Flat tracker Brad Baker hit the ground headfirst and spinning. It was a qualifying lap for the summer X Games at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, and a combination of incorrect gearing, stiff suspension, too much throttle, and an unexpected rut sent the popular Indian factory rider over the handlebars. The fall crushed vertebrae in his back and drove bone chips into his spinal cord, robbing him of the use of his legs. He was 25 years old.
“I remember the front end came down hard, and my arms buckled, and I went over the bars like endoing after a stoppie,” Baker said recently. “Then it was lights out.”
When he came to, he couldn’t feel his legs. Terrified, he told his mechanic, “It paralyzed me, dude.”
Baker spent the next week in a Minneapolis hospital room with a view of the stadium where he would have been racing. He obsessively analyzed the day of the crash and the moments before his fall, swinging between disbelief and rage. The track had been prepared just the night before, he said. It was inconsistent and rough. The riders weren’t allowed enough time between practice laps, qualifying, and racing to properly adjust their bikes.
Also, he was angry at himself.
“There was a lot of self-pity and a lot of finger pointing,” he says. “It shouldn’t have gone down like that, but you can’t pinpoint it on any one thing. I have gone through some crazy crashes and had some amazing saves. I’ve had a lot of brain farts on a motorcycle. This one, it just cost me a lot.”
It got dark during that week in the hospital. Baker began to believe the crash was all his fault, evidence of his overall lack of skill. Look at all the crashes over the years, he started thinking, resulting in broken legs, a broken jaw, blown-out shoulders, and enough elbow injuries to require two replacement surgeries.
Brad Baker, a rider known as "the Bullet," who was the Grand National Singles Champion in his first year of full-time racing, an AMA Pro Racing Expert Grand National Champion four years later, an American who beat MotoGP Champion Marc Marquez on his own turf at the 2014 Barcelona Superprestigio, and who, as part of the modern Wrecking Crew, turned Indian Motorcycle's return to flat track into a rout of rival Harley-Davidson, began to believe it had all been a fluke.
“I started thinking about all the crashes and all the injuries, and I began to think, Was I even that talented, or was I just riding over my head the whole time?” Baker says.
Wayne Rainey understands that. The three-time World Champion said he had similar thoughts after a racing accident in 1993 left him paralyzed. On that day, he was World Champion, was leading in the championship points, and was leading the race by a large margin. But, he says, he was unwilling to consider placing second. “This is what caused my accident. I was unwilling to lose.”
"I have gone through some crazy crashes and had some amazing saves. This one, it just cost me a lot."
Rainey was one of the first to reach out to Baker after the X Games accident. He and members of the Rookies of ’79 charity helped set up a fundraising effort for the Indian rider. Rainey called to offer him some advice—the same advice he’d been given 26 years earlier, by the British Formula One team owner Frank Williams, who had been paralyzed in a car accident in 1986.
“I didn’t use the words Frank used with me, which were, ‘You’re pretty fucked up,’ but I told him the same thing,” Rainey says. “‘You’ve got to get going. You will not get going in life if you let this hold you back.’ And I also told him: ‘There is life out there, and it is pretty much the same. You’re just going to have to do things a little differently.’”
That meant a lot to Baker. It mattered enormously to hear from a fellow champion, but more than that, to hear from a former champion who was now in a wheelchair.
“That is the psychological therapy I need,” Baker says. “Going and talking to some doctor, they’re not going to be able to put themselves in my shoes. The only person who can relate to me is another racer who was injured in a similar way. That’s the only person I can really talk to.”
It wasn’t only Rainey who came forward. Baker said he also heard from paralyzed former motocrossers Jessy Nelson, Doug Henry, and Aaron Baker, all injured riding or racing, and former superbike racer Mario Bonfante Jr., paralyzed after a bicycle accident.
“Injuries like this only happen to a small percentage of people who race. I am in that percentage,” Baker says. “The cool thing is the connection with all the other guys who have suffered a spinal-cord injury.”
Increasingly, Baker says, he has gotten over the idea that he could have avoided his accident, or could have seen it coming, or that he could have done something to prevent it. At the moment he fell, he was only in a qualifying heat, but his competitive nature turned it into serious competition.
“We were treating this as a race, even though it was just a rehearsal, but you practice the way you race, so I was giving it everything I got,” he says.
He also recognized that he could easily have been just as badly injured a dozen times before on or off the track, qualifying, racing, or just goofing around.
“Every racer has gone through a bunch of injuries,” he says. “If you ride and race enough, and push the limits all the time, it’s going to catch up with you. The probabilities caught up with me.”
He sounded like he was channeling Rainey.
“In our profession, we know these types of accidents happen. And people die. And they get maimed pretty bad,” Rainey admits. “But we are only focused on performance. When you are on the starting line, you are only thinking about winning the race.” Besides, Rainey says, without the competitive drive that contributed to his injury, “maybe I wouldn’t have been a three-time World Champion in the first place.”
Eight months after his accident, Baker and his girlfriend, Kelcey Stauffer, moved to Lapeer, Michigan. Baker renewed his relationship with Indian. His daily regimen included hours of physical therapy and work as the Indian technical advisor and riding coach for new Wrecking Crew riders Briar and Bronson Bauman. He had taken a gig as a technical consultant for American Flat Track, and as a commentator for AFT events on FansChoice, the online sports network that broadcasts the race series.
Gary Gray, an Indian racing executive instrumental in bringing Baker to the Wrecking Crew, was at U.S. Bank Stadium the day of the crash and in the hospital room a short time after.
“He was still medicated, but he said he kept having nightmares that this had happened, and then he’d wake up and realize it had happened,” Gray says. “He said he didn’t think things like this happened to good people, and I’m telling you, if there’s anyone in the world it shouldn’t happen to, it’s Brad Baker.”
Gray said the conversation turned pretty quickly to how Indian could keep Baker on the team.
“We knew we had lost him for racing, but it was immediately a question of how we could use him,” Gray says. “He said he did not want to come inside the factory. ‘I’m not a desk-job guy,’ he said. But we did not want him to go away.”
Gray considers Baker’s chances as very high: “Brad is a champion. He will work through it.”
"My cord was severed. His isn't. He has a much better chance for recovery. Everyone is hoping that's going to happen. But he still has to get on with what he's got now."
- Wayne Rainey
Michael Lock knew Baker well in his capacity as CEO of American Flat Track. He had spent the week prior to the accident hosting Baker and other flat trackers who had traveled to England to give attendees of the Goodwood Festival of Speed a look at dirt-track racing. Lock said he had shipped Baker’s bike back to Minneapolis just in time for the race. He was stunned to hear about his injury, then later excited to bring Baker aboard as a consultant and commentator.
“Brad is very articulate, media-savvy, and never short of an opinion,” Lock says. “He makes for extremely good TV.”
He too likes Baker’s chances of a recovery from his injuries. “He is one of the most driven people I have ever met,” Lock says. “We are all somewhat in awe of his attitude and his dedication to getting better.”
Rainey says his own accident brought him to a new spirituality. In the moments just after the crash, he says, as he lay on the ground in terrible pain, aware that he couldn’t feel his legs and believing he was about to die, he found himself praying.
“I said, ‘Lord, if you’re there, I need you now,’” Rainey says. “And it was like this spirit, or this light, said, ‘You’re going to come to know me now.’ It was left to me—did I want to live or die. I decided I wanted to live.”
Baker credits his physical therapists and a team of excellent doctors for the promising improvements in his physical condition. He has experienced muscle engagement in his core, hip flexors, and glutes, he says—a strong indication that his spinal injury may not be permanent.
“The signal is getting through,” he says. “About 25 percent of the feeling has come back. That’s really motivating.”
“I get the sense that he’s pushing hard, daily,” Rainey says. “My cord was severed. His isn’t. He has a much better chance for recovery. Everyone is hoping that’s going to happen. But he still has to get on with what he’s got now.”
Whatever his chances are for a full or partial recovery, Baker is planning for a future in racing—though not on flat-track bikes. He says he had already looked into acquiring a mini sprint car, with plans to race and eventually step up to full-size sprint cars.
“For any spinal-cord injury, there’s no cure for it and no prognosis for it,” Baker says. “That’s the scary thing. I could be walking in two months, or two years, or four years. You never know.”