Pursley Inspires In Comeback From Spinal Injury

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Daison Pursley has inspired fans with his improbable comeback to racing following a spinal cord injury two years ago. (Jack Reitz photo)

LOCUST GROVE, Okla. – No teenager expects to start a weekend participating in the sport they love and end that weekend with their life upended and potentially changed forever.

For Oklahoma’s Daison Pursley, that was the roller coaster of emotions he experienced two years ago, and his climb back from a potentially career-ending injury has been nothing short of inspirational.

Pursley was on the fast track in his young racing career with Toyota Racing Development, competing full-time in dirt midgets with Keith Kunz Motorsports, when a violent crash at Arizona Speedway on Nov. 13, 2021, during the Western World Championships threatened to derail his climb to the top entirely.

That night, Pursley was competing in heat race action – battling for a transfer spot into the feature event with his teammate Buddy Kofoid – when his KKM-prepared entry climbed the berm halfway down the backstretch and went into a series of wild flips.

After going end over end nearly nine times, the red-and-black machine came to a sudden stop at the entrance to the third turn, lying in a mangled heap as safety workers rushed to the scene of the crash.

Though some might be surprised, Pursley told Motorsports Hot Spot that he doesn’t necessarily need to look back at the video from that night. He remembers the event – and the moment the crash began – very clearly.

“I remember everything leading up to that heat race at Western World,” Pursley explained during an in-depth interview ahead of the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in Indianapolis. “We were excited and felt like it was going to be a good night. Got stuck right around the battle for the transfer in that heat with Buddy … and then it went bad. I remember looking at the dirt, and then after that I couldn’t move.

“But really, after I crashed and everything, most of what I don’t remember is more the aftermath,” he added. “I would say there’s about a week and a half to two weeks, when I was first in the hospital, where I don’t really remember ever like seeing any faces or really anything from that opening period there.”

Pursley was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury and fractures of both the C4 and C5 vertebrae after arriving at Banner Health Arizona. He underwent spinal fusion surgery to repair the broken portions of his neck less than 24 hours after his accident, but the early days of his hospital stay were nerve-wracking.

The spinal cord injury Pursley had suffered left him with little to no motor function from the neck down – officially an incomplete quadriplegic. At that time, Pursley recalled that – in those early days – it was unclear whether he would ever walk, let alone race, again.

“I don’t really remember the earliest days of what my thoughts were, but as I got to a point where I could process everything, I think anyone in my shoes would ask themselves if they would ever get back to where they were before,” Pursley noted. “There were definitely those thoughts of, ‘Am I gonna be able to do this again? Am I gonna be able to walk, or do any of the things that I’ve done in my life already?’

“I had some doubts, for sure, even if you try to remain confident and keep your faith that things are going to work out and get better.”

But Pursley was steadfast in his belief that if he put as much effort into his recovery as possible, that it was possible to climb out of the hole he was faced with.

After spending three weeks in a hospital room in Arizona, Pursley was transported to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., where he worked with doctors inside the Dean Stroud Spine and Pain Institute for more than three months as they better determined the severity of his injury and, ultimately, how much motor function he’d ultimately be able to regain.

“I’m so grateful for all the doctors and professionals who worked with me during that time,” Pursley noted. “Particularly getting to the Shepherd Center was huge; it’s just an amazing place for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. The work they do there is incredible, and the knowledge that the staff has there is just … something that I wish that everyone in an unfortunate circumstance like I was in could be able to witness and have access to.

“I think it was when I was working there and starting to see some signs of progress that I really realized, ‘You know, I can come back from this. We’re going to get there again.’”

Pursley was discharged from the Shepherd Center in early March, having gone from unable to walk to “doing things where it didn’t even look like I’d broken my neck,” in a remarkable progression.

He was then quickly afforded the ability to take the next step in his recovery, courtesy of his racing family and his then-manufacturer partners at Toyota Racing Development.

As his mobility and movement began to return in force, Pursley spent eight weeks at the Toyota Performance Center in North Carolina working at rebuilding his strength, stamina, and mental fortitude for a potential return to racing.

“By the time I got home [to Oklahoma] after four months, even though I had movement and could get around again, I really didn’t have the strength that I wanted to,” he recalled. “I was still able to go to the gym and continue to progress on my own, but I knew I wanted to race again. It was such a blessing to have everyone at Toyota Racing hook me up to where I could go down to North Carolina for eight weeks and get ready to get back inside of a race car.

“That was the period where I worked out as hard as I could and got everything I needed to back into shape. I worked on my left arm and my left shoulder and hand, where a lot of the muscle weakness still was at that point, and got that up to par before we really got going again.

“It’s been a difficult journey, to say the least, but it’s pretty remarkable to say that I’m in a race car again.”

Just nine months after his crash, Pursley returned to racing, winning seven of his first eight micro sprint starts before an emotional homecoming to the famed Tulsa Shootout and Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, two major grassroots racing events held annually in his home state of Oklahoma.

“Getting back to the [Tulsa] Expo Center, where I cut my teeth racing, was like a dream,” he admitted.

After proving to himself that he could compete on a heavyweight level again, Pursley received an opportunity to resume his climb up the racing ladder, competing this past season in the AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series with KO Motorsports as a 19-year-old rookie.

He also returned to the discipline where his career was nearly cut short, racing a dirt midget part-time with Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports in the NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series.

Pursley’s first full year in a non-winged sprint car provided many moments of joy and pride.

He won in just his sixth sprint car start, a non-points USAC-sanctioned event at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park, and finished second in points during USAC’s Eastern Storm mini-series in mid-June.

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Daison Pursley (5p) raced full time in a non-winged sprint car for the first time this season. (Jack Reitz photo)

Ultimately, Pursley was crowned USAC national sprint car rookie-of-the-year on the strength of three top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, ranking just outside the top 10 in the final point standings in 11th place.

It was a season of perseverance, resilience, and “telling myself that I’m back where I belong,” a grateful Pursley reflected, noting that he’s learned to better weather the storms in racing because of what he’s been through over the past two years.

Immense support from the racing community also helped a great deal, he added, in allowing him to focus on the positives in his life during his time in the hospital and then in his rehabilitation process.

“I just think that reading all the Facebook messages and comments from people who reached out, people who were praying for me and supporting me, and everything of that nature … kept me just motivated to make everyone proud and to get back in a race car again,” Pursley said. “When I could finally physically pick up my phone and look at that stuff … it was just remarkable and kept me wanting to try to get back to who I was and who I wanted to be, maybe even a little bit better in different ways.

“I think it’s turned out to be, not necessarily a good thing that I went through, but something that I can take a lot of good from … even though it was a bad situation,” he continued. “I’m not hanging my head about it or wishing it didn’t happen, because it is what it is. But I am very proud that I can keep on moving forward and that I’ve still been able to become the Daison Pursley that I am today.”

As Pursley looks ahead to the 2024 season, he’ll do so with new optimism, as he joins Team AZ to take over the sprint car ride vacated by longtime veteran Jake Swanson for his second full season on the USAC National Sprint Car Series trail.

But he also faces the future with a new appreciation for the sport he loves, a passion that was nearly taken away from him forever in an instant in the Arizona night.

“Man, before the accident I really was like anybody in racing, where if you have a bad night at the racetrack, you’re just kind of in a bad mood and frustrated. But now, I understand better that I get to drive a race car for a living and that I’m living a dream that a ton of people would love to be in,” said Pursley. “I just feel like I have a new appreciation of the sport, for sure.

“As a kid going out to California, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just be gone for two and a half or three weeks … but that one time in 2021, thinking I’d be back home in three weeks, and I didn’t get home ‘til March. That puts a lot of things into perspective when you look back on it. So now, when I do have those bad nights, I feel like I can better appreciate that hey, I’m in a race car and doing what I love and making money doing it. To me, it’s a good progression that I have those thoughts now and I don’t get so down on myself, because I do remind myself that I’m living the dream I wanted to be when I was growing up.

“When you’re able to be out in the world, doing what you love, that’s all anyone can ask for. I’m very thankful for all the lessons this journey has taught me and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

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Daison Pursley celebrated an emotional victory at Volusia Speedway Park in February. (Josh James photo)

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