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Back on Track: Racer loses his legs but not his drive

Racecar

WRITTEN BY JAKE STUMP
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

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All David Gardner remembers from the moment he crashed is thinking to himself, “How am I going to fix this?”

He was referring to his Swift DB1 Formula Ford as it smashed into the rear of another car on June 13, 1999, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. 


Gardner was driving at around 100 mph. 

Though Gardner, MS ’81, Industrial Relations, was more worried about damaging his car, his own well-being – and existence – hung in balance. 

“I didn’t realize it was his car at first,” said his wife, Diane Herron, who saw the crash from the stands. “After they took him to the hospital and told me, ‘We may have to amputate one or both legs,’ that’s when it really hit me.”

Gardner, a native of St. Albans, W.Va., was no novice to car racing. He’d been racing with the Sports Car Club of America since 1981. But, as the sport of racing goes, fate does not discriminate. 
Gardner was trapped for more than 30 minutes as crews scrambled to extract him from the mangled wreckage. He was flown to a Cleveland hospital and died twice – once in the helicopter and once in the operating room. Gardner lost lots of blood and his injuries included a broken neck, broken back, crushed pelvis, fractured femurs, broken ribs and a crushed right hand. But the most devastating injuries happened to his legs. An emergency room doctor described Gardner as looking as if he’d stepped on two landmines. 


“In order to save my life, my wife had to authorize the amputation of both of my legs,” Gardner said. “I can’t imagine what she went through to have to do that. If it wasn’t for her, I really don’t think I could have recovered and returned to normalcy. She’s an absolute godsend.”


Return to normalcy he did – but it was a long, hard road. Gardner was hospitalized for two months. He spent two of those weeks in a medically induced coma. 


“A few months after he got out, a doctor told us they’d given him a zero-percent chance of survival,” Herron said. “They kept that from us while we were in the hospital.”


Racer

David Gardner gears up for a race in Ohio. 


Despite the amputation, Gardner was determined to walk again. 


“What drove me to recovery was lying in the hospital bed and a doctor coming in and saying, ‘David, you’re relatively young. You’re in good health. There’s no reason you won’t walk again on prosthetic legs.’ “From that instant on, I never had any doubt.”


Over the next several months, Gardner learned to walk on prosthetic legs. He even returned to work in 2000, extending a successful career in human resources. 


He’d grown up around sports cars and when his older brother bought an Austin-Healey 3000 British sports car, he was hooked. Gardner bought his first Porsche in the late 1970s and has bought more since. 


“I knew people raced on an amateur level and I had friends in West Virginia who raced,” Gardner said. “I knew it was something I wanted to do. Before grad school, I took a driver’s ed weekend with the Porsche Club of America. I saw how much fun racing had to offer.”


Gardner graduated from WVU Tech with an undergraduate degree in industrial relations in 1976. After a few years of work, he got a master’s degree in industrial relations at WVU. He went on to work for a series of companies, before retiring as director of human resources for global operations at Phillips Medical Systems. 


Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is not just learning to walk again but getting behind the wheel of a racecar again. 


In 2013, Gardner received an invitation to attend a track day at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the very track where his life was threatened and spared. He showed the invitation to his wife, who asked him, “Do you want to go? I’ll get this for you for our anniversary gift if you want to go.” 


Gardner was surprised and appreciated the encouragement from his wife to get back on the track. He did. Though this time driving a car would be a little different. 


“I discovered that I could drive on the track again with hand controls,” he said. 


Instead of using his feet to compress the acceleration and brake pedals, Gardner uses a device attached near the steering wheel that controls the operation of the vehicle. On the steering wheel are buttons that shift the car into different gears. 


He still races cars today in the Ohio area. 


“I never lost my desire,” Gardner said. “I absolutely loved sports car racing and didn’t intend for it to end the way that it did. I have unfinished business. There’s a big chapter that I need to complete.”