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Paralyzed driver ahead of schedule

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Whatever anyone thinks of him or his situation, Josh Howard says, never call him a quitter.

Howard, 22, of Byhalia, Miss., has been paralyzed since crashing his sprint car at Little Rock’s I-30 Speedway on Oct. 25.

Though still considered a quadriplegic, Howard said he continues to see improvement through a daily regimen of Physical Therapy.

“Every week I see improvement,” he said. “My arms are getting stronger. My fingers are twitching more, and we’re seeing more movement in my legs.

“ It’s a slow process. But I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep working at it, trying to get to a little stronger every day.”

A benefit for Howard is slated for today in Olive Branch, Miss., where he worked as a firefighter before the accident. Another is scheduled for Wednesday at the Pit Stop Grill adjacent to I-30 Speedway.

Howard was competing in a qualifying race for the O’Reilly Short Track Nationals when the accident occurred. His sprinter flipped over the turn-two embankment, bounced high into the air and landed on an entry road to the racetrack.

“I hooked a rut and [the car ] bicycled,” Howard said, using a sprint car term referring to the car bouncing onto two wheels. “I turned to the right, trying to correct it and I went over the turn. Air got under the wing and that caused the car to get so high into the air. Then it slammed back onto the ground.”

That final hit was destructive, although it did not appear to be serious to onlookers. Howard’s sprinter landed upright on the frame rails, hitting so hard that it packed dirt underneath his seat.

Howard, who said he never lost consciousness, said his experience as a firefighter helped him realize right away the seriousness of the situation.

“I never felt it. I hit the ground and never felt any pain,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘All right. It’s time to get out of here.’”

But his body did not respond to his mental commands.

“I looked down, and my arms were folded across my lap. Just laying there, limp,” Howard said. “From what I had learned as a fireman, I knew what had happened.”

Tests at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock confirmed his fears: a fractured C 4 vertebra and a shattered C 5.

He spent nearly a month at Baptist Medical Center before transferring to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord injury Rehabilitation. Counting a bout with pneumonia, he was hospitalized for all but 10 days from Oct. 25 until the middle of February.

“It was so nice to finally get home,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time just trying to get over the sickness. I just got my [Tracheostomy tube ] removed about two weeks ago.”

Howard’s condition has already improved beyond the point that was originally predicted.

“When I first got to Shepherd, all I could move was my eyes,” he said. “They told me that I would never use anything [below ] my shoulders. My therapist tells me you can never tell how these things will work out. But I know there is a lot more hope now than before.

“ Every spinal cord injury is different. Every body is different. Ninety percent of this game is your mind-set. You can’t let yourself get down.”

The recovery process is extremely costly. Wednesday’s benefit was organized by fellow sprint car driver Tim Crawley of Mabelvale and will be attended by many drivers from I-30 Speedway, where Howard narrowly missed winning a track championship in 2006.

Crawley will serve as auctioneer at the event, selling various items, including several pieces of racing memorabilia donated by local and national drivers.

“It’s really amazing how the racing community sticks together when something happens,” Howard said. “You can be sticking a wheel into a guy one week and they’re helping you the next week when things go bad.

“ I’ve watched Tim Crawley race from the first time I remember going to the racetrack. It means a lot to me what he and everyone at I-30 and everyone over there are doing.”

Wednesday’s event begins at 6: 30 p. m. Donations can also be made by calling I-30 Speedway at (501 ) 455-4567 or by mailing checks or money orders to Joshua Howard Benefit Fund, 14530 Denham, Byhalia, Miss., 38611.

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