowd as he whistled past the graveyard and went back home. Gidley came to put the racing community on notice: He wanted to race again. That was on January 26. At the time he hadn’t been back in a race car, didn’t have a racing license. But he had driven shifter karts, and that experience gave him enough confidence to believe that despite everything that had been taken away from him in the past three years, his talent remained intact.

So he kept driving karts, and he started winning again. Last May, Bob Stallings, owner of the number 99 Gainsco Red Dragon Corvette, invited Gidley to turn some test laps at Sonoma Raceway in the Pirelli World Challenge Porsche 911 GT3R that the team campaigned. Stallings, who is executive chairman of the Gainsco insurance company, folded his Prototype team after Gidley’s crash, but came back with a GT program for the 2016 Pirelli World Challenge season with a McLaren 650S, trading it for the Porsche in 2017. (The team announced in November that they are closing the doors again, this time presumably for good.)

Late in the 2017 season, Gidley picked up a few rides in GT cars for actual races, including two in the TKO Motorsports Porsche GT3R for the Pirelli World Challenge doubleheader at Sonoma Raceway, and a Continental Tire Challenge event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the Motorsports USA Maserati GT4. He even won a race in October at the helm of his 32-foot boat, “Basic Instinct,” in a race hosted by the Corinthian Yacht Club held in the San Francisco Bay. Gidley’s father, Cass, owned a marina, and Gidley has been working as a boat captain and charter pilot to make a living.

Gidley believes he is ready for a full season of professional racing in 2018. But he has to convince a team owner of this.

Plus, the big question remains: We know Gidley can come back to Daytona International Speedway for a visit. But can he come back to race?

On November 11, he responded to that question. And the answer is: Hell, yes.

Gidley was invited to join his old IMSA/Grand-Am Prototype team owner Kevin Doran and co-driver Brad Jaeger to clock a few test laps at the track on the Friday prior to the weekend’s Historic Sportscar Racing Classic 24, an event that separates classic race cars-and “classic” is apparently a relative term, as there were cars there that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s 2017 season–into multiple groups, running each group for an hour before turning the track over to the next group. Gidley would be testing a Ford GT that Doran built and raced in 2008. After Friday’s test, the team had a surprise for Gidley: Would he like to race the car with Jaeger and co-driver Lyn St. James that coming Saturday and Sunday?

Yes, Gidley said. Yes, he would.

So he raced on Saturday, but since the offer to compete was a surprise, he had to leave Saturday evening because he had work to do back home in California on Sunday. How did he do? “Fantastic,” said teammate St. James. “It was the same old Memo, which is exactly what we were hoping to see. He hasn’t lost a step.”

“It felt fantastic,” Gidley said. “People asked me if I was nervous, or anxious–I was just anxious to get out there and drive. Maybe that’s because I’ve crashed so many times over the years, it just doesn’t matter,” he laughed.

And what was it like to race through the infield dogleg, where The Big One happened? “Honestly, I never even thought about it once.” This, of course, ruins the part in the script, should anyone ever film “The Memo Gidley Story,” where the actor who plays Gidley would have horrible flashbacks as he accelerated out of that hairpin.

Gidley is grateful for all the opportunities that have come his way, because without help, he never would have made it to the big leagues. “I come from a working-class family,” he said. “Nothing was handed to me, nothing was given to me. I was raised to be grateful for whatever I did get, and that’s how I’ve tried to live my life.”

At the moment, he has nothing signed for 2018. “I’m basically a driver looking for an opportunity. And compared to what I’ve been through the last few years, that’s not a bad thing.”

Last question: If he could go back to being, say, a 20-year-old Memo Gidley, would he do this all over again?

Gidley, now 47, pauses. “I’m not going to lie,” Gidley said. “For the first year after the crash, I really did wonder if it was worth it. My only real goal then was to just try to be a nicer person–the nerve pain was so intense, I was really difficult to be around. I just wanted to get to a point where I could be happy again, and that meant getting past that nerve pain.” He did-without drugs–but he was on so many different therapies, ranging from hyperbaric chambers to acupuncture, he isn’t sure if it was one of them that ultimately worked, or a combination. Doesn’t matter. Now, “It’s nearly non-existent,” he said.

Which led him to the exercise, then the training, then–on the day his doctor signed him off to do it–getting back in the shifter kart. And he knew right away he still had it. And he knew right away he still wanted to race.

And he knew something else: “No,” he says, “I wouldn’t change anything.”

Oh, as for Matteo Malucelli, the Ferrari driver who caused the crash? IMSA suspended him from racing at Long Beach, the third race of the season, in 2014–but not for his conduct at Daytona. The suspension was due to the season’s second race, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, where Malucelli spun and backed his Risi Ferrari F458 Italia into the Turn 1 wall, then rejoined the race by pulling out in front of traffic, collecting a BMW and a Porsche. In 2016, Malucelli was suspended by the Creventic endurance series after causing a multi-car crash in the 24 Hours of Barcelona, taking out his own Ferrari, and still another Porsche and BMW.

During testing at Sebring in 2014, Malucelli addressed the crash at Daytona, which had occurred just weeks earlier. “It was just tough at Daytona knowing we lost the chance to fight to win the race,” Malucelli said.

What he didn’t say, and has never said to Memo Gidley: I’m sorry.

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Comments

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DjGreggieP
DjGreggieP Reader
2/13/18 5:02 p.m.

I can only aspire to be so determined to get back to on track after a serious accident. 

aussiesmg
aussiesmg MegaDork
2/13/18 5:39 p.m.

I was standing 200 feet from the point of impact and watched it all unravel in horrific slow motion. i doubt he ever saw the stalled Ferrari, Gidley ducked out from behind another slower car to pass and the stationary vehicle was just there.

Will
Will UltraDork
2/13/18 6:02 p.m.

Much respect to Gidley, Zanardi, Ernie Irvan, and other racers who had the will to come back from such awful crashes and strap themselves back into a racecar.

Matt_Corrie
Matt_Corrie
2/14/18 8:39 a.m.

he is a Racer, to the highest order.

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
2/14/18 9:29 a.m.

Memo is also a heck of a nice guy.  He called the office the other day (to thank SCS for the story) and I was lucky enough to answer the phone.   He's certainly one of the "good guys" in our sport!    And once again Steven Cole Smith nails it!   I just love this line.........

"From the vantage point Gidley had, no driver in the world, except perhaps for Vin Diesel, could have avoided Malucelli."   

 

 

AaronBalto
AaronBalto Reader
2/14/18 10:30 a.m.

Wow. I am really impressed with this. I was in a testing crash at Summit Point in 2000 and broke my neck and left arm. While I, too, was able to return the scene of the crime, the corner where I managed to run out of talent haunts me on every lap. I wince at that corner in iRacing! The idea that Gidley was able to ignore it and drive speaks to the difference between a true professional and a piker like me.

Devilsolsi
Devilsolsi Reader
2/14/18 11:19 a.m.

I remember watching it happen on TV. I didn't think there was any way someone could survive that. Great to see him getting back in the car.

 

If you guys haven't already, listen to his Dinner with Racers podcast. It is really good.

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