STAFFORD – Down, but not out.
It’s a cliché one could easily use to define the final day of competition that gave Ted Christopher his ninth SK Modified division championship at Stafford Motor Speedway Sunday.
It’s also a phrase that could define the fight displayed just to get back to the track by the man so prominently behind so many of those championships.
Sunday at Stafford Motor Speedway Christopher celebrated in victory lane with his crew chief and close friend Michael O’Sullivan.
Winning the championship was the big prize, but having O’Sullivan there to celebrate was the emotional jackpot for Christopher and his team.
In late July Christopher wasn’t sure when his crew chief would be back at the track working on racecars – if even ever again – after the 44-year O’Sullivan old suffered a stroke.
“This weekend everything just lined up and it was great to see,” O’Sullivan said “It’s funny to see a 56-year old guy that people say can’t drive any more and he’s out there pretty much showing them exactly how to do it. I’ve been with him for seven of his championships [at Stafford] and in my eyes that was the best championship that I’ve been with him for. It was unbelievable. A totally unbelievable feeling because it felt like everything was against us all season, not just this weekend.”
O’Sullivan, a Plainville native, and Christopher have been working together in racing for the last 18 years, with O’Sullivan overseeing the operations of Christopher’s SK Modified program for the last 16 of those years.
“It’s really funny because he knows how to push my buttons and I know how to push his buttons but we both stay away from it,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s weird because they always say you can’t work for friends. Well, Ted was like a decent friend before I worked for him and now that I work for him he’s a great friend. Our wives do stuff together, we go away together, we do a lot of stuff together. I see him a hell of a lot more than I see my wife and kids. It’s weird, it’s a really great friendship. If he pisses me off I tell him and if I piss him off he tells me. We straighten things out right away. It’s more like a family deal.
“And we think alike. We want everything to be perfect. We want to win every race we enter. We finish second three weeks in a row and we’re pissed off. He expects perfection and I expect perfection. That’s just how it should be.”
How close are the two? Christopher laughs when asked that question.
“We probably know each other better than he knows his wife and and I know my wife,” Christopher said. “We laugh at that and they laugh at us all the time about that. They laugh at us sometimes, we’ll sleep in the same bed [on the road] and we’ll just put the bolsters between us. We don’t care.
“I have so much trust in the guy. He’s been with me so long with my business and what he does on the racing end of it. I trust him fully on everything. I never question anything he does.”
O’Sullivan, of New Hartford, said he had been suffering from massive headaches for more than a week before his stroke on Saturday July 26. The stroke began while he sat in a restaurant in Bristol with his 13-year old son Brody and eight-year old son Casey.
“I had gone to the [emergency room] on Wednesday [July 23] and I never do that, never ever ever,” O’Sullivan said. “I went there and told them I had a severe pinch in my neck. Basically they told me it was a migraine and I argued with them for hours that it wasn’t a migraine. I kept telling them it was something more. But they said I had a severe tension headache and they sent me home with muscle relaxers.
“We raced Friday and the headache never went away. Saturday I went back to Stafford that night with the kids for the Monster Trucks. I had severe headaches all Saturday morning. I slept pretty much all day on the couch. I woke up and took the kids to Monster Jam. Afterward we stopped at Chili’s in Bristol and I was sitting in the restaurant, it was maybe 10:30 or quarter of eleven and I honestly thought I had Bell’s Palsy [a facial paralysis caused by issues with a cranial nerve].
“It was like I ate something that I was allergic too. My nose started running on one side, my tongue felt funny on one side, my whole face felt funny on one side. I sat there thinking, something is going on here. I sat there like that for 10 or 15 minutes and I looked down at my hands on the table and they were both sitting in puddles of sweat. And I was just thinking ‘Something’s wrong here.’ My breathing started getting a little screwed up so I loaded up the kids. It was just me and the kids. I had my oldest son call my wife and I got on the phone with her and told her ‘Something is going on, I don’t feel good.’ By that point I was pretty much full blown into a stroke. I dropped the kids off and she took me to the hospital.”
O’Sullivan spent the next eight days at Bristol Hospital and then another four weeks in rehabilitation at The Hospital for Special Care in New Britain. He was left paralyzed on the right side of his body for three weeks.
“It wasn’t the best August that I’ve ever had in my life,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s all coming back. I’m walking, I’m talking. My voice is a little different. They say in time I should recover to at least 95 percent.
“In my life, no drugs. no drinking, I’d have the occasional beer here and there. Never smoked cigarettes. But I’ve had high blood pressure for years and years and it never got treated until about five months ago. So for about two and a half months I was on blood pressure medicine before I had the stroke. Basically they say that’s what happened, the high blood pressure caused a blood clot in the back of my neck, right where the pain was that I kept telling them was a nerve pain and it finally burst and caused my stroke.”
“Medically I’m doing pretty well. I have a little issue with breathing but they say that’s just going to come back. My eyesight is pretty much the worst thing that’s going on right now. My eyes are basically crossed and one is up and one is down. … Mentally I’m all there. I never lost any of my memory. It’s actually almost clearer than where it was before. I didn’t lose my ball-breaking I know that, because I was doing it good this weekend.”
O’Sullivan said through all the rehab, racing was – frustratingly – at the forefront of his mind.
“Out of 24 hours of the day, racing was on my mind at least 20 hours of the day,” O’Sullivan said. “I would lay in the bed thinking about angles on upper control arms, I was thinking how the sway bars were. I couldn’t stop thinking about the racecar. Friday nights were absolutely killing me to not be at the track. And in the hospital I had no cell service so I couldn’t use my phone to find out what was going on for lap times. It was horrible. It was like being in jail.”
Christopher said without O’Sullivan the team was left essentially in a lot of ways lost at the shop and at the track.
“It was pretty hard,” Christopher said. “In one sense, you sort of take things for granted, which isn’t really a good thing to do. But you know for me, when I get to the track with Mike, the car is unloaded, your transponder is on, your tire inventory is ready. There was stuff I didn’t know what to do because I don’t pay attention to that. He runs my race operation. When we go to the track the first week [without him] it was like: ‘What tire sizes do we get? Where do put the tire inventory? What do we write on there?’ We were really lost.”
Christopher said crew member Alex Grab stepped up big with O’Sullivan recovering.
“Alex was just a huge help at the track, as far as getting stuff unloaded and getting things ready and getting the car back loaded at the end of the night. And he’d spend a few nights a week helping. … He’s just a real good kid. What is nice about him is that he knows a lot but he doesn’t act like he knows everything. He just does his stuff and learns more and more each time he does something.”
While O’Sullivan fought through rehabilitation, Christopher fought to stay in contention near the top of the standings.
Ryan Preece went into the September 12 event at Stafford holding an 18-point lead over Christopher in the standings, but Preece was forced out of the the SK Modified feature that night with mechanical issues. Christopher’s sixth place finish gave him a 10-point lead over Preece going into the final Friday night event of the season.
On Sept. 19, for the final Friday night show of the season, O’Sullivan made his first trip back to the track for an event since suffering the stroke. Christopher was a late arrival to the track that evening because he was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway qualifying for the Sept. 20 Whelen Modified Tour event in Loudon.
“I was there and Ted wasn’t there yet,” O’Sullivan said. “I got out of the van parked right across from the racecar and I looked over and right off the bat I saw three things wrong with the car. We started looking into something. Jeff Rocco was [practicing] the car and he did an awesome job with that and he turned into the crew chief, which was great. He knew exactly what to do, which helped a lot. We jumped on the problem as soon as I got there. We actually had a really good racecar, we just didn’t show it. We wound up getting in a couple little incidents.”
Preece finished seventh in the SK Modified feature that night and Christopher ninth, giving Christopher a six-point lead going into Sunday’s final event.
Triumph After Tragedy
Sunday O’Sullivan brought the fighter’s spirit to the track and it was something Christopher and the team needed.
Christopher was penalized to the rear of the 27-car field 11 laps into the SK Modified feature, with Preece leading. Christopher had 29 laps to get back to third place to be able to secure the title.
By lap 28 Christopher was up to seventh and on a lap 31 restart he went from sixth to fourth. On lap 32 he went by Todd Owen for third, put himself in position for a championship clinching finish. Preece won the event and Christopher won the championship with his third place finish, by the slimmest margin possible, two points.
“It was very emotional after all we’ve been through this year,” Christopher said. “It was good to have him there with me, especially for him to be there and win the championship that way. Going to the back and getting back to the point where I had to be, and almost fighting for the win, it was really great. He was on the radio a couple times even keeping me going.”
Said O’Sullivan: “It’s just amazing to see something like that happen. It’s something you created. Those cars are like your kids. You go in and make them as good as you can and you go to the track and you’re proud of them when they do good.”
O’Sullivan is still going through rehab, but he expects to be right back leading Christopher and his team for the 2015 season.
“I have every intention of being at the shop this Thursday and spending the whole day there,” O’Sullivan said. “I might not be much help right now, but it helps the healing process to be back down there.”