Race car driver's recovery called a miracle

Da Matta collided with deer at Road America

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 23, 2006

Elkhart Lake - Fifty-one days ago, race car driver Cristiano da Matta lay on an operating table, unconscious and barely alive.

A week ago, doctors finally replaced a large portion of da Matta's skull, a procedure prevented earlier by the swelling of his brain.

On Friday, he went home.

"I would categorize this in the category of miracle," his neurosurgeon Randy Johnson said Friday.

Da Matta, a 33-year-old Brazilian, won the Champ Car World Series title in 2002 and then briefly competed in Formula One, a premier international series, before returning to the United States. He became Johnson's patient on Aug. 3, when he was airlifted to Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah after colliding with a deer during a test session at Road America, a 4-mile track surrounded by Sheboygan County farm- and forestland.

The Champ Car series returned to the track to race on Sunday; at about the time practice opened, da Matta boarded a private jet in Sheboygan. He was back in his adopted hometown of Miami before his surgeon arrived at the track Friday as a race fan.

"He's walking, talking, playing the guitar; he's singing songs," Johnson said. "The sky's the limit from here.

"He's going to ride a bicycle. He's probably going to drive a car. Is he going to drive a car like this at high speed and race again? I don't know.

"I wouldn't be willing to rule that out."

With the Champ Car community racing in the area this weekend, dozens of fellow drivers, former crewmen and friends visited da Matta's hospital room before he was discharged.

Teammate Justin Wilson was amazed by the progress, considering that when he stopped in a month ago, da Matta had only just begun opening his eyes. When Wilson arrived Thursday, da Matta greeted Wilson by name.

Moments later, the conversation shifted to racing.

"He would often say, 'Do you guys need drivers there?' " Wilson said Friday. "He was trying to check out the driver market. He's keen to get back."

Da Matta, who was known as one of the friendliest men in the paddock, has the same personality and spunk, according to people who've spoken with him recently.

The driver, who won at Road America in 2002, will be seen and heard Sunday giving the command for drivers to start their engines via a segment taped Thursday for the Speed Channel cable TV outlet.

Aside from the buzz cut and looping surgical scar, the most noticeable signs that anything is wrong with da Matta is that he tires easily and is prone to confusion, particularly when he gets tired or has more than one visitor.

Still, da Matta's progress far exceeds reasonable expectations regardless of whether he ever returns to the racing world. Of people with similar injuries, only about one in 10 wakes up, Johnson said, "and of those, quite a lot will be vegetative."

Da Matta's accident occurred during a test on an uphill portion of the 4-mile road course where his low-slung, open-wheel, open-cockpit car would have been traveling at upwards of 100 mph.

Based on the condition of da Matta's helmet, he apparently was struck square in the forehead. The energy-absorbing layer of foam in da Matta's helmet compacted to the maximum, and the rest of the energy dissipated within his brain.

Johnson removed about one-third of da Matta's skull to repair a ruptured vein on the surface of the right side of his brain. While the surgical team inspected the repair, da Matta's brain began to swell rapidly, "kind of coming out at us," Johnson said.

"My only choice at that point was just to close the scalp. He had quite a bit of brain outside the skull, under the scalp, for an extended period of time. Once it started to relax back in, we were able to put the bone back."

That operation took place on Sept. 15.

Da Matta is expected to spend seven to 10 days at his home in Miami and then return to his native Brazil for rehabilitation. Da Matta's family - father Antonio, mother Maria and brothers Felipe and Gustavo - had been at Theda Clark for most of his recovery.

The first big step in da Matta's recovery was when he was moved out of intensive care after about three weeks. The second was when he moved from a private room to the rehabilitation unit. The next was his return to Miami, "absolutely huge," Johnson said.

Drivers accept the risks of their sport, but the freaky nature of da Matta's crash hit them hard. Although the test resumed one day after da Matta hit the deer, Friday's soggy morning practice marked the first time for many of the Champ Car drivers since their rival was injured.

"I don't think you would have any conscience if you would go back on the track without thinking of what happened," said defending race winner Alex Tagliani, who did not participate in the August test.

In the seven weeks since da Matta's accident, some drivers have questioned whether enough was done to prevent it.

There is little documentation of car-deer crashes at Road America, but the track was a party to a lawsuit stemming from an accident similar to da Matta's involving an amateur racer in 1994.

Plenty of drivers in various series tell of seeing wildlife around the course, including Robby Gordon, who in 1994 Champ Car practice mistook a deer he saw for an elk.

Track management maintains that by sweeping the fenced, 628-acre property regularly, allowing year-round hunting and having observers keep an eye out for signs of wildlife, it does everything that it reasonably can to minimize danger.

"For that particular deer to be right at that spot at the moment when Cristiano was going by and to jump on his head and to hit him at the proper angle, the percentage of chances that you reproduce an incident like that is very slim," Tagliani said.

"But it's always there."

From the Sept. 23, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel