BURLINGTON — Breaking his back hurt.
But for Justin Youngquist, what came after hurt, too.
When the Burlington-based sprint car driver was injured in a crash at Skagit Speedway in October 2016, he was left with a compression fracture and injured vertebrae.
He was unable to race — under strict doctor’s orders, he was barely allowed to move — and suddenly doubtful about the sport he’d grown up around.
“I won’t lie. I didn’t know if I wanted to race again,” Youngquist said.
Now it’s almost two years later, and the popular driver is back. He’s only racing part time, but the 23-year-old says a new perspective is keeping him from fretting about things he can’t control and savor what he can.
This season, there’s been plenty for him to linger on. He roared to an unlikely victory in his first race of the season, placed second in the feature race of the John Carroll Classic, and made the feature race at Jim Raper Memorial Dirt Cup.
This Friday and Saturday, he’ll get behind the wheel again as the track hosts the Bob’s Burgers & Brew Summer Nationals.
It’s been quite a ride for Youngquist, who stood out at the track before he took his first lap. The son of a longtime Skagit Speedway driver, Youngquist remembers an early unofficial role at the speedway — one he took seriously.
As a child, he said, he had a small set of flags like those the official flagger at the speedway uses to mark the starts, stops and finishes of races. Youngquist would plant himself outside the fence in Turn 1 and wave the appropriate flag.
One week, another kid snatched one of the flags. Youngquist fumed.
“I was there every week religiously,” he said. “I took it seriously.”
Despite his frequent appearances at the track, Youngquist didn’t give much thought to racing.
“I never had the want. I thought it was expensive. I thought you had to be an adult,” he said.
But after an offer to buy a junior sprint car fell into the Youngquist family’s lap, Youngquist came home one day to find the car waiting for him in the garage.
The car’s top wing, which Youngquist still has, is so small it could almost serve as a nose wing on a full-sized sprint. car.
Youngquist started racing at Deming Speedway. As is often the case with drivers, he worked his way through larger and larger classifications before landing at Skagit in 2010.
“It’s so different,” he said. “How the car handles is different. I took to it much better than the mini-sprints.”
It showed on the track. Youngquist finished second in the Sportman Sprint classification in 2011 and after moving up a class finished second in the 360 class in 2014. In 2015, he finished second in a 410 car and competed in the speedway’s World of Outlaws and American Sprint Car Series races.
But things went awry during the season finale in 2016.
Youngquist didn’t feel well that day, so another driver piloted the car through hot laps and qualifying. In his first lap, Youngquist tried to move to the the top and crashed, with the car landing hard and flat.
It wasn’t the most spectacular crash, but Youngquist knew right away it had hurt him.
“I knew it as soon as I landed. Something was different,” he said. “I’ll never forget that pain. If I ever feel it again I’m going to hire someone else to drive the car.”
Youngquist had suffered back injuries. He said he’s thankful they didn’t require surgery ... but they did require him to limit his movement, which wiped out his 2017 season and forced him into the uncomfortable role of spectator.
It was tough not to be on the track, he said, and tough to watch crew members work on motors without being able to help.
For a while, Youngquist moved out of the state. Even when he returned he wasn’t sure he wanted to to take another lap.
“It crossed my mind to quit. The expense. The stress I put on myself,” he said. “I had no intent of going back, but ... the people I get to be with at the track, that means more to me. There’s more than going 25 laps.”
Youngquist decided to return part time. He and his team had a custom seat made in Indianapolis by a specialist who had worked with Formula One.
When Youngquist returned, he did so with confidence and a fresh perspective. He didn’t worry about the knot of details that make up a driver’s existence, he said.
If that approach has helped, it was most apparent in Youngquist’s first race back, a feature win.
“He ... expected to have some rust. Everyone else was expecting him to be rusty, too,” track announcer Kaleb Hart said. “But for 25 laps he was dominant as anyone had been all year. He hit his marks lap in and lap out. He won his heat race with a last-lap pass. He went out and tore the house down for 25 straight laps.”
Hart said, “I talk to Justin a lot outside of the racetrack. Since he came back his perspective is more worldly. He understands what we’re doing is fun and he’ll have a good time regardless of what goes on. That brings him a level of peace.”
Youngquist said he’s already planning for next season. In the meantime, he’s focused on the racing, the camaraderie — and everything else that has come with his return.
He said he’s glad to be back.
”If I’d stopped racing, it wouldn’t have been on my terms,” he said.