Three weeks ago, a hobby stock car with a stuck throttle changed everything for Justin Vanderharr.
He was in the pit area at Eagle Raceway when the car left the track, became airborne and struck another parked race car, which then struck an all-terrain vehicle. Those vehicles were pushed into a group of people, including the 35-year-old Vanderharr, who was pinned underneath another car.
He suffered skull fractures and brain bleeding, as well as swelling and severe bruising to his head and brain. He also suffered a severe compound fracture of his right leg and was placed in a medically induced coma for five days after arriving at Bryan West Campus.
But Saturday, one day after being released from Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, the pit crew member for Adam Gullion Racing sat in a wheelchair just inside the entrance to the fire station in Alvo, sporting a black cast on his leg, eating pancakes and enjoying the sunny morning at a fundraising brunch his friends and family put together. The small building was filled with locals, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with an image of Gullion's race car.
Vanderharr was resting up for Saturday night's races, which he planned to attend as a spectator. But he made it clear that he has his mind set on making a return to the pits.
"I'll be back," he said. "I ain't giving that up."
Vanderharr said he was glad to be home, adding that he'd been feeling antsy to return to his job as a journeyman electrician even though his doctors urged him to take it slow.
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"I was ready to go back to work the first day I woke up in the hospital," he said. "I woke up that day and headed into the shower to get ready for work."
The support he's received from friends, family and other members of the racing community has been overwhelming, he said.
"I honestly didn't expect to make it out of (the coma)," he said. "Just to see everybody showing their support, I'm beyond thankful and beyond surprised. I'd never expect this much support and this much help. I never thought in a million years."
Gullion was less surprised, describing the racing community as tight-knit and ready to rally behind anyone who needed its help.
"It's a fraternity, it's a brotherhood; we all look out for each other," he said. "Whether you like the person or not, it doesn't matter."
The Gullion racing team and Vanderharr's family have organized between 10 to 15 fundraisers to help pay for medical bills, including a GoFundMe page that has raised $6,473 from 107 donors in 18 days. Restaurants such as Piedmont Bistro, Cactus Modern Mexican & Cantina and all Goodcents locations donated 10 percent of sales Friday to the Vanderharr family. Cactus also held a silent auction Friday night.
"I wasn't even hungry yesterday and I still went and bought two Goodcents sandwiches," Gullion said.
Vanderharr is optimistic about his recovery. Best-case scenario, he said, is that his leg will heal in six to eight weeks and he'll be on his feet and moving. For now, he said he's content with just being a racing fan, but his long-term goal is to get back to work on Gullion's team, though in the future he joked he'd be keeping a closer eye on other cars.
"I grew up watching races at the raceway and Midwest Speedway and it's something that I'll never give up," he said. "I'll just be a little more careful watching other people drive. I won't turn my back on anyone anymore, that's for sure."
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