Single Buggy Racer to Compete at the Track that Changed His Life
For one sportsman series Single Buggy racer, TORC: The Off-Road Championship Series Rumble at RedBud has special meaning. Five years ago at this venue, Matt Gerald’s life changed forever. In the blink of an eye, Gerald’s racing career and work off the track was brought to a sudden halt. What happened at RedBud would redefine not only his outlook on racing, but life itself. And although it may have seemed Gerald’s 2012 RedBud race might have been his final stop, he has overcome insurmountable odds to return to racing and will join the TORC Sportman driver on the track again in 2017.
Matt Gerald was once an aspiring PRO Light racer, moving up within the short course ranks. After growing up watching his father, Curt, race buggies, Matt joined the fray at just 17 years old. He quickly established himself as one of the fastest in the class and had many battles with then arch-rival Mike Vanden Heuvel.
The season after proving his ability behind the wheel of a PRO Light by filling in for Jeff Kincaid, fellow racer Jason Janusz asked Gerald to drive his PRO Light for him. After a weekend of racing in Charlotte, the TORC Series continued to RedBud MX in Buchanan, MI. It was there, on May 25th, 2012, that it happened.
“In qualifying, I was keeping up with the fast guys, and I ended up over-jumping the big tabletop,” Gerald recalls. “It was a big jump, and then there was a step-up. I had too much wheelspin going up and I just stayed in it. I ended up hitting the face of the [next] jump.”
As Gerald sat there in the truck, unable to move his legs, he thought the numbness would subside. But after being removed from the truck and brought to the hospital, Gerald received a very different prognosis. “The doctor was straight with me and he said, ‘there’s a good chance you might never walk again.’”
After hours of surgery and over a week of grueling bedrest, Gerald was transported by ambulance to RIC (now known as AbilityLab) in Chicago, a rehabilitation facility ranked #1 in America by U.S. News & World Report.
“The physical therapists were great. The day that I got there, they got me up on my feet on the parallel bars. I was there for about three and a half months. As the weeks went on, I kept getting better and better. I stayed late, worked extra hard… my therapist always had goals for me for the week, and I just kept crushing it.”
Matt Gerald’s career as an HVAC technician had to come to an end due to his new physical limitations. But, after receiving advice from his cousin and Creighton King, Gerald “shifted gears” and decided to go to school for marketing. He currently has just one year left until he receives his degree. He has made a recovery in his personal life as well.
“Since my accident I’ve also been really involved in my stepson Levi’s sports life and helping our community by coaching basketball, flag football, and baseball,” said Gerald. “On off race weekends you’ll more than likely find us in a gym or field. Levi’s first love is basketball and he has the same passion for basketball as I do racing; the willingness to work really hard to archive his goals.”
Early on, Matt Gerald thought he was done racing. He handed over driving duties of his buggies to his crew member, Tyler Wians, and Mike Vanden Heuvel. When he wasn’t at physical therapy, Gerald spent time at Vanden Heuvel’s shop.
“I’d sit and distract him the whole time while he was in the shop working on all the PRO Lights and stuff,” Gerald jokes. “We put together this goal to start racing again. It took me three years to get back into racing.”
But with his legs and hips not at 100%, Gerald was unable to race in the typical buggy setup. “I can drive a car fine, but when I’m going around corners [at speed], I need my legs to stay in place, and I don’t have the strength unless I’m pushing [a pedal]. Mikey and I brainstormed at the shop how we could get this to work. We designed a tunnel, kind of like what they use in NASCAR, that allows me to keep my leg in place.”
One of Gerald’s doctors once asked him why he would ever want to go back to racing again. “I said, ‘It’s something I love, something I’m passionate about. I’ve wanted to do it since I was a kid.’ I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me that I couldn’t.”
And he didn’t. 2017 marks another full season of racing for the resolute Wisconsin native. Gerald has hit his stride this season after straightening out some early season engine troubles. He appeared to be on the path to a podium in Bark River, but a mis-shift after the mandatory caution caused him to drop from 3rd place to 6th.
On August 12-13, Matt Gerald will return to Buchanan once again to take a green flag at RedBud MX. The long break between Bark River and Red Bud is allowing him to coming into the event fresh and prepared, mechanically and mentally. Gerald is hoping to gain an advantage by bringing additional parts to adapt his buggy to the new track and working with his Light-Buggy-driving teammate.
“With [RedBud] being a new track we’re bringing several sets of tires and all three of our gear boxes all set up with different gearing. It’s going to be critical we nail the setup quick. That’s one advantage I have with having Tyler Wians as a teammate in the light buggy class. We’re able to bounce ideas off each other on what lines will work and won’t work, and he’s able to relay messages to my spotters and the whole team.”
It’s been a long road, but these rounds of racing will bring the events of his crash and recovery full circle. He admits he’s not the same racer he was last time he was at the track, but he has grown in other ways and gained incredible perspective.
“This accident made me look at life a little differently,” said Gerald. “What’s most important to me is my family and friends first, and then racing, second. It took a long time, and I’m still not 100%, but I still live life the way I want to and do the things I want to do.”
Thank-you’s from Matt: “I’d really like to thank my Fiancé, Allison, for sticking by my side through all this, I couldn’t have done this without her. Also I’d like to thank my parents; my mom was there every step of the way and even was going to quit her job to stay with me in Chicago, ‘til I begged her not to. My uncle and aunt, Dick & Galenda Gilson for helping with so much. All of my family who were there for support. My close circle of friends, Mikey, Rayford, Tyler, Travis, Erik, and anyone else I missed.
When I decided to get back to racing I couldn’t have done it without LiveRC.com, Amsoil – Jeremy for always believing in me. I really appreciate everything! Team Associated- Brad Geck, FK Rod Ends, VP Racing Fuel – Jp Remington.
Also want to thank all the great physical therapists, doctors, and nurses who worked with me over years. Some of the people who really went above and beyond to help me, Martha, Tim, Sonia, Kerry, Mary and so many more made my stay at RIC so enjoyable. My therapists from home, Jen and Shiela really helped so much keep me on track.”
Andrew Pfluger is a longtime race fan and writer for the TORC Series. To offer feedback or make suggestions for future content, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.