TULSA, Okla.—Daison Pursley was 11 when he first strapped into a race car at Tulsa Expo Raceway. He never expected to look back.
Yet while his friends and fellow competitors battled last January in the 2022 Chili Bowl Nationals, the 17-year-old could only enjoy the biggest midget event of the year as a spectator. Two months earlier, Pursley had been diagnosed as an incomplete quadriplegic. He severely damaged his C4-C5 vertebrae in a brutal shunt in the USAC National Midget Series Western World Championships at Arizona Speedway.
The road back to racing wasn’t easy. But following months of rehab, Pursley climbed back into a midget last August. Just over a week later, Pursley returned to Victory Lane with Keith Kunz Motorsports at Lake Ozark Speedway on Sept. 4.
To return to the SageNet Center and strap in a car for the Tulsa Shootout, let alone the Chili Bowl Nationals, was a feat many might not have expected when Pursley returned to the building to a standing ovation one year ago. But Pursley never stopped believing.
“Definitely a positive as being in a race car again, for sure,” Pursley said. “That's the biggest thing that I'm forever thankful for and blessed. Just really a miracle to be inside of a race car still. So that's one of my biggest positives.
“I just want to go out there and do what I do best, and that's win races and perform. I didn't do that on the West Coast swing with Keith (Kunz) and KKM. I just kind of struggled, really. Not really where I wanted to be. Not where the car wanted to be. The comfortability just didn't line up.”
The Locust Grove, Oklahoman came home to run the Shootout with KKM as a warm-up for this week’s events. He intended to race with KKM at the Chili Bowl, but when a full-time midget ride opened up for the 2023 USAC season with Reinbold/Underwood Motorsports, Pursley couldn’t turn it down.
“I got the opportunity to drive for AME. Andy (Reinbold), Tammy (Reinbold), and Todd Underwood are such a good group of people,” Pursley said. “We went out there Tuesday night and showed that we were a top contending car until the driver went out there and made a mistake.
“Just really excited and thankful to race for the whole year with this group. And I think it's going to be a really, really good thing.”
After winning his heat on Tuesday and then coming from fifth to second in his qualifying race, Pursley said, “I don’t want to be on the sidelines again.” With determination, Pursley has recovered to nearly 100 percent. While he still experiences issues with his left hand, it’s more of a hindrance outside of the car.
“Once I get back inside of that race car, it’s all just game-on and like the injury never happened,” Pursley said.
Pursley hopes for a similar recovery for Ashton Torgerson, who was thrown from his midget during Wednesday night’s A-Main. The 16-year-old from Medford, Oregon, was transported by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital where he was awake and alert.
On Thursday morning, the family reported that Torgerson had been moved to a room after he passed multiple cognitive tests and suffered no broken bones. By Friday, the young driver took his first steps following the accident and was scheduled to leave the hospital on Saturday.
“It definitely hits harder when you've been through a situation like that,” Pursley said. “Just really, really glad to wake up, get your day started and see the good message that his parents put on social media. It's a miracle, just like everyone kind of calls me. I feel like his situation is a lot worse than mine, a lot nastier. If you've seen it in person, it’s just a scary, scary deal. With the technology and everything that we have inside these race cars now for safety, I never expected to see such a thing.
“Just a very bad deal. Continued prayers and support to Ashton and his whole family. Hopefully, they get through it. It looks like they're all strong-willed people. So that helps. And it goes a long way to have that mentality.”
Pursley is proof. This year he’ll have a full plate of racing. In addition to running midgets with RUM, he’ll drive a KO Motorsports/Hutson John Deere non-winged sprint car in USAC competition. In his spare time, Pursley hopes to add an Xtreme race to his schedule or possibly reunite with KKM on a one-off.
“I've been very blessed growing up to always have a good race car and a competitive race car,” Pursley said. “I've never had to really fight and struggle through hard times. Last year, when I got injured, I definitely found a different level of thankfulness and gratitude for being inside of one of these beasts.
“Yeah, a bad thing that happened, but there are good things that we can take from those moments during that hard year, nine months, or whatever it was being outside of a race car. Things that build character and build a stronger me. I take some positives out of those things and one is to be thankful and grateful to be inside one of these race cars and get to wheel them every single weekend."