Vern LaFave was overwhelmed with emotion when he returned to Oswego Speedway on Saturday, the city where he escaped a potentially tragic accident with non-life-threatening injuries just two weeks prior.
The 60-year-old Philadelphia native and resident — a local auto racing veteran of more than four decades — collided with the wall head-on at the conclusion of the 350 supermodified feature on June 22. His car burst into flames immediately upon impact while fans watched in distress as he escaped the fiery wreck with the help of the Oswego Speedway safety crew.
LaFave said that he was approached by countless fans when he returned to the track Saturday to watch and greet his friends and supporters, many of whom gave him a hug or even cried as they granted him well wishes.
“I’m thankful for all the support I’ve gotten from the fans, I’ve got an Oswego family that have been my friends for 20-some years that I’ve gained through there, they’ve been helping me and after this happened, it’s just amazing to see how much people care,” said LaFave, who could be back in a race car later this season or early next.
“I was amazed at the outpouring,” he added. “The texts and the messages, it took me a full day to try to get back to people that had reached out to me. It was all pretty overwhelming.”
LaFave was attempting to pass Dalton Doyle for the victory as they approached the checkered flag at the end of the 350 supermodified feature, when LaFave said his tire grazed that of the leader and propelled his car into the wall. LaFave said that his car lost steering control, and he was unable to avoid the outcome.
“I remember everything,” LaFave said. “I touched Dalton’s wheel, just touched it, and the car shot across the track. There weren’t any evasive moves that I could have tried, I don’t know if I broke a tie rod or what, but the car just went across the track and I knew it was going to be bad because I couldn’t steer to hit it at a certain angle, I knew it was going to be head on.”
LaFave’s car then spun and instantly combusted, and he climbed out of his seat onto the top of the cage of the car after a few attempts, eventually finding his way out of the flames.
The Oswego safety crew arrived just as he was making his way out and they began treating his wounds and stabilized him before the ambulance arrived.
LaFave estimated that he was in the blaze for about 50 seconds before finally making his way out.
“I could feel the heat was so intense that I knew I was in trouble and had to get out of there and had to get out of there fast,” LaFave said.
“I knew I didn’t have enough energy left to pull my legs out, my arms and my hands were in so much pain that I couldn’t grasp anything so I thought, if I’m going to live, I’m just going to go backwards, so I rolled back like a diver would off a boat and the moment I hit the track, (the safety) guys had me,” he added. “From there they just worked on me and tried to keep me calmed down. They did a great job.”
LaFave spent a few days in the hospital and was kept off his feet for nearly two weeks, but did not suffer any life-threatening or life-altering injuries during the scary incident.
He was left with third degree burns on both arms, his right arm more severe than the left, and both elbows and hands were also inflicted. He underwent a skin graft procedure to repair the burns and is required to wear light bandages over the next few weeks to protect sensitive areas during the healing process.
LaFave has also experienced blurred vision since the accident but said that it has improved daily and it remains the only obstacle on his path to a full recovery. He received a positive update during his latest checkup Friday, and anticipates another strong report when he returns to his doctor again later this month.
LaFave credited the aid of his girlfriend, Gina Taylor, for accelerating the healing process.
“It’s been a long two weeks, not knowing how I was going to come out of this thing or how many weeks or months it was going to be,” LaFave said. “When (the nurse) rolled those bandages off, it was a great feeling. I’m going to be good to go and I’m figuring about two or three weeks and I’ll be 100 percent if I can get this vision back clear, that’s the hold-up right now.”
Oswego Speedway public relations director and Novellis Supermodified driver, Camden Proud, described the scene as the scariest he has witnessed as a driver or onlooker at Oswego, a sentiment backed by longtime Oswego Speedway announcer Roy Sova.
Proud was strapped into his car in the pits waiting for his division to take the track for their feature when LaFave’s accident occurred, and said that from his vantage point, all he could see were the flames and large clouds of smoke.
Proud said that he didn’t know LaFave had escaped until an announcement was made over the PA system, and he initially feared the worst.
“I didn’t think he was going to survive it, so to hear that he made it out over the speakers, that just sent a chill down my spine,” Proud said.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my years of racing and going to races at Oswego. It was such a freak deal, I’ve never seen a car hit the wall with that impact, just to explode like that and be completely engulfed in flames within seconds of hitting, my fear was that he may be unconscious from the impact and not have any chance of getting out. The flames were so big and out of control, we didn’t really know what to expect.”
LaFave said that he was grateful to have had all of his safety equipment properly secured, specifically mentioning the Hans Device, for helping him survive the initial impact from hitting the wall.
He also credited the Oswego safety crew, approaching them to personally deliver that message Saturday, and became choked up when talking about their life-saving efforts following his crash.
“I went down there to thank all the safety guys and to tell them how much I appreciate it,” LaFave said. “They all basically just said: ‘This is what we do.’ I told them that they saved my life, no ifs ands or buts about it. I also knew that I trusted them and that if I could get myself out of the car then they would help me.”
He added: “They’re trained and they know what they’re doing. If I had been at any other track, I’d be dead. They know how to knock the fire down and how to get it out, and they had me out and stabilized before the ambulance even got there, just like a paramedic. Those guys are amazing.”
LaFave — who owns and operates LaFave Auto Sales in Philadelphia — was in the midst of his 42nd season of racing at area auto tracks. He raced DIRT modified cars for about 18 years before purchasing his first supermodified in 1999 and starting at Oswego soon after, where he has raced in all three divisions at various points. LaFave was involved in a fiery wreck after flipping his car in 1996 at Brewerton Speedway, which was one of several factors in his decision to shift toward a different race vehicle.
For the previous three years, LaFave had promoted racing at Evans Mills Speedway. He stepped down prior to this season to return to Oswego with a new 350 supermodified car.
LaFave has received assistance from the Spaulding Foundation and the Eagles Club during his recovery period, and a fundraiser was held for his benefit last Saturday at Skip’s Fish Fry in Oswego.
He also expressed gratitude for his crew members and co-workers, Kent Klock and Kyle Hafemann, for helping keep his business running smoothly while he was out.
“That’s one thing about living here for 60 years, it doesn’t take long with things like this,” LaFave said. “This community here is very tight-knit and willing to help.”
LaFave described his future in racing as up in the air and plans to sit down with members of his family — LaFave has one daughter, Jessica, and a 3-month-old grandchild, Kennedy — before plotting a possible return to the track for later this year or next season.
LaFave said he has considered revamping the 602 modified car in his garage to get back in a race setting later this summer, and he classified discussions regarding a potential deal to race in the annual Bud Classic at Oswego this fall as “jibber jabber,” but something he would consider if his health allows it.
“Right now the plan is, I’ve already talked to one of my guys who’s building two new cars this winter and if I want one, it’s mine,” LaFave said. “I just got to see how this healing process goes. Right now it’s my vision, and they’re confident, it’s getting better every day. The burns should be healed 100 percent in a few weeks, but I’ve got to look at my family and think of how much longer I want to do this at my age, but I feel good and it’s still fun.”