By any measure, Washington-born Brad Baker was at the top of his game at the start of the 2018 American Flat Track season. The then 25-year-old former Grand National Champion, in his second year on the dominating factory Indian Motorcycle team, had just secured a podium in third place in the New York Short Track behind Indian teammate Jared Mees and Kenny Coolbeth Jr. when he headed to the X Games in Minneapolis for the non-championship indoor event.
By the end of Sunday, July 22, his entire world was ripped apart.
“If I landed on my shoulder I probably wouldn’t have even broken it,” Baker says of the low-speed highside in qualifying.
“I landed right on top of my head and just scorpioned off it, so basically my back folded up so much to where it couldn’t bend anymore. I was knocked out, and when I woke up I remember pulling at my chest, right at my sternum, and just going…
“Obviously, it’s the scariest f**king thing in the world not being able to feel and move your legs.
“I just had this pressure in my chest. I remember being carted off and my mechanic, who’s one of my best friends, he’s like, “What’s wrong, man?” I said, “It paralyzed me, man.” My mechanic, he just broke down.”
The result was instant. The lanky, charismatic Baker had ridden his last race. Transported immediately to the hospital, he had suffered multiple fractures to his T6, T7, and T8 vertebra. In the hospital, surgeons fused his T3 through to the T10 vertebrae, placed a drain in his back to remove a hematoma, and addressed his bilateral broken ribs. Life in a wheelchair beckoned for the man many believed would go on to become one of the greatest to ever strap on the steel shoe. It was an inglorious end to a career that had many races left to run.
“It hits your friends and your family just as hard as it does you, Baker says. “My girlfriend, I met her through racing. Her dad actually builds all the race engines for the Estenson team. He’s one of the greatest engine builders in the sport. She’s a true fan and has passion. Cheering me on was her love, too. And now that I’m hurt, just going to the races and doing that is not the same for her, either. It affects everybody.”
However, champions are built differently to most. Just like fellow stars confined to a wheelchair Wayne Rainey, Jesse Nelson, and David Bailey before him, Baker rode into a new phase of life with the same determination that made him so feared on the racetrack. He moved from Washington to Michigan to be with his love, Kelcey Stauffer, bought a new house and had it remodeled to suit his requirements and charged into a rehabilitation program that would leave even the toughest of us wincing in pain. The end goal—to get rid of the chair and walk on his own.
“Heck, man. Rehab’s crazy,” Baker says. “Obviously, my back and my shoulders have gone through a lot of trauma. Three-quarters of my body is virtually useless, so the stronger I make my arms, the better. I do a lot of seated balance and core activation work, getting myself to where my core is engaging more so I’ve got better balance.
“I actually have been walking,” Baker continues. “I got leg braces that lock out my knees and my ankles, and I’m able to get up with a walker and with a little bit of assistance from a therapist, I’m able to bring my legs through. Then there’s another deal where I’ll be laying down on a mat table—they call it “the cage”—where I got this full cage around me but they have anchor points where they can put my legs in slings and I can actually move my legs when I’m laying on this table and my legs are just hanging there with no resistance, no friction.
“I do have engagement in my legs where I can make some voluntary movement. It’s just very weak, but putting them in slings where there’s no resistance, I can make these moments. I’m connecting my brain with those parts of my body and relearning things that way.
“I could literally spend all day just doing therapy. I do three, four days a week, at least two hours, sometimes three hours a day. As I get going more, it’s only going to get more in-depth if I want to get myself back up on my feet.
“I’ve got feeling. I can feel when I need to pee. I can feel when I need to poop. You can touch my foot and I’ll go, “Hey, don’t tickle my foot.” I’m pretty fortunate there. Things are coming back. I’ll definitely be walking again one day.”
In the meantime, a man must keep busy if he’s to serve his brain as his body plays catch up. And Baker, with his unique set of recently retired skills, can serve a great purpose, helping Indian Motorcycle as rider coach to upcoming stars Briar and Bronson Bauman and offering expert analysis as a commentator of Fans Choice for the AFT Championship.
“Having Indian behind me has been amazing,” Baker says. “They stuck behind me with the last year of my contract and gave me the job to mentor both Briar and Bronson, so that’s been really cool. Then I commentate for AFT. I’m always up in the booth. I got a great view of the racetrack, so instead of going back and forth and talking to them (Bronson and Briar Bauman) I just text them what I’m seeing. That’s one thing about the teams: you can go up and watch in the stands or some shitty area where you can’t really see the racetrack all that well, but I can see it really good and I can see what other people are doing.
“Then, I advise AFT on things that are going on in the program as far as track prep and what they’re doing. I give them feedback on what I think they could have done to make the show run smoother. So, really, I’ve got three jobs.”
The forced move away from the handlebars has opened up new possibilities for Baker in the realms of team management. Getting a little wet behind the ears this year, Baker admits his future might be turning one of the smaller teams into a winning package, as “Indian is already there. They’re kicking everybody’s ass. They already got it figured out.
“I love Indian. They’ve been behind me. But there are definitely other teams, whether it’s a Singles team or someone else. I’ve thought about creating my own team, but then there are also some teams out there that definitely need some serious help that I could come in and manage.
“At this stage, everything is happening so fast. I’ve gotten so much good feedback with the commentating. I feel like no other commentator has what I have. They don’t know the bikes. They don’t know the racetracks. They don’t know the riders. They don’t have that knowledge. I need to get better at the way that I deliver the content. Dave Despain has reached out to me and has been advising me, which is badass. He’s the best motorsports commentator in history, in my eyes.
“So, I really feel like if that’s what I want to do, I’ll always have a job there. But there’s no competition in it. I need competition. That’s where being in a race team and helping riders and getting in the pits, that’s what I truly enjoy. But at the same time, I got to do something that’s going to pay the bills and right now the commentating deal will.
“Also, I got to figure out things for me to be able to push the limits. I called riding “throttle therapy.” It didn’t matter if everything was f**ked up in the world, I still had racing and riding. Now I don’t have that. So, I’m working on getting into a dirt car. I’ll probably start out with a mini-sprint or a Midget or something. Just anything to be able to get out and have that adrenaline again.”
Those plans are in the works, but Baker knows the time to push like hell on the rehab is right now when he’s still young and the body can still take it. The cars will always be there, but the chance to one day walk again might not, so the former Grand National Champion with the famous number 6 is going to give it everything he’s got.
“The work is getting myself back on my feet so I can get rid of this damn wheelchair,” Baker says. “I’m going to live and still try to do as many fun things that I can, but at the same time, the main priority is pushing as hard as I possibly can to get back on my feet. I’m obviously not the first (to get paralyzed) and I won’t be the last, and it could be a whole lot worse. I was going through YouTube videos recently, just watching old races, and I came across my friend Jethro Halbert’s celebration of life video. Jethro was one of my childhood racing heroes. He passed away in 2014 after a wreck at Calistoga, California, in the heat race that I was actually in.. It was me, my brother, and Jethro’s brother Sam, all four of us brothers were in a race. It could have been any one of us. So, I just got to thinking watching that, being paralyzed sucks but I’m still here. Everybody’s dealt a different hand. Got to roll with it.”