Alexis DeJoria back in driver's seat and ready for championship run
Alexis DeJoria knew the instant her powerful NHRA Funny Car hammered the Sonoma Raceway wall like a free-swinging baseball bat that she had suffered a severe injury.
An excruciating pain shot through DeJoria's lower back. It was so agonizing that she thought she had broken her back. She managed to unbuckle her harness and pull herself from her damaged Toyota Camry. DeJoria then slid down the side of the car. As soon as her feet touched the track, she experienced a shooting pain unlike anything she had ever felt.
"I was very upset because I didn't understand what had happened," she said. "I looked at my guys when they pulled up in their tow vehicle on the other side of the wall as I was leaning over and I said, 'What the hell was that?'
"They're looking at me stunned because they could see the pain in my eyes; they knew I was hurt. I knew I was hurt. The longer I kinda leaned over the wall, the more I knew there was something really wrong. I couldn't put any weight on my lower back."
Initially, DeJoria was told at the hospital in Napa, California, that she would need surgery because her hip was compressed. However, further examination showed that wasn't the case. It was a fractured pelvic bone of the left iliac wing and it would have to heal on its own. She also had suffered some soft tissue damage when her knees hit the steering wheel in the July 31 accident.
For four weeks, the 38-year-old DeJoria underwent physical, laser and electromagnetic therapy. It was the first time in her drag racing career she had been injured, and the road to recovery was a difficult one since she was told to rest and let her husband, Jesse James, wait on her.
The first week following the accident, DeJoria was on crutches. She began her therapy the second week and continued it for a month before reentering her race car at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. Despite missing two races, DeJoria managed to qualify that weekend for the NHRA's six-race playoff system -- the Countdown to the Championship -- for the third consecutive year.
"It says a lot for our team that we can miss two races and still make the top 10 [in points]," said DeJoria, who has returned to her daily workout routine.
During DeJoria's recovery time, crew chief Tommy DeLago worked diligently to improve his driver's cockpit.
"She is so skinny -- from front to back where the normal mounting points for the lap belts in these cars have been for years weren't designed for somebody [as small as her]," DeLago said. "I think we've made some pretty big strides with the seat, the seat insert and the way the belts are mounted to hold her in the car better.
"We found ways to make the seat wider inside so we can have more safety foam to be able to decelerate the body more in a side impact. Where the elbows are we were able to pocket the seat out around the chassis and add an inch of foam there on each side. We've also got a new deal that will keep the legs from moving so much and have more padding for her legs."
Normally, an injury such as DeJoria's takes six to eight weeks to heal. DeJoria healed in five weeks thanks to the three different therapies used by Dr. David Harris at the Center for Healing and Regenerative Medicine in Austin, Texas. Harris' wife, Michelle, oversaw DeJoria's physical therapy, which involved the Neurac machine, a device that helps a person regain proper neuromuscular control.
Ultimately, DeJoria missed the events at Seattle and Brainerd, Minnesota, but due to the point total she possessed, she maintained 10th in the standings. When she returned at the U.S. Nationals, it was the first time she had sat in a race car since Sonoma in late July. Even though she lost to Kalitta Motorsports teammate Del Worsham in the first elimination round, she still emerged 57 points ahead of Chad Head to claim the 10th and final position in the Countdown to the Championship.
The NHRA's title run begins Friday at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.
DeJoria's best finish in the Countdown came in 2014 when she placed seventh. This year she optimistically notes she has nowhere to go but up in the standings.
"I mean, we're not going to get any lower than 10th," DeJoria said with a laugh. "It's going to be exciting; it's going to be a fight. We're very grateful that I'm able to be a part of it."
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer.