After a devastating accident, Enumclaw’s Van Dam is back in the driver’s seat and moving full speed ahead

It’s been two seasons since a spectacular crash abruptly put a halt to Henry Van Dam’s racing career.

A rising star on the Northwest 360 sprint car racing circuit, the Enumclaw driver was steaming the Rocket-powered 33v through traffic and into Turn 2 on the tight 3/10-mile clay oval at Willamette Speedway when suddenly he jumped a tire, went airborne, off the track and down an embankment. The wing that gives sprint cars their distinctive look sheared off.

“Lucky to be alive,” was how many described the incident. Van Dam spent 10 weeks healing jammed vertebrae. In layman’s terms he had broken his neck and his back.

“Other than being a half-inch shorter I’m back to normal,” Van Dam jokes.

A year to the date from the accident, Memorial Day weekend 2008, Van Dam won on at Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma, Wash.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever thought about it,” the 28-year-old Van Dam said, making the connection between the victory and the accident. “That’s kind of cool, to even think I’d be racing again, let alone win.”

Actually, he returned to racing the month before and placed third and was a runner-up.

When he jumped back into the driver’s seat, he said his doubts were less about the car or his safety, but more centered on his ability.

“I was so worried I wouldn’t be as fast or up to speed,” he said. “I kept thinking I wouldn’t be up to my expectation. I knew I wanted to race and have fun. It was a big relief.”

He ended the season, which heads to tracks in Washington, Oregon, Montanta, California and Iowa, eighth in series points, third in local runs, and posted two wins.

“Our racing speaks for itself. We’re back on our feet. We didn’t miss a beat,” he said.

This season, the team enjoyed consistency with two wins, nine Top 5 finishes, 17 top 10s and finished fourth in American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) Northwest Region points.

In September’s final race, Van Dam Racing also won the Hard Charger Award for passing the most cars.

“That says a lot about the whole team,” Van Dam said.

The Hard Charger Award is handed out to the driver who passes the most cars in a season. Van Dam cruised past 53. That night, organizers had planned to hand the honor to another driver.

“In the last race he past 10 cars and beat the leader by one,” said Brock Akers, Van Dam’s crew chief. “That was something that was kind of cool.”

Van Dam’s racing didn’t stop there. The team competed in the Trophy Cup in Tulare, Calif., a Make a Wish Foundation charity race, Oct. 23 and 24.

Out of 68 cars, most from the California area, Van Dam Racing finished 11th, 15th in points.

“They’re were all very good cars,” Van Dam said.

Van Dam and Akers said it’s always an accomplishment to make the feature. That weekend, they were one of a couple of Washington-based cars to make the feature and the highest-finishing Washington and Oregon car and driver.

“It was a good run,” Van Dam said.

The 33v is parked now, but the work is just beginning for the 2010 season which fires up in April.

Akers and Van Dam said this is the time to catch up, because there is no time during the season. During a regular race week, Akers, along with Van Dam’s brother Travis, performs maintenance. The two are usually joined on race day by Gates Stephans. The team has a primary car, a backup and enough extra parts to make up three more. Van Dam, who owns his own portable welding business, owns the race team with the help of a number of Plateau-area sponsors.

“I probably put 25 to 30 hours a week in,” said Akers of his time in the garage during the season. That’s in addition to his full-time job. “Unless, I have a week when we wreck, then I’m not looking forward to it.”

They’re working toward a championship.

“That’s the one thing we have yet to accomplish and we’ve been close,” Van Dam said. “I’m not a points racer. I’d rather win races.”

Winning more races is also a goal for 2010.

“As far as the team, we’re capable of winning more races,” Van Dam said. “Some of that’s luck and some of that’s driver.”

“I think we can definately win more races, and win a championship, that would be great.”

Winning means being more aggressive, Van Dam’s not afraid of racing harder. He’s also not afraid of the consequences that often come with it.

“It happens so fast,” he said of accidents. “I’m a lot more appreciative of the cars. They are safe, but I still know that there’s that potential, as I proved, that things can go wrong.

“It still hits close to home,” he said. “I appreciate when I’m able to walk away from a race, let alone a crash.”

This season, his wing sported a photograph of fellow driver driver Travis Rutz of Langley, British Columbia, who was seriously injured in an accident this season. He said the fellowship and the fan support comes flooding back to him when he sees drivers and patrons raising thousands of dollars to help an injured driver like Rutz, just like they rallied to help him.

“It’s cool to be a part of that family,” Van Dam said.

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