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Richard Burton at speed at Colorado National Speedway. (Joe Starr Photo)
February 21, 2010


“There’s something about those nines,” he sighed, and he sure had that right.

It was late afternoon six months ago, 9/9/09, and Richard “the Rock” Burton had just finished up working on his granddaughter Madison’s bicycle at his home in Englewood, Colorado. Life was good. The 40-year veteran, a champion in every division he’d ever run for a full season, was still fast and hugely popular in the race trucks at Colorado National Speedway and everywhere else he raced. And something new was giving him a lot of enjoyment as well. He was mentoring his 19-year-old grandson Matthew, just beginning his own career behind the wheel.

Richard’s wife Vicky was just starting on the barbeque for the evening’s crew, when there was a distinct thud down the street. Richard knew instantly the seriousness of the sound. The cars had hit hard. He grabbed the bike and peddled off to see if he could help. He had just put pegs on the bike, and it was miracle number one, he says, that at the last second Madison decided not to climb on and ride with him.

Weather was coming, no question, but there was just one cloud in the sky. How random that suddenly there was a huge bolt of lightning. And how ridiculously random that it would not target the tree 15 feet away, but instead strike Richard square on the side of his head.

The thunderous blast and flash of light brought neighbors, two sisters, out to the street. At first they saw nothing unusual, but they smelled something burning. It was the Rock. When they found him, he was wrapped around the twisted bicycle, arms and legs flapping, muttering gibberish, smoldering.

One sister ran to the scene of the car wreck. The ambulance had already left, but by some second miracle, a fireman was still there, and he rushed over to Burton. By every appearance, the Rock was on his way out. By now all movement had stopped, and he was in full cardiac arrest. The fireman went to work, frantically, with CPR.

When an ambulance finally arrived back on the block, the clouds had arrived in earnest. The crew had to get Richard inside the vehicle before administering the paddles, because it began to sprinkle. Again and again they zapped him. No pulse. No pulse. Finally in exasperation, one last try, and it was miracle number three. A slight, but real, response.

When they arrived at Swedish Hospital, the situation was beyond grave. The family was told that Richard would not last the night. But right then, in another totally random coincidence, Dr. Ira Chang walked into the facility, fresh from a training program on a procedure for stroke victims called “arctic sun.” The body is taken down to 33° F, essentially allowing the brain to focus on itself and its own trauma. The technique had never been used on a lightning victim before. Vicky gave the okay to give it a try.

“It was miracle number four, because I am here to tell you about it,” says Richard. Yes he lived, but the winter season has been no cake walk. It was three weeks in critical care, then the multiple trauma unit, then rehab at the Craig Hospital. There were grueling times, pneumonia, and a staph infection. Richard lost 50 pounds.

“It’s hard to describe just what it was like,” the Rock explains, his speech slow and soft, but determined. “You have to understand that I had to learn to do everything again – talking, swallowing, eating, walking. My ears and throat were really fried. We all come to take so much for granted what we can do each day, without thinking about it. It was really hard, but, you know, there’s something inside me. I just don’t know how to quit.”

There was something on the outside, too. Thousands of fans, supportively hanging on to every word about his condition. A fantastic medical team. And there were the Rock’s fellow workers at the wastewater plant, all of whom traded in their vacation time for benefits to Richard.

Now, as the late winter sun burns a little stronger and spring approaches, the therapists are beginning to address Richard’s reaction times. If successful, and if he can pass a driving simulator, written, and road tests, he could conceivably even get his road license back. Richard is eager but cautious on this point. “It would totally kill me if I hurt someone because I was driving before I was really ready.”

The stunning fact is that the Rock is preparing carefully for an even bigger challenge. “Right from the moment I regained my senses, my goal has been to race again. To be just as good a racer as I was the year before.”

Last week the Rock, steadied by a cane, was back in the garage with the guys, fiddling with the #36 truck. He knows it will be a while yet, and he will put young Matthew in the seat until he is ready himself. Matt has been looking sparky in the super stocks and he also landed himself a modified coupe ride last season.

Matt has been the Rock’s biggest fan for years. One day, back when he was knee high to a hub cap, he was polishing the race car and muttered, “Someday I am going to be the Rock.” Richard responded, “That could be. But in the meantime, we’ll call you the Pebble.”

The Pebble is now in awe of the Rock. Asked if it is possible that his granddad could actually race a car again, Matthew says, “I can’t believe this whole thing. He was SO HURT. Every day it seems I hear more about what he went through in the hospital, but he has recovered so much already. I honestly don’t think I am going to be in that truck too long.”

If Richard Burton runs again, it would be a disservice to label it miracle number five. Miracles are things that are glorious for sure, but random and outside human control. The return of the Rock would come from the incredible fortitude of a special man, his family, and the community around him.

(Joe Starr Photo)

© 2010 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181

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2/8/10 - Roger The Remarkable

1/21/10 -  Shane's Sensational '78

12/28/09 - The Flying Finn and The All American Boy

12/12-09 - Hello Wall

11/29/09 - Once More for Ernie

11/15/09 - Ernie's Excellent Chase

11/1/09 - In The Zone

10/19/09 - Rough Week in the Midwest

10/1/09 - Common Starts, Uncommon Comebacks

9/4/09 - South Dakota Chris

8/15/09 - Facial Exposure

7/31/09 - Dying in the Pits

7/9/09 - Barn Rat's Last Race

6/18/09 - Catching Up With Brad Doty

5/20/09 - Big Boys in The Attic  - rare photos of legends

5/6/09 - Back Up In The Attic - more rare photos

4/22/09 - The Son of Hard Luck - accessible racing
experience for the handicapped

4/3/09 - Racin' In The Attic - Gordon Ross photo collection

3/18/09 - About That Mike Spaulding

3/3/09 - Dick Berggren's First Win - (you had to be there!)

2/11/09 - Peter at the Park - Peter Fiandaca at Riverside Park

1/30/09 - Steve - Steve Arpin

1/4/09 - Racer Speak -cool quotations

12/16/08 - Wimble Power, Will Power - Bill Wimble

11/24/08 - Remembering Chuck Amati - by Joyce Standridge

11/11/08 - That Rick Ferkel

10/24/08 - Beyond Bionic - Bentley Warren

10/6/08 - Fifty Second Classic - Skip and Lois Matczak

9/20/08 - Joey's Dad - Tom Logano

9/1/08 - One Night at The Park - the death of Les Ley

8/20/08 - Transitional Technology - early supermodifieds

8/6/08 - Wallace on Wednesdays - dirt trackin’ Kenny

7/19/08 - Star(ter) of the Show - importance of good flaggers

7/7/08 - McUnderdog - Eddie MacDonald

6/18/08 - The Night Buzz Was Worried - Buzz Rose

6/5/08 - John Richards - Boomer Role Model

5/20/08 - The Spirit of a Racer - the late Al Powell

5/1/08 - Bobby's Blues - Bobby Santos III

4/15/08 - Thinking About Rene Charland

3/26/08 - Carl and Corey - Carl Edwards and Corey Dripps

3/4/08 - A Cool Track with Cool Racers - West Liberty, Iowa

2/14/08 - Doug Wolfgang

1/25/08 - Frankie Schneider

1/7/08 - When Drivers Can't See - cockpit vision

12/21/07 - When Starters Couldn't See - flagstand vision

12/1/07 - Ride Along with Erica Santos - in-car camera midget win

11/15/07 - Tough Drivers

11/1/07 - Cockpit Safety

10/15/07 - That First Race

10/1/07 - Racing Nicknames

9/15/07 - Too Many Officials

9/1/07 - The Look of a Real Driver

8/15/07 - Being Dale Junior

8/1/07 - Armond Holley

7/15/07  -  Red Farmer

© 2010 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181