Determination Drivers Racer to Fulfill Dreams
By Amy Presley
When Zach Campbell is behind the wheel, all he can think about is the present. Tearing up the racetrack in his No. 81 truck, he's focused on one thing--crossing the finish line.
|Zach Campbell, left, works with his favorite pit crew members, his father, Alfa Agent Keith Campbell and his grandfather, Alfa District Manager Jeff Campbell.|
The 20-year-old Weaver native doesn't think about the challenges he's overcome. He just drives.
But Zach doesn't want to forget about a day seven years ago when an accident changed his life forever. That's what led him to where he is today, and drives him closer to where he wants to be.
The son of Weaver Alfa Agent Keith Campbell and grandson of Alfa District Manager Jeff Campbell, Zach grew up loving fast cars, a natural for someone living only 20 miles from the Talladega Superspeedway. His grandfather once owned a car dealership, and his father is a former mechanic. Zach's dad gave him a trail bike at age 10, and Zach knew he'd found his calling.
"Racing uncovered a hidden passion I never knew I had. Every time I threw my leg over that bike, I felt alive," Zach said.
On Sept. 22, 2001, Zach was an outgoing eighth grader who enjoyed playing school sports and lived for riding his motocross bike. He'd won the 2001 Alabama Summer Motocross Championship and was thrilled to be attending Gary Bailey's motocross school in Calhoun County, Ga. Little did he know his life was about to change dramatically.
That evening, Zach took to the track for a few practice rounds, and as he prepared to hit the last jump, the rider behind him overshot his own jump, landing right on top of Zach.
"It was like somebody turned the lights off. It's hard to explain what it's like lying there not knowing if this is my last minute alive," Zach said.
In an instant, Zach went from landing perfect jumps on a dirt track to fighting for his life in the back of an ambulance. He was rushed to a hospital in Rome, Ga., where he struggled to understand what was happening as doctors and nurses worked to stabilize him.
"I knew it was bad, but it didn't really hit home until about 48 hours after the accident," Zach said. "You go from living and loving life one minute, to waking up in a whole new world, just trying to survive."
Zach's T-7 and T-8 vertebrae were fractured, and his spinal cord was severely injured. Zach was paralyzed with no hope of ever walking on his own again. The teenager who lived for speed was now resigned to a wheelchair.
Keith Campbell remembers a conversation he had with his frightened son as he kept vigil by Zach's hospital bed in the days following the accident.
"He told me he was scared. I said, 'Zach, I don't know how bad it's going to be or how good it's going to be, but I do know it is going to be better than it is right now,'" Keith said. "We just have to take it in steps."
Zach realized he needed to stay positive and decided he would not accept life in a wheelchair.
"At 13, I didn't know how much I'd have to grow up in one night. I learned to wake up each day and think today is going to be whatever I make it," he said. "In my mind, I was going to learn to walk again and live life again."
His family provided support and encouragement, and though they knew the road ahead would not be easy, they were willing to help him try.
"We just wanted Zach to get better and would do whatever it would take to help," said Wendi Campbell, Zach's mom. "We believed he could do it but it would be up to him to try and beat this."
After weeks of recovery and physical therapy in the hospital, Zach was able to go home. That's where the real work began.
With the help of his local physical therapist and a prosthetic limb and brace specialist, Zach was soon able to do just that. He was outfitted with a heavy, plastic device that supported his body from his chest down to his toes, "like a suit of armor," Keith explained.
"I remember Zach saying 'If you can figure out a way for me to stand, I will figure out a way to walk,'" Keith said.
"You should have seen the look on Zach's face the first time he stood up in those braces," Jeff Campbell added. "He worked so hard just to get to that point."
After months of intense physical therapy, Zach was able to walk with the aid of his leg braces and crutches. Over the next few years, he traveled to hospitals throughout the U.S. for various treatments in hopes of improving his condition. Through it all, Zach's parents and younger brother Jeffrey, relatives and friends were there to provide constant support, encouragement and prayers.
"My family is my support team. I couldn't do this without them," he said.
The Alfa family also rallied around the Campbells, offering help and encouragement. Keith was able to focus on being with his family during Zach's rehabilitation instead of work.
"If Alfa hadn't allowed me to have the time off, I wouldn't have been able to put all that time into working with Zach," Keith said.
Fellow agents and Alfa employees even organized a fundraiser barbecue and raised more than $50,000 to help send Zach to Beijing, China for an innovative spinal cord procedure in 2005.
But despite all his progress, Zach still felt like he was missing out. Throughout high school, he watched from the sidelines as his friends played football and baseball. He wanted to compete again. There had to be a way to get back in the game.
He spent a lot of time thinking about how much he missed being on the racetrack. A thought occurred to him, if they can put hand controls on a street car, why not on a race car?
In February 2006, things started to fall into place. After sending a fan letter to his favorite NASCAR driver, Martin Truex Jr., Zach was invited to be an honorary member of the pit crew at a race in Talladega. He used that opportunity to get some expert opinions from the crew members and engineers on modifying a race car for his condition. Their advice was encouraging, and Zach spent the next several months seeking a solution.
And he prayed.
"I remember praying: God, you know my heart, my dreams. Thank you for bringing me here. Now take me where I need to go," Zach said.
In February 2007, Zach purchased a used Legends series vehicle and began racing at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Legends cars are replicas of 1930s and 1940s American cars that reach speeds upwards of 85 mph. Zach's No. 81 vehicle was modified with the hand control system he needed to maneuver the gas, brakes and clutch. From the moment he hit the track, Zach knew his prayers were being answered.
After 10 races, Zach ended his rookie year with a third-place finish. Shortly after, he was able to purchase a fully-automatic, ready-to-race 400-horsepower truck and moved up to the NASCAR late model truck series.
Zach ran the season-opener at Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, Ga., in March, finishing in fourth place. His story soon caught the attention of Curt Britt of Curt Britt Motorsports, and the driver eventually asked Zach to become a part of his racing team, which includes fellow driver Paul Antley.
"Curt and Paul really took me under their wing," Zach said. "It means so much to me that, in my rookie year, these guys are nice enough to bring me in and teach me the ropes."
With the 2008 racing season winding down, Zach has competed in more than 20 races at Lanier, with 12 top-10 finishes and eight top-five finishes. After the Sept. 6 race, Zach was in fifth place in points standing. The season ended the last week of September but no matter how things turned out, Zach is just thankful to be racing again.
"This just means more to me, even just a single lap. Over the past seven years, I've learned how easy it is to take things for granted," Zach said. "So any opportunity I have to get in that truck, I don't take it for granted."
The racing season starts up again in February 2009, and Zach will be right back out there, with a new truck and upgraded equipment. His team plans to travel to several racetracks throughout the region as well.
"I am inspired by all that he's accomplished," Keith said. "He makes me want to do better and work harder."
To see Zach living his dreams and taking charge of his life is a far cry from the scared and broken eighth grader, lying in a hospital bed. But Zach knows the challenges he's overcome have made him stronger and more determined than ever to live his dreams.
"Some people may look at the situation I'm in as a disadvantage," Zach said, speaking of his paralysis. "But I'll be honest, I'm happy with my life. I'm thankful for everything I've learned. I wouldn't trade any of it."