The passion, will and body are all still there. But lingering recovery and rehabilitation make it impossible for Kevin Swindell to climb back into a race car just yet.
Even so, Swindell is back in Tulsa, Oklahoma this week for the 30th Chili Bowl Nationals. But this year, Swindell – who has placed in the top-2 each of the last six years – will not be racing, as he continues to recover from severe lower back and spinal cord injuries suffered in a sprint car race last August in a race at the Knoxville Nationals.
Despite his injuries and recovery, Swindell will be involved in this year’s race in a different capacity, that of team owner. He and partner Bernie Stuebgen have joined forces to campaign the No. 39 car, to be driven by Kevin Thomas Jr.
“I mean, it’s a lot of fun,” Swindell said in a press conference on Monday. “You definitely want to race after being on the podium those six years in row. It’s tough to not even be able to get into a car, but it’s fun to be a part of this however you can be.
“I definitely wanted to do everything I could to be as involved as I could. I was hoping I would heal enough to maybe jump in, but that didn’t happen quick enough. I’m just trying to enjoy it and maybe make somebody else get up there. If I can win as an owner, at least, would be fun.”
Added father Sammy Swindell, who has won the Chili Bowl a record 10 times, “It’s just something they put together and they got here with. It’s different for all of us, it’s a lot different for me, not being able to work with him on our car. I’m glad he could do it and hope he has a good time.”
The younger Swindell has gone through more than four months of physical therapy and rehabilitation to strengthen his back. He’s made great progress, but there’s still a significant journey ahead.
“It just depends on what heals,” he said. “I’ve got a lot back, but I haven’t got enough back yet to do it properly.”
Still, it’s clear by his words and actions that Swindell is itching to get back into a race car, even one that may have some modifications to make it easier on him.
“We’ve got the hand control stuff in my car over there right now,” he said. “But it probably wouldn’t be very good on my back yet if I jumped in and tried to race now.
“But we’ll see where I’m at a few months from now. And if I have to do it with my hands, I’ll try like hell to do it with my hands.”
Swindell has received a great deal of support from not only the sprint car and midget community, but racers of all types and in various series, as well as fans, have been very supportive.
That support has come in a number of ways, including cards, emails and financially to help with the monstrous medical bills Swindell has and will continue to incur.
“It’s huge,” Swindell said. “This whole community really is one big family. They always say it, but until something like this happens, you don’t really see it.
“It’s amazing, the outpouring of everything and stuff that still happens to this day. The therapy and stuff and amount I have to go through is going to take ungodly amounts of hospital bills, so everything has been a huge help and hopefully I’ll be walking around here next year.”
Swindell acknowledges that what happened to him at Knoxville was so far from the norm. Yet at the same time, he’s helping to lead a charge within the sprint and midget world to make cars even safer, particularly for lower back injuries.
“Over the years, they’ve worked a lot on not breaking our neck,” Swindell said. “Nobody really looked at breaking the bottom of your back.
“That was one of the softest crashes of my entire career and it just landed right. It’s kind of a freak deal and you haven’t really seen it at all, but it’s something we’re looking at real hard to try and eliminate and make sure nobody else has to go through us.”