Up Front: May 2011

Thrills and spills

Its not unheard of for a journalist to risk his neck for a story, but Doug Kalajian had his throat cut reporting one. Wielding the blade wasnt someone trying to thwart this months cover story, but a doctor saving Dougs life.

Ive known the guy for 31 years, since we were both assistant city editors at The Miami Herald. Weve kept in touch since my family returned to North Carolina, which is where he and his wife are planning to move once they sell their place in Boynton Beach. Since hes one of the brightest people Ive ever met, plus a gifted and polished writer, Ive been eager for him to get to Charlotte and start contributing to BNC. Not willing to wait on the vagaries of the Florida real-estate market and knowing that, though he had the misfortune to be born (to run) in New Jersey, hes a longtime race fan, I suggested he do a piece for us about the current state of NASCAR. Ill let him take up the tale from there:

I started reporting this story shortly before the end of last NASCAR season, and I figured the season finale at Homestead would be a great opportunity to talk to some people and gather a little color. I got to Homestead-Miami Speedway, 40 miles south of downtown Miami and about 80 miles south of where we live, around midmorning Saturday, Nov. 20. I had plenty of time to catch practice for the following days Cup race and to see the Nationwide race, too.

I cant really explain what happened after I picked up the credentials that would give me access to the normally restricted areas where I could find team members. All I remember is getting on a tram for a ride across the parking lot to the media center. Somewhere along the way, I took a tumble out of the tram and landed on my head. Paramedics had me airlifted to the regional trauma center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where doctors diagnosed a skull fracture as well as bleeding in my brain. While being diagnosed, I stopped breathing. One of the docs had to cut a hole in my throat and insert a tube to get me going again.

It took a few days for me to regain my faculties, such as they were. I had no idea what happened or where I was and I couldnt ask because the hole in my throat prevented me from making a sound. Luckily, Robyn was by my side and filled me in. The next couple of weeks in intensive care were rocky, as my head hurt to a degree I cant describe. Plus, I came down with a nasty case of pneumonia.

The good news is Im doing much better now. It took quite a while to get my strength back. Head injuries, Ive learned, can have unpredictable results, and the path to recovery can take a few twists and turns. Im still dealing with some aftereffects. But Im alive and Im upright, neither of which was a given a few months ago.

And that brain, though battered, still stores rare skills and talent honed by more than three decades plying our craft, as the story that starts on page 58 attests. Its hard to put a number on NASCAR-related layoffs because the teams are all independent operators, but there have been a couple thousand since 08, and teams are still shrinking. Everybody agrees the partys over, at least for now, regardless of the greater economy. He compares it with something we both knew firsthand, something he stuck with a lot longer than I did. Its sort of like the newspaper business: Everybody got fat and sloppy in the good times, but lean and hungry seems to work just fine.