On April 25, 2015, during an IHRA Nitro Jam Palm Beach Nationals at West Palm Beach Raceway in Florida, Pro Stock driver and clutch and tuning guru Cale Aronson readied himself in his 2010 Mustang. Hoping to beat fellow young gun racer Matt Bertsch in the second round of eliminations, he went through his routine as he’d done hundreds of times before. His wife, Tinzy, leaned in, as was her custom, rechecking his safety equipment one last time. It was expected to be a close matchup between Aronson and Bertsch, lasting the typical six and a half second with speeds topping 220 mph at the stripe. This run, however, would carry Aronson on a journey for many months to come.
Aronson launched in the left lane and was on a good pass until the car began pulling to the center line. As air got under the car, the Mustang slammed nose first into the left guardwall before flipping onto its roof. Aronson slid the rest of the way down the track upside down before coming to a stop against the right guardwall in the shutdown area.
“I was awake for the whole thing, and, as I was still sliding, I knew right away that my arms and legs went ultra-tingly when I hit,” remembered Aronson. “As soon as I knew I wasn’t going to hit anything else, I started thinking through getting the fire bottle and getting out the car. But then I realized nothing was moving that well. My legs and hands basically didn’t move at all.”
When it landed on the roof it landed at about 2.5 g’s. If you add in my weight, it was about the same force as dropping 600 pounds on my head. – Cale Aronson
Aronson was airlifted to a nearby hospital where it was determined he had a broken neck and swelling on his spinal cord. He had surgery there on April 28 to repair his C5 vertebra. Aronson remained sedated, which left Tinzy to make decisions on moving forward with his care. During this time, Darrell Gwynn, who endured a tragic Top Fuel accident in 1990 and suffered similar injuries as Aronson, got in touch with Tinzy and convinced her to move him to Miami where he would be under the care of renowned spinal cord specialist, Dr. Barth Green. Aronson underwent additional surgery in Miami and stayed there in recovery for a total of six weeks.
“I hit the wall a little over 8 g’s, but that really didn’t affect me that much,” Aronson explained. “My belts were super tight. I was in there good, but your head still has the ability to move 4-6 inches, forwards and sideways. When I hit the wall, my head came forward. My head was forward just enough to where there was no clearance between my helmet and the roll cage. When it landed on the roof it landed at about 2.5 g’s. If you add in my weight, it was about the same force as dropping 600 pounds on my head.
“It wasn’t until we were in Miami that we really knew I was paralyzed from the chest down. Even in just trying to move a toe, I would put forth all the energy I could into focusing on that small task and it would barely flicker. I couldn’t even see it, but Dr. Green could feel it and he told me I would be fine. With Dr. Green it was all about not being on the wrong drugs and not being on any painkillers and numbing anything down. Some drugs aren’t good for the healing and others aren’t good because they mask what might be coming back. To top it off, they basically made me hypothermic for a week. When your spinal cord swells it goes out into your spine. If it ever cuts off blood supply, those nerves die off and won’t grow back. The cold state kept my swelling to an absolute minimum.
It wasn’t until we were in Miami that we really knew I was paralyzed from the chest down. Even in just trying to move a toe, I would put forth all the energy I could into focusing on that small task and it would barely flicker.
“I was lucky to be that close to Miami, Dr. Green and the Gwynns. If I had been almost anywhere else on tour it would have been bad.”
Amazingly, Aronson remembers every detail of the crash. And what memory he can’t recall, he was able to decipher from Racepak graphs. While his accident was severe, his exact injury and level of trauma was a rare, freak occurrence that Aronson says he probably couldn’t repeat on a million runs.
“I knew the third gear shift kept trying to carry me right. I’d shift and it’d bring me back. I had the thought that when I pull high gear it’ll either settle down or I’ll have to get out of it. Right when I plugged high gear is when it shot the nose to the right side, which caused the wind to pick it up and swing it the other way. You can see on the Racepak shock sensors where the car hit a bump at exactly the same time I shifted into high. I was a little closer to the centerline than I should have been, there’s no doubt about it, but you can see where I started to push the clutch pedal in and lift long before anything started to make any major moves. But it’s kind of one of those deals where once the air’s under it, you’re just along for the ride.”
Road To Recovery
It’s been a long ride ever since, but Aronson’s fierce determination coupled with object stubbornness has kept him forging ahead through what has been a tedious recovery.
Cale during week two of inpatient rehabilitation at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Physical therapist, Melanie Orell, is giving him a massage after arm strengthening exercises. The rehabilitation staff at Jackson Memorial has worked with many professional and Olympic athletes and is considered one of the top rehabilitation centers in the United States for spinal cord injuries, Tinzy tells us.
“The biggest part of it all is there’s so many things that most people don’t talk about. Some people don’t want to hear about what goes on with people who [have these types of injuries]. Everything from regulating body temperature to autonomic dysreflexia where you do something as simple as stub your toe, but you can’t feel it. Well, all of a sudden your body might go into shock. Other things like bowel and bladder issues … most people don’t have the ability to regain those functions. All of a sudden, everything about normal life gets really difficult.
“Luckily, with me, within about six or seven weeks after the accident, I had feeling returning. I was always able to feel, but it was more like when your leg is asleep. I feel everything pretty normal now. They tell me that in six months to a year there’s no reason why I couldn’t be walking totally normal. Everything has movement. Signal is going everywhere, but my tendons are drawn up so tight from 10 months of not using them that now I have to spend six months trying to stretch them out. Stuff starts shaking because of atrophy and an incomplete signal. I’m at my body’s discretion as to when certain things are going to return. Right now I can move my legs and feet. They’re weak, but I can do what I want to do. I work on that now, and as my hands return I’ll work on them more.
“I’m at a point where the nerve pain gets really intense. But Dr. Green told me I was in the one percentile of being able to recover, that I was really lucky and the more healing that’s going on the more nerve pain I would have. Now my hands have gotten worse and worse, but their function has started returning more and more. It’s an evil blessing,” he says.
Aronson spent roughly 15 to 20 hours a week on rehabilitation up until recently, when he’s begun working his exercises into tasks associated with his businesses. Even while still in the hospital, Aronson continued helping the customers he worked most closely with, making tuning calls from his hospital bed before he returned home to Missouri mid-June. His other two businesses, Hot Rod Power Source, a crate engine sales company, and Black Magic Clutches, have continued strong thanks to the help of Cale’s father, and, of course, Tinzy, who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty with the businesses and racing.
Luckily with me, within about six or seven weeks after the accident, I had feeling returning. I was always able to feel, but it was more like when your leg is asleep.
“I haven’t been able to work like normal, but I’ve been able to do things to keep me involved in it. When you’re laying in bed a lot, like I was the first four or five months, and you have really bad sleeping problems, you have the ability to spend a lot more time thinking about stuff than ever before. You come up with a lot of new ideas. There have been some things I’ve done that we’ll work toward down the road as far as development of new products, especially new technology on the clutch stuff.
“We’ve continued to do some rebuilds and custom gearing. When I got hurt, Tinzy took over my crate engine sales stuff completely. She took it and ran with it, which made my life a hell of a lot easier, because that was one thing I didn’t have to worry about it.”
Once injuries allowed, one of the first places Aronson chose to visit was the race track. His first event was a PSCA race at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis. He then ventured to the IHRA national event in Memphis and, of course, the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. One of Aronson’s other hobbies is gun collecting and shooting — another thrill-seeking outlet that Aronson has largely had to put on hold.
“I have a bad gun addiction,” Aronson confessed with a hint of pride. “I like guns that are stupid and I have no reason to own them other than I just like to make them go ‘boom’. Neal Strausbaugh [assistant crew chief to Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher] invited us out to his family’s shooting range. I didn’t know if I could shoot or not, but I thought I might be able to. The Strausbaugh family had three or four shotguns and some handguns and I pulled out my 308 sniper rifle, AR15s, and AK47s.
We’re out there and they’re shooting everything up. I decide I’m ready to try shooting. Everybody takes about 10 steps behind me as I’m in a wheelchair with an AR15. I realized something, about a second too late, that my hands will spasm. And as they spasm they close as tight as possible. We’re out in nowhere-ville, so I point the gun up and to the woods. I fire off about two rounds and say, ‘Tinzy, come get the gun out of my hands.’ I really, really, really wanted to be able to shoot again, but I really, really, really should have waited about another six months.”
Aronson has muscled through his recovery as much due to his mental strength as his physical. He puts the effort into moving forward instead of revisiting the past.
“You can always look at the ‘shouldas’ and ‘couldas’ and ‘wouldas’, but at the end of the day, you stop and figure out what things you enjoy and then you figure out how to still enjoy them. Almost everybody [going through this type of injury] has a lot of negative thoughts in their head in the beginning. It’s hard not to. But there’s a certain point at which you have to come to a realization that you’re going to do what you can with what you have.
“If anything, this accident has made me more determined. I have a little bit of a cynical reason in being that way. Everybody talks about how close knit the racing community is, and I can’t even begin to make the list of people that were the most helpful, supportive and influential. The top would be [fellow racers] John Montecalvo, John Pluchino, Pat Norcia [of Ram Clutches], and [engine builder] Jon Kaase. Kaase was the first one to the hospital. He lied and told them he was my brother so he could get into ICU to see me.
But there’s a bad side of things, too. In our day of media, you can read everything people put online, and people can be very judgmental and negative. For me, that becomes my challenge … to prove the naysayers wrong. I’ve always done it by the book and always worked as hard as I could to do it on my own. When it comes to business or racing, I’ve got to move forward and I want to do the best I can in everything I do.”
A Promising Future
“Doctors have told me that it would be easier to drive my race car than to drive a regular car that requires me to turn my head and watch for traffic, trying to merge. One area where I got a little lucky — I didn’t really lose any of my reaction. I can still grab a practice tree and whoop ass, no problem. My legs and feet can move just as quickly as they ever did. If I really want to rub salt in the wound, I’ll say I know there are certain drivers in my peer group that I’m pretty sure I can still keep up with. The God’s honest truth is [getting back in the car is] a demon I would like to conquer. But at the same time I really do enjoy tuning as much or more than I do driving. When I go tune for somebody and they run a career best or qualify number one and win races, it’s a big thrill.
“My ability to win and do well tuning far supasses my record of driving and tuning and doing it all myself. I think it just has to do with when you’re doing it all yourself and you get up early and go to bed late and you’re doing all the work in between rounds. You drove yourself there, you fund the deal, you’re strapped in on the starting line thinking about making a last minute change, there’s just too much. But at the same time it’s a challenge and I have a hard time not accepting it.”
Really the best long term goal for me is to get as normal as I can. Some people may laugh and say normal for me will be a real challenge.
Although the chances of repeating his exact injury are slim to none, Aronson believes that changes could be made to help keep him and other drivers safe in the future. At 6-foot, 5-inches tall, the biggest change for Aronson personally would be head clearance. The majority of driver and car safety gear helps protect in the event of a frontal crash. Aronson believes there may be additional precautions that would help prevent injuries from upside down impact. Although it wouldn’t be surprising to find Aronson behind the wheel again one day, he’s not working toward that goal just yet.
“Right now I’m focusing on business,” Aronson emphasized. “I’m trying to ramp up some of our clutch stuff so we’re looking at Black Magic Clutches a lot more. We’re also doing the same thing with Hot Rod Power Source. I realized over the last few months how much time I used to devote to my race car. Of course, on top of trying to get more mobile and self sufficient, my focus is really to get business as strong as it can be so that if the time comes — and when the time comes — I’ll be able to get in the car. Or, if I’m just tuning it or whatever the story may be, that I’ll be in a position that is the most financially responsible and the most responsible toward my own health.
There was a really large burden placed on Tinzy and my dad. I was always the one that took care of everybody else. My goal is to get back to handling those ventures before moving forward.
“Really the best long term goal for me is to get as normal as I can. Some people may laugh and say normal for me will be a real challenge.”