|Bryan Narducci, 21, climbs into his SK Modified race car before taking some warm-up laps at Stafford Motor Speedway. Narducci was born three months prematurely and has cerebral palsy. He comes from a long line of race car drivers, including his dad, Ron, who watches at left. Cloe Poisson/Hartford Courant/TNS
STAFFORD, Conn. — He grew up at the track, surrounded by a racing family, so it’s no surprise that Bryan Narducci became a race car driver.
But the fact that he was almost born at the track, and the circumstances of his birth, 21 years ago, is where Narducci’s story shifts from that of the typical driver you’d find at Stafford Speedway on a Friday night.
Narducci was born three months premature. He weighed 3 pounds, 13 ounces. In infancy, he stopped breathing at least three times — twice at the hospital in New Jersey where he spent the first five weeks of his life, and once again at home, and at age 15 months, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
He wore braces on his legs as a child and had corrective surgery when he was 8 years old. He started racing Go-Karts at Stafford the next summer.
Now 21, Narducci, of Colchester, is one of the top drivers in the SK Modified standings at Stafford Speedway.
“He’s an amazing kid — and not just because he’s my kid,” said his mother Missy Pearl.
Pearl was six months pregnant when she and her ex-husband Ron headed to Wall Stadium in New Jersey so Ron could compete in November 2000. She had checked with the doctor to see if she could go and it was fine. She had had an unremarkable pregnancy up to that point.
But the night before the race she was uncomfortable and kept waking up. She was ready the next morning to go to the races but instead, she ended up going to the hospital. She arrived at 7:10 a.m.; Bryan was born at 8:20.
“He had to suck, swallow and breath on his own before he could be released,” Pearl said. “He had to be at least five pounds. Two weeks later, he Code Blued and they had to bring him back. Christmas Day he was doing good, then he was lethargic and they brought him back again.
“It was so mentally exhausting. I was scared to death.”
Finally, Bryan was able to come home. But there were still scares.
“I was up with him 24/7,” Pearl said. “They gave us a heart monitor. He would stop breathing and we had to flick the bottom of his foot. We would joke that we had to jump start him. It happened so often. His breathing was so shallow, the heart monitor would go off.
“He died on us three times. Now he’s 6-3, 200 pounds. We’re assuming because he stopped breathing so many times that’s where he developed the cerebral palsy.”
He couldn’t sit up at six months and he would crawl commando-style, not using his legs. When he was 15 months he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Narducci didn’t walk until he was 4. He wore braces on his legs until he was 8.
None of that mattered to Bryan. He wanted to race. The family was always at the track. Both of his grandfathers raced as well as his dad and his uncles and his mom did a few times, too.
“I remember being in the stands and watching Ted Christopher when I was 3 or 4 with my dad,” Bryan said. “We’d go into Victory Lane if he won. When I was 4 or 5, I met Ted’s nephew Mike who races here SKs with us and he’s my best friend.
“I wanted to (race) and my parents were both like ‘Ehhhhh’ but I was like, ‘No, I want to do this.’ They finally cracked and got me a car, a Go-Kart.”
Narducci doesn’t have mobility in his ankles so he can’t flex them fully. Getting in and out of the car in an emergency would be an issue; also pushing down on the gas, brake and clutch pedals.
The former, his mother took care of. The latter, Narducci simply managed to adapt to.
“I said you need to be able to get in and out of the Go-Kart by yourself quickly, God forbid something happens and you flip over,” Pearl said. “He had to practice. I would set the timer. He had to do it in a certain amount of time. They’re pretty safe but you never know.
“He had to go back for his checkup. We told the doctor he was racing, and he didn’t know what to say. He said, ‘Racing what?’ We showed him and he said, ‘He can get in and out of that?’ ‘Yep.’ He was amazed. Because when Bryan was born, they said he would probably never walk. Going from the possibility of never being able to walk to getting in and out of a race car is just insane.”
As far as pushing down on the pedals — Pearl said she doesn’t know how he does it.
“You know if you take your foot and your ankle and you stretch your toes — like a ballerina — and then bring your foot back,” she said. “He can’t do that with his ankles.”
“That was kind of hard for racing. You need to be able to bend your ankle.”
Said Narducci: “I’ve figured it out, how to make it work, moving more of my legs instead of rolling my ankles. Just kind of using my whole leg for the pedals. Other than that, I don’t think it really bothers me, to be honest.
“I can get around. I walk with a little bit of a limp. I work for my friend’s construction company and I was outside all day doing stuff, carrying 80-, 90-pound things. I definitely get sore at the end of the day. Other than that, it doesn’t affect me too bad.”
(On a recent) Friday night, Narducci got in a wreck with another driver, Ronnie Williams, early in the 40-lap feature race but he was OK. He’s in his third — and most successful season — of racing Modifieds at Stafford. His crew chief, JJ Vece, helped him with that.
“The ability was there, he had the hands-on experience, he had the mentality, he just had to back himself down and harness his ability,” Vece said. “He’s getting along pretty well. He’s taught himself to adapt pretty well.”
Tyler Meyhoefer’s family owns the No. 85 car that Narducci drives.
“I give him a lot of credit for what he does,” Tyler said. “There’s a lot of people who would have given up years ago but this kid, he’s got a big heart and a lot of pride. He shows up at the track every week and he knows what he has to do.”
|Lori Riley, Hartford Courant
|Lori Riley has been a sportswriter at the Courant for 25 years, covering everything from high school sports to UConn women’s basketball. She went to Rutgers University, and cut her teeth working at the Daily Targum. She also worked at the Times of Trenton and the Asbury Park Press, covering high school, college, the Yankees, Mets and Giants.
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