Memo Gidley's winning comeback after horrific Daytona crash

US Motor Racing News

Memo Gidley's career looked to be over after a 130mph Daytona crash. Nine operations later, his dogged comeback brought two GT America victories this month. Now he wants more, writes Preston Lerner

Memo Gidley celebrates victory in Sebring 2021

Two GT America wins at Sebring sealed memo Gidley's comeback

Brian Cleary/SRO

Memo Gidley’s racing life has played out in three acts.

In Act I, he was the young IndyCar supersub, filling seats vacated by injured or fired drivers and nearly scoring miraculous victories. In Act II, he was the happy warrior in prototype sports cars whose career was derailed by gruesome injuries suffered in a vicious wreck at Daytona in 2014.

Gidley underwent nine surgeries and endured back pain so severe that he couldn’t sit comfortably in a chair for 18 months. In 2017, after three years of arduous rehabilitation, he finally got back in a go-kart for the first time. Then he slowly began climbing the road-racing ladder again.

Earlier this month, Gidley wrote an appropriate Act III climax by driving a Bentley Continental GT3 to a pair of flag-to-flag victories at Sebring in the GT America series – contested by amateurs, yes, but run at a professional level.  “It was really cool to watch,” says Darren Law, co-owner of Flying Lizard Motorsports, which ran the Bentley for TKO Motorsports. “I was super happy to see him get back to the top step of the podium.”

Coincidentally, Law had been one of Gidley’s co-drivers when he was injured at Daytona, and he remembers sitting in the hospital, anxiously waiting to hear if his friend had survived. “He’s had a lot of issues for a long time,” Law says. “A couple of years ago, when he got a ride in a Porsche, I was questioning whether it was a good idea. But he’s got the speed, like he always had, and he’s a thinker who manages the car properly and gives good feedback. So he seems to be back 100 percent.”

From the archive

Gidley is now 51, but he continues to exude the enthusiasm and optimism that’s made him a favourite in every paddock he’s ever occupied. “I still have challenges that I deal with from 2014,” he admits. “But in my mind, I block and move on. I hope to inspire others to do the same. As I tell so many who have asked about healing after what I went through, always let your body know that you plan to use it again – or want to use it now. Don’t let your body think about shutting down – EVER!”

The same tenacity and determination that helped Gidley recover from his injuries were two of the qualities that allowed him to defy incredibly long odds to succeed in racing in the first place.

Gidley was 21 years old before he attended his first automobile race – the finale of the 1991 IndyCar season at Laguna Seca. Then and there, he experienced a life-changing epiphany. “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to race cars,’” he recalls.

Easier said than done for a blue-collar kid growing up in Northern California. With no money or experience, he went to work at the Jim Russell Racing School in a program that essentially allowed him to trade shop time as a mechanic for seat time in a race car. He won his first race – from the pole – in the USAC Russell Championship Series and claimed the year-end title as a rookie.

Dario Franchitti leads Memo Gidley at Cleveland 2001

Gidley was this close to victory in Cleveland, 2001

David Maxwell/AFP via Getty Images

Dario Franchitti with Memo Gidley in 2001

But Franchitti (right) was saved by the chequered flag

Jon Ferrey/Allsport

In 1999, after two strong years in Formula Atlantic, Gidley made his IndyCar debut after winning a shootout to replace the injured Naoki Hattori at Walker Racing. When Hattori returned to reclaim his ride, Gidley began haunting the CART paddock in search of other opportunities.

“I would position myself on one access road to the pits,” he explains. “Then, 10 or 15 minutes before the session began, once all the team owners and team managers were on pit boxes and pit stands, I would walk the pit lane since they were facing that direction and could see I was there. I traveled around not only with my race gear but also my race seat.”

Gidley raced for two teams on a fill-in basis in 1999, then two more in 2000. The next year, he was hired – on a race-by-race basis – by Chip Ganassi to replace the fired Nicolas Minassian. In his second race for Ganassi, he was about to overtake fuel-saving leader Dario Franchitti at Cleveland when the chequered flag came out. But despite another second-place and a third podium later in the season, Gidley again found himself on the outside looking in for 2002.

Wreckage after Memo Gidley crash at Daytona Rolex 24

Gidley went through three years of rehabilitation after Daytona crash

Getty Images

He eventually found a home in sports cars, notably notching a win with Michael McDowell in Mexico in a Daytona Prototype in 2005. In 2014, he began the year in a Chevrolet Corvette DP at the Rolex 24. Accelerating out of the International Horseshoe, flat in fourth gear, he pulled out to avoid a swerving GT car – and cannoned at 130 mph into the back of a Ferrari 458 that had virtually stopped on the track with a mechanical issue.

Gidley was knocked out by the crash. Later, pumped up on painkillers, he told friends he would see them at Sebring for the next race. In fact, he didn’t make it home from the hospital for nearly two months. Even after all the broken bones healed – 11 of them, plus a crushed heel – the nerve pain in his back was so excruciating that he had to eat meals lying on his stomach on a massage table.

In 2017, Gidley returned to the racetrack in a Porsche 911 GT3 R, and he ran an LMP3 car in IMSA the next year. Although he’s won several races in club-level events, his twin victories at Sebring earlier this month were his first in front-line competition since 2005. And they’ve whetted his appetite for an admittedly unlikely return to pro racing.

Bentley of Memo Gidley leads at Sebring GT America round

Gidley is chasing more victories after double win at Sebring

Brian Cleary/SRO

“You never know what’s around the corner,” he says. “Do I think I am as fast as I was in my 40s? Maybe not. As fast as I was in my 30s? Probably not. As fast as I was in my 20s? Definitely not! But I will absolutely still go after my passion and give it everything I have to be successful, and the goal is to win races!”

Sounds like a promising prologue for Act IV.