Brian Vickers likes second chances.
He’s used them well.
“Everyone gets knocked down at some point,” said Vickers. “It’s how you respond in life that matters. I never thought twice about not racing. It’s a big part of my life.”
A dwindling driver job market and serious health issues might have derailed many racing careers, but the Thomasville, N.C. native hurdled every obstacle to return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series taking over the reins of the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota on a fulltime basis in 2014.
His is a fascinating story in perseverance. As a very young man racing seemed easy to Vickers. Then racing and life became more difficult than he could ever imagine.
He was once the sport’s next phenomenon starting a Nationwide race the same night of his high school graduation in 2002. A series title in 2003 seemed just the first in what would be many achievements in Sprint Cup racing with the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports organization.
However, Sprint Cup racing is a completely different world.
As a 22-year-old he won the October 2006 Talladega race and posted 10 top-five finishes before joining Red Bull Racing in what was expected to be the sport’s next powerhouse organization. Severe growing pains saw the team struggle on the track despite Vickers winning the August race in Michigan.
Those on-track struggles seemed minor compared to the news a doctor delivered in 2010 when he told Vickers that blood clots in his lungs required immediate hospitalization and likely the end of the once promising career.
“Essentially my lungs stopped working and I couldn't breathe and went to the emergency room,” recalled Vickers. “It was a pretty painful experience.”
He immediately stepped out of the car and began the battle for his health. Blood thinners and trips in and out of the hospital cured the health concerns and he returned to racing in 2011 posting three top-five finishes with Red Bull.
As the season rolled on it became apparent the race team wasn’t as healthy as its driver and shut its doors after the season.
“I was in a situation in 2012 not knowing what was next and there wasn't really good Sprint Cup rides available. There were a couple of opportunities but nothing I was really excited about.”
Vickers returned to the Nationwide Series with Joe Gibbs Racing and added a six-race Sprint Cup schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing. With little fanfare, Vickers climbed in MWR’s No. 55.
“Of course I wanted more Sprint Cup races but the No. 55 was still a winning race car with a crew that I felt confident I could win with,” recalled Vickers who shared driving duties with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin. “I jumped at that opportunity to partner with Michael (Waltrip) and Mark (Martin) and I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity.”
The results speak for themselves and his schedule grew. Vickers posted three top-five finishes in eight races in 2012 and continued that success in 2013 posting five top-10s culminating in a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July.
The on-track success combined with his work with fans and sponsors paid dividends in August when MWR and Aaron’s announced Vickers would take over the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine in 2014 and beyond.
A blood clot resulting from a boot who wore recovering from a sprained ankle sidelined Vickers in October, but the expected full recovery will have him behind the wheel in time for the Daytona 500.
With all health concerns alleviated and job security, Vickers is ready to resume that meteoric career path. At 30, he’s a little bit older, a little bit wiser and appreciative of where he’s at in life and in the sport.
“That’s the beauty of second chances,” he said.
At age 8, Vickers purchased his first yard-kart with saved allowance money. Not long after, a friend of the family suggested he move up to a real racing go-kart and start competing in World Karting Association (WKA)-sanctioned races. He was a natural: Between 1994 and 1997, Vickers won more than 80 races across the country and garnered three WKA national championships.
He moved on to the 3/4-scale stock cars of the Allison Legacy Cars Series in 1998 earning five wins despite racing against competitors twice his age.
Vickers entered Late Model Stock racing in NASCAR’s Weekly Racing Series in 1999. Six wins, eleven poles, becoming the youngest feature winner at historic Hickory Motor Speedway plus Motorsports Magazine’s “Rising Star of the Year” award predicted a bright future.
In 2000, the 16-year-old raced in the USAR Hooters ProCup Series where he scored Rookie of the Year honors also becoming the series’ youngest winner. In 2001, he finished runner-up in the title chase and embarked on a four-race Nationwide Series schedule.
In 2002, Vickers competed in 21 Nationwide races. He graduated with honors a full semester early from Trinity N.C. High School in May of 2002. On the evening of his graduation, Vickers was the highest-qualifying rookie at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
His performance caught the eye of the late Ricky Hendrick who convinced his father Rick Hendrick to hire the 20-year-old to drive the No. 5 Nationwide entry for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003. Vickers didn’t disappoint winning three races and becoming Hendrick Motorsport’s first-ever Nationwide champion.
That success earned Vickers a full-time Sprint Cup ride in the No. 25 car for the Hendrick team in 2004. Again, he lived up to expectations winning two poles his rookie season and posting five top-five finishes in 2005 and 2006. He won the non-points-paying Open race at Charlotte in 2005 and in 2006 scored his first Cup victory at Talladega.
Vickers battled his way through a traumatic debut season with Red Bull Racing to set the first-year performance benchmark for the all-new team and manufacturer partner Toyota. He earned Toyota its first top-10 finish in his first-ever start, their first top 5 later that season and led the most laps of any Toyota team during the 2007 season. In 2008 Vickers scored seven top-ten finishes and finished runner-up in Pocono.
The 2009 season saw Vickers notch the first win for the Red Bull Racing Team and the second of his career in August at Michigan. That win along with the mid-season charge and a fantastic performance at Richmond put Vickers in the Chase for the first time in his career.
The 2010 season presented Vickers a new series of challenges on and off the track. In May, blood clots in his leg, lungs, and finger hospitalized the 26-year-old. He competed in only eleven races. He made a full recovery and competed in every race in 2011 posting three top-five finishes, but that season his team announced it was closing its doors.
Vickers agreed to the partial schedule at MWR sharing the driving duties with Martin and Waltrip. In eight races with MWR in 2012, Vickers led 158 laps and averaged a 13th place finish as the No. 55 finished 15th in owner points.