by Daniel Lowry
The racetrack was packed on a cool October night. The red, clay dirt was smooth and the mighty roar of the race cars drowned out the crowd, which cheered as the powerful machines rocketed around the small oval.
In a turn, one of the cars went on two wheels, rolling over, upside down and then back again, and the lift at more than 100 miles per hour sent the whole vehicle into the air, rolling with white smoke and chunks of debris filling the air, and it slammed into the track again and again, slowing as it hit and rolled. The mangled car finally came to rest on its side, in the middle of the track, with other cars swerving to avoid it.
Josh McGuire’s career was just taking off. He was 32 years old, and living his dream as a full-time professional racecar driver. He raced “dirt” late models, which go around oval, dirt tracks about 50 times at over 100 miles per hour. The tracks are so small and the cars are so fast, it takes less than 13 seconds to make a full lap.
He had loved racing his whole life, and at age 19 he bought his first racecar while he was a student at the University of Kentucky. After graduation, he used his education to help start a small racing business. There’s a lot to racing including booking races, managing the crew, acquiring sponsors, purchasing all the equipment (a racecar requires about 40 tires on hand at one time), travel expenses and the constant pressure to win races to pay the bills.
In 2005, Josh sat down at the kitchen table with his wife, Tracy, and they decided he should quit his day job to chase his lifelong dream — and focus completely on racing. His wife told him to go after his dream. They were both career driven, goal-oriented people who had no children at the time, and it was a risk they were willing to take.
Josh started winning. Races would pay around $10,000 for a win, and he was seeking a “Crown Jewel” that would pay anywhere from $25,000 to even $100,000. Josh, along with his wife, dad, uncle, friends, and his crew members, would go to about 75 races a year all over the country.
“But in the dirt world,” says Josh, “You don’t start winning big races until you’re in your 30’s. You have to have a lot of experience under your belt before you know all the variables.”
On Oct. 26, 2013, Josh set a track record during qualifying at the 201 Speedway in Paintsville, Kentucky. He did a lap in 12.4 seconds.
Crashes happen. Most are minor, but there can be several a night. Sometimes a car gets destroyed, sometimes a racer gets injured and although it is rare, some are killed—it is a chance a driver takes. A New York Times story in May 2016 reported there have been 141 people killed on about 900 short tracks in the United States since 2002.
“Sadly there have been five or six deaths on dirt tracks this year and it really makes you reflect on so many levels” says Josh. “There have been more burns and deaths than we’ve ever seen this year.”
Josh had raced for 13 years and had been in a few “bad” crashes. He had suffered broken ribs, toes, been banged up and bruised. He had all the top-notch safety equipment wearing a fire-resistant suit, a helmet, a head and neck restraint, and rode in what’s called a “full-containment” seat, which dissipates as much energy as possible across the whole body instead of a couple spots.
On this cool October night at the 201 Speedway in Paintsville, Josh McGuire’s life changed forever.
“I didn’t know I was flipping until too late,” says Josh. “Sometimes when you go on two wheels, you can do what we call a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and cut it back so it doesn’t flip. I was going so fast, and there was a little hump on the track, and air got underneath the car, and it acted like an airplane wing.”
With each flip, the car slammed into the ground with more force. “I always felt like I could remember the hit when it broke my neck,” says Josh. “I remember it twisting me.”
When Josh’s car came to rest on its side, the other racecars pulled into their pits, and the crowd grew silent. An ambulance, an ATV, a tractor and a couple trucks pulled up near the car. Race fans lined up along the fence to try to see if Josh was okay.
Josh was getting himself out of the car. He was telling everyone how to go through the steps so the car didn’t catch fire. “Turn off the main battery switch,” Josh told them. “Does anybody see sparks? Somebody get back to that fuel cell and check that fuel vent. Make sure nothing’s leaking.”
Josh was barking orders so that the car didn’t explode and kill everyone rushing to help him.
“How I got out, I do not know, but I know God had his hand on me, protecting me,” he says. “Somehow I got out, but I couldn’t walk.”
Josh was rushed to one hospital. After a CT scan, a doctor told him his spine looked like a question mark. He also told him his neck was broken, and he had never seen anyone be able to move in his condition.
They flew him to another hospital and put him in neurosciences intensive care unit, where he stayed for a couple days. Eventually he was put into a room.
“It’s about a three percent survival rate on just a crack (of the C1 vertebra) on the back side, where they normally crack. Mine broke in the front, where you can’t get to, and slid to the left and split open an eighth of an inch,” says Josh. “It cracked and spider-webbed in the back. That put me at less than one percent chance of survival.”
Word spread in the medical community about Josh’s case. A neurosurgeon from Charlotte, North Carolina found out about Josh and couldn’t believe it. After examining the scans, the doctor requested permission to use his scans for research and instruction. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” the doctor said. “And people with this type of injury just don’t live.”
He told Josh that his survival was, at best, about one in seven million. Time and time again, Josh was reminded that he was a walking miracle.
“It wasn’t my time,” says Josh. “I have to thank the Good Lord above.” Josh would wear a neck and head brace non-stop for the next six months.
“I never got down, never got disheartened, never got sad. I always knew there was a reason I was alive.”
Eventually, Josh recovered, but he would never be able to race again. His life had changed, and he and his wife wanted to have children. They did, and now they have a little girl, Finley, who is almost two years old.
When his daughter was about four months old, Josh held Finley in his lap and sat with his wife in their home, and once again they discussed their future. Just like when he quit his job to chase his dream to be a racecar driver, Josh and Tracy faced another pivotal moment.
They decided he would continue his career in racing, but it would be from behind a desk as a businessman in the sport instead of behind the steering wheel. Josh poured the same amount of dedication, sweat, and worth ethic into his business as he did driving. The business grew, but there was still something missing.
“How can I ensure that Finley has a good life?” asked Josh. “How can I ensure that she goes to college, and what about when she comes back from college?” Josh wanted to make sure there would be jobs and a future in the Carter and Lawrence County area for Finley.
That’s why Josh decided he would run for state representative.
“I’m not going to sit back and tell Finley I didn’t try,” he says. “From racecar driver, to survivor, to dad, hopefully to state representative, if you work really hard, and you put all your blood, sweat and tears into it, and you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.”
Life, many times, is about making your dreams happen despite the odds. Josh McGuire is proof that one chance is all you need, even if it is one in seven million.