LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD: JUSTIN ALBERNAZ FINISHING RECOVERY FOLLOWING SUNOCO MODIFIED WRECK LAST AUGUST
ON PACE TO RETURN TO RACING ON ICEBREAKER WEEKEND
By Kyle Souza, Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park
THOMPSON, Conn. – Sitting in the cockpit of his Sunoco Modified, unbuckling his belts, and preparing to climb out, Justin Albernaz was simply rolling on adrenaline.
He was in the immediate aftermath of being involved in a vicious crash in turn one during practice for the 30-lap Sunoco Modified event as part of the Bug “King of Beers” night at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park last August.
When he rolled on the .625-mile oval and put the car in high-gear, he was hoping to continue to gain experience on a tough, high-banked track. When he exited the facility in the back of an ambulance, Albernaz turned his attention to the long recovery he had ahead of him.
It was turn from the positive of racing, to the negative, in a matter of just a few seconds.
“It was a pretty hot day, and there were a lot of cars out there for practice,” Albernaz recalled. “We went about five laps, and we went down the frontstretch and I think the rear-end broke on Jay Sundeen’s car. I was following the No. 19, and when he dived to the bottom, I didn’t see Sundeen. He rolled up the track and I hit him. I heard another car come from behind and hit me. By the time I opened my eyes, I was pretty much down in the infield.”
After being transferred to a local medical facility, Albernaz was soon diagnosed with a fractured L1 and L2 vertebrae. He was crushed.
Not only was he frustrated with the end result of the wreck, but, just as any race car driver would be, he was immediately wondering how long he would be out of the car.
Since then, it’s been all about the recovery in hopes of returning to competition.
“I could feel the pain in my back,” the 21-year-old said of the immediate moments after the wreck. “When you’re in a big wreck like that, your eyes just close. It’s just straight adrenaline. I did the number one thing you’re not supposed to do and I took my helmet off. By the time I realized the pain in my back, I was able to climb out, but the rescue workers were holding me up. The pain was so bad.”
Fast-forward seven months and the Rehoboth, Massachusetts, driver is back to feeling himself. The recovery process was long – and one he hopes he never has to go through again.
But he’s just happy to be back on the right track.
“It’s been a slow process. The first two months really weren’t great, I couldn’t move, just a lot of pain in my back. After that, you actually feel like yourself again, and you feel like you can start doing some things, but you really can’t or you’ll hurt your back again,” he said. “A lot of physical therapy, and I think it was about four and a half months before I was back to work. I feel like I’m 100% now.”
Over the winter, the team took the opportunity to make some improvements in the shop after the car he drove last year wasn’t going to be in racing condition. Albernaz has a brand new Troyer chassis set for action, and he’s going to debut it as part of the first and only Test and Tune session of the season on March 23, right back at Thompson.
The Test and Tune will be his first time back buckled in the race car since that day in August where experienced exactly what every race car driver never hopes they will.
“I always get the butterflies at Thompson, but as soon as you get out there and get the gas down on the floor, they are gone,” he said of moving forward. “You have to just put it behind you as a driver. You have to send it in that corner. You can’t go in there looking at that wall.”
After the Test and Tune, Albernaz will be looking forward to returning to racing action under green flag conditions at the 45thannual Icebreaker weekend. The Sunoco Modifieds will have practice on Friday, run their qualifying races on Saturday and compete in the 30-lap season opener on Sunday. The event is the first in a new 10-race schedule for Thompson in 2019.
“I know we are going to that test and tune to try to shake the car down and get back going into the groove I was in last year,” he said. “I just put it behind me. Even if you just go to Thompson for the three days when you’re not racing, it’s a great time and a great atmosphere. I’m looking forward to it.”
With just over one month until the drop of the first green flag, registrations for the Sunoco Modified division are starting to flow in. Early on, it looks like a mix of returning veteran challengers will battle against some of the rising talent in New England’s Sunoco Modified ranks. Last year, Connecticut native Keith Rocco added another Sunoco Modified title to his resume in dominating fashion.
Even though Mother Nature dropped a significant amount of snow in the New England area this week, track officials are working hard to prepare for the 45thannual Icebreaker weekend. The Icebreaker begins on Friday, April 5, and the three days of action-packed battling on the track concludes on Sunday, April 7, with the third race of the season for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
The schedule for opening weekend is nearing completion and will be available on the track website and social media channels once it is finished. Fans will once again be able to visit the campgrounds on the property for the duration of the weekend, and fans also have the opportunity to purchase a pit pass and get up close with the stars and cars of Thompson Speedway. Sunday, fans will have the opportunity to walk on the track for the annual Fan Appreciation Party -- an event that has become one of the most highly anticipated of the season.
For more information on the track, visit www.thompsonspeedway.comand follow the track on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Additional information about the 2019 racing season is coming in the near future.