Seize the Day(tona)

ON THE FIRST MONDAY OF THE NEW YEAR, the happiest place on earth wasn't Walt Disney World. It was its parking lot. That's where Brian Vickers slipped behind the wheel of a race car for the first time in nearly nine months. With a stent in one leg and a repaired heart in his chest, the two-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner gripped the steering wheel, pulled out for a test lap on the one-mile Walt Disney World Speedway and finally allowed himself to exhale.

"Racing is all I've known since I was 8," says the 27-year-old who piloted Red Bull Racing's 83 car until his prolonged detour. "You know you'll have to stop one day. But you want to stop on your terms."

Vickers' hiatus began in a Washington, D.C., emergency room last May, a few days removed from a 10th-place finish at Darlington. A week earlier, he'd felt numbness in his left hand and searing pain along the left side of his chest. When he finally gave in to his doctor's pleas to visit the hospital, he learned he had blood clots in his leg and in both lungs (and, later, a hole between his heart's right and left atria).

"On Saturday night I'm bulletproof," he recalls. "On Wednesday afternoon I'm in an ER with pain so bad I can't lie down flat enough for them to examine me. I'm asking the doctors whether I can make it to Friday practice at Dover, and they're telling me I need to be worried about being alive by then." He ended up with the stent in his left leg to improve blood flow -- and without a ride. NASCAR forced him off the track while he healed. Vickers had every intention of staying active with the team during his downtime, but then reality set in.

"Seeing my car out on the track with someone else driving it," he says, "reminded me of something Dale Earnhardt once said: It feels like you're being cheated on." So while RBR rotated drivers through the 83, Vickers hung at the F1 paddock in Montreal and a Red Bull Air Race in New York.

But now the surgical wounds are healed, and Vickers is back in the saddle. Doctors diagnosed May-Thurner syndrome, a compression of blood vessels in the leg that causes clots.

But Vickers is past the worst medical threats -- stroke tops the list -- and he's weaned himself off the blood thinners NASCAR'S medical liaisons said put racing out of the question.

All that's left is to show the competition he's ready to race. One person, at least, needs no convincing.

"A couple of weeks after the surgery I was in Aspen doing 60-mile bike rides at 10,000 feet," Vickers says. "I'm good."

Solid test sessions at Orlando and Daytona confirm his prognosis. But the paddock operates with a herd mentality; when a driver vanishes, by injury or choice, the herd moves on without him. For the one left behind, catching up can be exhausting and downright hurtful.

"My biggest concern has always been perception," Vickers says. "If the other guys won't race me hard because they think I'm damaged goods, then I may as well stay home. I may have to throw around some bumpers early at Daytona, just to let them know I'm still me."

A small smile curls a corner of his mouth. "Why don't I just go on and win it? That would set everybody straight, wouldn't it?"