As a former racer dealing with a chronic brain injury, life is longer simple for a man fortunate to be alive. For retired NASCAR driver Jerry Nadeau, this is now his life.
“The hardest thing for me is when I woke up and Dr. [Jerry] Petty said to me ‘Jerry I love you like a son, do something else,” Nadeau told Speedway Digest. “That’s when it killed me. That’s when it’s like you’ve lost everything because all I’d ever done was race. I started at four years old and when someone tells you that it’s like a dagger to the heart. I haven’t really been able to pick myself up ever since then.”
Nadeau was brought up the rankings the old fashion way. Blood, sweat and tears filled his childhood, working with the family business to advance his way up the ladder that is auto racing. He raced from the time he was four years old, whether it be go-karts, off-road racing or asphalt road racing. You name it he’s driven it.
But it wasn’t until a break from Richard Jackson that Nadeau could find his glory in NASCAR.
“I got hired by Richard Jackson Racing who was a Cup driver and I worked for him for $250 a week,” Nadeau said. “I was spotting for Morgan Shepherd. I was there for two months and I told Richard I thought I was going to do something as far as driving.
“I said listen, you got 10 Cup cars here, what’s it going to take to get in one of your Cup cars to go do an ARCA race somewhere. He said ‘okay well there’s an ARCA race coming up here in a month at Lowe’s [now Charlotte Motor Speedway] and if you can come up with about $15,000, I’ll put you in that race.”
That’s exactly what Nadeau did. He asked everyone he could think of to raise the money, except for his parents. He felt as though his parents had already given enough to him, and they wanted him to stay home to help his father in the family-owned roofing business.
In 1995, Nadeau saw his dreams come true. He made it to NASCAR. He competed in five events that year for owner Greg Pollex. Over the next two seasons, he only competed in seven Busch Grand National Series [now XFINITY Series] races due to a lack of funding. His best finish in those events was 19th at Myrtle Beach.
During the 1997 season, Nadeau raced a part-time schedule in the ARCA Racing Series and the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He competed in two events at Charlotte for Jackson in ARCA, placing second and fourth.
“We finished second at Lowe’s and the next week I was in a Cup car because Morgan went to another team,” Nadeau explained. “That’s kind of how my career took off.”
During that same year, Nadeau competed in five races for Richard Jackson Racing in the Cup Series with a best finish of 30th at Daytona.
The Connecticut native’s first career start in NASCAR’s premier series came at the Michigan International Speedway, where he was fast all weekend long, including a top-five time in practice, but crashed late in the race. He finished 36th.
“We went to Michigan for my first race and the first time at the track Jeff Gordon was fastest, I was second quickest,” Nadeau said. “We went out to qualify and crashed really hard in Turn 2 and I remember coming out of the infield care center Richard Childress put his arm around me and said ‘Boy I want to tell you something, I clocked everybody from the start-finish line to Turn 2 and you had the field covered by two-tenths, but you ended up crashing.’
“It’s one of those deals. I was on the go. I was ready to go and I think I had the no quit attitude to make it and I made it.”
Impressing many car owners throughout the garage, Nadeau landed possibly his best opportunity of his career in 2000, racing for legendary car owner Rick Hendrick. The move to Hendrick came after he ran two full seasons in the Cup Series, one which was split racing for Melling Racing and Elliott-Marino Racing, owned by NASCAR Hall of Famer, Bill Elliott and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino. In 1999, he split time between Melling racing and MB2 Motorsports.
Nadeau was going to a team that had won four of the last five championships in NASCAR’s elite series. Gordon and Terry Labonte won four straight titles spanning 1995-1998, with Dale Jarrett conquering the championship crown in 1999. Hendrick was putting some of the best cars on track.
In 2000, Nadeau underperformed compared to the rest of Hendrick Motorsports. He recorded five top-10 finishes opposed to his teammates of Gordon and Labonte, who accumulated three wins (all by Gordon), 14 top-five finishes and 28 top 10s combined.
Though Nadeau had poor finishes, he was out front for 364 laps that season, 61 laps shy of Gordon. From an organizational standpoint, Hendrick struggled in 2000, though having arguably the best equipment in the garage. At the time Joe Gibbs Racing was dominating the Cup Series with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, but just behind was Hendrick, Roush Racing, Penske Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
However, Nadeau won the last race of the 2000 season, where he held off Dale Earnhardt in the closing stages at Atlanta. He led a career-high 155 laps in that race, earning the respect of “The Intimidator.”
“That’s the lime light,” Nadeau said of beating Earnhardt. “I remember the first race I ever did Dale Earnhardt shook his fist off me like ‘stay the f*ck off my door.’ The last race he ever did he thanked me. He rubbed my doors and gave me thumbs up. I thought that was really cool.”
Being that was the season finale, everyone knows what happened in the series next race at Daytona. Earnhardt passed away. But for Nadeau, the pinnacle of his career could be defined by the 500-mile marathon on that fall afternoon.
Though not going to Victory Lane in 2001, Nadeau had four top-five finishes and 10 top 10s. However, he failed to make it to the end of the race eight times due to blown engines and crashes. In the fourth race of the season, he led 68 laps and ran out of gas on the last lap en route to what would have been his second career victory at Atlanta. The No. 25 car finished third that afternoon.
Looking back on his tenure with Hendrick, Nadeau believes he had more to prove, feeling he should have won more races.
“Almost winning Sonoma with two laps to go and we broke a rear end gear, had a seven second lead,” Nadeau said of the disappointment of that season. “It was the same thing at Charlotte. We led a bunch of laps and we were leading and we blew the motor with 30 laps to go. I had a lot of great moments in my career.”
Midway through the 2002 season, Nadeau lost his ride with Hendrick Motorsports, replaced by Joe Nemechek. Throughout the rest of the season, he raced for Nelson Bowers, Michael Waltrip and Petty Enterprises, only competing in 28 of the 36 events, missing the final five.
2003 was the turning point of Nadeau’s career.
He returned to MB2 Motorsports, owned by Bowers to drive the full schedule in the No. 01 car. Through the first 10 races, Nadeau had one top-10 finish at Texas, with three DNFs. However, he didn’t make it to the 11th race at Richmond.
After unloading fast off the truck, qualifying 11th, Nadeau was making a practice run in Happy Hour, the last practice before the race. His car slipped in Turns 1 and 2, pounding the outside retaining wall.
It looked as though Nadeau entered the corner too hot, not being able to slow down the racecar. When he hit the wall, it was at an angle that no driver wants to hit, driver-side.
Not able to walk out of the car, safety crews had to cut the No. 01 car apart to rescue Nadeau, who was then shipped by ambulance to the Virginia Commonwealth Medical Center in Richmond.
At the age of 32 Nadeau was in a coma. He woke up 22 days later.
“We were fast in practice but qualified bad,” Nadeau said. “We didn’t have a good draw. I don’t remember the day. The day is wiped out. I’m going by what kind of everyone else says and what the papers say. We were the fastest or second fastest in practice and my crew chief Ryan Pemberton asked me to come in and change shocks and we went back out and slipped and put it in the fence.”
Over a decade later, Nadeau still suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to its website, TBI is a form of acquired brain injury and occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. TBI can result when the head suddenly and violently hits an object, or when an object pierces the skull and enters brain tissue. Symptoms of a TBI can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on the extent of the damage to the brain.
Nadeau’s memory loss has blacked out some moments from his career and more importantly his life. He cherishes his time on earth and is thankful for all the opportunities he earned over his career.
But life would be different if he still had brain control.
Just around the time of the incident, NASCAR had started to put the SAFER Barriers at all tracks. Richmond did not have any at the time. The week after the race, the facility was set to go under renovation and get soft walls around the track.
“I got there too early before the SAFER Barriers,” Nadeau said. “It’s the way time is. Things get better in life. Things break and they make things better. People get hurt and they fix things better. I was one of those drivers that got caught and obviously things got a lot better which is great for racing. I just wish I had my brain back. I wish I had myself back. I love racing, I’m just trying to find a place in my life where I can enjoy and do something I enjoy.”
Since the incident, Nadeau has not stepped away from racing. He will never be back inside of a racecar during a competition. However, his love for racing and competition remains the same.
Coming up on the 13th anniversary of the wreck, Nadeau is now one of the instructors for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe (B.R.A.K.E.S.). The organization teaches teenagers how to drive, founded by Doug Herbert [NHRA driver] after two of his kids were killed in a car accident.
“We put them in a lot of bad situations,” he said. “It’s a really great school. I wish I had a school like that when I was growing up.”
B.R.A.K.E.S. is based out of Concord, N.C., an area many in the NASCAR industry call home and provides driving expeditions at Charlotte Motor Speedway along with Z-MAX drag strip just down the street.
Other than working for B.R.A.K.E.S., Nadeau occasionally does ride and drives for Toyota. Recently, he went to Fuji Speedway, an old Formula One racetrack in Japan to do ride-alongs.
Since leaving NASCAR, Nadeau has remarried after getting divorced in 2012 and has become the father of a second daughter, who is nine-months-old. He rented out his old shop in Mooresville, N.C., which he was basically living out of for quite some time following his injury. He would rent it out for a source of income.
Since he has stopped racing, Nadeau has also mentored some of the present day NASCAR drivers, including David Gilliland and current Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year candidate Jeffrey Earnhardt. He was a big factor in getting Gilliland a ride in the XFINITY Series, where he won a race for Clay Andrews Racing at Kentucky Speedway in 2006.
“I love helping people, but I just never really pursued it as a job,” Nadeau mentioned. “I think having TBI to live with is enough. I struggle every day. It’s difficult. It’s not like a bump on the head. It’s internal. It’s like a hard drive on a computer. If your hard drive isn’t working, your computer is always going to lock up and that’s kind of how I am.”
Nadeau has become a fan of the sport he was once a part of. He relishes it and watches the current product like a die-hard. Admitting that it’s hard for him to go a race these days, he will watch anything on television that has to involve motorsports.
Though Nadeau doesn’t particularly pull for any drivers, he watches closely, knowing that his career should have lasted longer that it did. He believes that he had just cut the scene and made it prior to the injury.
“I’m really impressed with what Kyle Busch has done over the years,” Nadeau said. “I enjoy how he drives. I keep up with most of the stuff. I imagine myself doing it [racing] with the SAFER Barriers because it’s amazing the difference with the way the cars are today and the way tracks are today compared to when I drove in the early 2000s.”
Nadeau hasn’t lost the edge to race. He wants to do it, but can’t do it competitively with the way his brain now functions.
With the amount of adversity and difficulties that he faced over his racing tenure, Nadeau will always love the sport that he grew up in. There are no regrets. He drove until God had other plans for him.
“If I had someone call me today and said ‘hey I want you to come test,’ I would probably go in a heartbeat,” he said.
There are some things that Nadeau wishes he could change, not even about himself but about the sport. If a driver gets hurt in the world of NASCAR, it is up to that driver to get the responsible health care needed to either get back behind the wheel or just to survive.
Recently, Tony Stewart injured his back. Denny Hamlin has experienced knee issues year-after-year. Then there is Busch, who injured both of his legs in a wreck during the XFINITY Series season-opener at Daytona last year. Each driver had to take care of the injury themselves, which makes NASCAR different from other sports.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. recently posted on Twitter that when he dies he wants to donate his brain for research of concussion protocol. This is something that many athletes including multiple of former WWE Superstars have stated in the last couple of weeks.
Nadeau knows from firsthand experience of NASCAR’s lackluster efforts protecting their talent after they are injured.
“It’s hard because I wish there was a plan that could help for injured drivers but there is no plan in NASCAR racing as far as that,” Nadeau explained. “I know they do it in other professional sports, baseball and football especially. But in NASCAR it’s kind of you take care of yourself. That’s the hard part, but I wouldn’t change it. I was grateful that I made it.
Nadeau has nothing to be ashamed of. His career was cut short, but that’s life sometimes. A kid from Danbury, Conn threw out a lofty dream as a youngster and went out to conquer those dreams. For that, he is successful.