Austin Forkner: ‘Injury isn’t the hardest part’ of an accident

Stewart Forkner Brown crash
Feld Entertainment, Inc.

When Austin Forkner entered the 250 East season opener in Minneapolis in February, he was determined this season would be different and that he would ride all nine rounds injury free. A hard crash in Texas ended that resolve, but healing from a collarbone injury wasn’t the hardest part; it was dealing with the bad thoughts that followed.

To start the 2022 season, Forkner couldn’t afford to let go of the aggressive riding style that landed him in the Supercross and Motocross series, but he could control it. And he needed to.

Several injuries over the past few years kept him from making a legitimate run at championships and for a while, that seemed to only amp him up more – make him more aggressive and prone to mistakes.

The 2019 season was his to lose. Through the first six rounds, Forkner beat the 250 East competitors in every race. The only time he failed to win outright was in an East/West Showdown and even then, he was the top rider in his division. He had a full-race lead in the points and might have cruised to victory.

But then came Nashville. He had a hard off in qualification and injured his knee.

He tried to return to racing a few weeks later – perhaps too soon. He landed hard on a jump and tore his ACL to put him out for the season.

His 2020 campaign went much better. Forkner won four races in the 250 West division, but two bad rounds in which he finished outside the top 15 was too much to overcome and he landed third in the standings.

The 2021 season didn’t last long. Forkner broke a collarbone ahead of the third race and was out for the season.

So Forkner knew he could not keep doing things the way he had. At Minneapolis, he finished fourth in his heat and second in the Main. Round 2 brought the 250 East riders to Arlington, Texas, where he dominated Race 1 of the Triple Crown, finished fourth in Race 2 and was set to challenge Jett Lawrence for the overall win.

Forkner and Lawrence were battling for the third in Race 3. When Forkner completed the pass just before the finish line jump, Lawrence kept the pressure on. Lawrence clipped a Tuff Blox at the top of the jump and his bike was pushed to the right – and into Forkner.

Forkner was slammed to the ground hard and rebroke his collarbone where it had been repaired with a screw.

You know, this isn’t my first rodeo as far as injuries go and this wasn’t really a bad injury,” Forkner told NBC Sports prior to the season finale in Salt Lake City. “I mean it’s a broken collar bone. Broken bones are never good. But I was only out for four weeks. Relatively speaking it’s not that bad of an injury.

“It wasn’t really a hard thing to come from, the harder thing was coming back and not being at the top right away. I didn’t want to take any steps back from before I got hurt.

“The injury is never the hardest part: it’s everything that’s around the injury – the not racing, everything you’re dealing with mentally, the negative thoughts that come along with it. ‘Why did this happen again?’ In my case getting hurt over and over and over again and feeling like I was going to have a good year this year and then something out of my control happened. It wasn’t really the actual injury that was hard to get over, it was the mental things that came with it.”

Regarding his performance, Forkner had no reason to worry. Less than two months after breaking his collarbone, he returned to action in Atlanta and immediately won his heat.

He won the main in his next outing in Foxborough ahead of Lawrence, fueling speculation about how closely the title might have been contested.

In only his second race back at Foxborough after breaking a collarbone, Austin Forkner beat Jett Lawrence in the Main. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

“A lot of people said, you know, you look so much different riding from the first couple or races, before I got hurt,” Lawrence said “I agree, but at the same time I was just trying to get the season started, I knew it was going to be a long season, I wanted to be there at every race, and make smart decisions based off how I felt that night and how I started. Make smart decisions based on what was handed to me throughout the race.”

Forkner rode aggressively, but with a great degree of control

“At Foxborough, I didn’t really do anything crazy,” Forkner said. “I didn’t get a great start and was just working up through. A couple of guys made mistakes and I got into second and then got off on Pierce [Brown] and he missed that rhythm and I went to the front.

“A lot of people said that they hadn’t seen me ride like that, with that sort of aggression, but I would argue that you saw me ride like that at the first race at Arlington, when I won the first of the three-race format there. It comes with the injuries and the level of maturity that you have to take what’s given to you sometimes, not always try to force the issue. Because that is when things can go wrong.”

If 2019 was the championship that never happened, 2021 may have been even more so. It was a new Forkner that mounted his Monster Energy / Pro Circuit Kawasaki – a Forkner who bore the scars and had the hard-earned maturity that went along with them. He was determined to show his critics what those scars taught him.

“As much as you don’t want to think about that, there are times when you just have to make smart decisions and that comes with time. I’ve made changes on the mental side of things this year – being okay with not being the fastest guy at times.

Forkner injury
“Bad thoughts start to creep in,” Forkner told NBC Sports about his Arlington injury. “But this time it wasn’t my fault and it was almost easier.” Feld Entertainment

“I feel like it worked and it’s why I was really bummed to miss the middle of the season due to something that wasn’t really my fault. I felt like mentally I made good changes coming into this year and I didn’t really get to show them that much. Which is why right now, I want to show what could’ve been this season. Atlanta, obviously the A Main didn’t go that well, but the heat race was pretty impressive and then last weekend, winning the main.”

As disappointing as it was, the second broken collarbone is one more building block for Forkner.

“To be honest this (injury) was easier to take than past ones where it was my fault,” he said. “I’m not the type of person that has to get yelled at to get a point across. I can walk the track and my trainer, my dad, or whoever, never had to get in my face and yell at me that I rode bad. I would come back and be pissed if I didn’t run well. I’m self-motivated.

“It was almost easier this time because it wasn’t my fault. When the crashes were my fault, I would be kicking myself. I’m destroyed after, ‘Like dude why am I making these mistakes? What do I have to do to quit making these mistakes’ and that would annihilate me and get into my dark places, thinking ‘why can’t I figure this out?’

“The bad thoughts start to creep in. But this time it wasn’t my fault and it was almost easier, because the changes that I made to try to prolong my season and get hurt less seemed like they were working. A lot of people said that they saw maturity, they saw the changes I was trying to make. They were notable. I just had to chalk this one up to it being what it is and this sport is brutal. This sport is not golf, it’s not tennis. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control. It’s just bad luck – the card I drew that night.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500