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August 30, 2018

Lucas Oil Speedway Spotlight: Gregory set for emotional return to Wheatland in Top Fuel Hydro

Jeff Gregory
Jeff Gregory has battled back from injuries in a crash four years ago at Lucas Oil Speedway and is ready to return to the Diamond Drag Boat Nationals in the Tom Fuel Hydro "Locked and Loaded." (Photo courtesy Marsha Roberts Waz)

Wheatland, Missouri (August 30, 2018) - The only thing more horrific than the crash itself was the lengthy list of injuries, subsequent surgeries and long, draining rehab. Drag boat racing again? One would have thought Jeff Gregory's focus should simply have been on walking again.

It was four years ago at the Diamond Drag Boat Nationals at Lucas Oil Speedway. Gregory's Top Fuel Hydro "Whiskey River" crossed the finish line for a first-round win at about 250 miles per hour. But his parachutes malfunctioned. The boat veered left. No matter what Gregory tried, he could not control it.

The boat crashed into protective catch fence, went airborne and disintegrated. Gregory was airlifted to the hospital with a broken back, just for starters.

"I ended up with two rods that are 10 inches long in my back with 10 screws into my spine," Gregory said on Friday. "I had a collapsed lung and punctured the other lung. I broke my hand, collarbone and femur with a rod and three screws in it.

"A year later, I'm walking with no pain and doing everything I used to do. Then it was basically, 'How do I get back to Wheatland, Missouri?' and started that journey."

Jeff Gregory

Jeff Gregory piloted "Locked and Loaded" for the first time in June at the Craig Partusch Memorial Showdown at San Angelo, Texas. (Marsha Roberts Waz photo)

Gregory makes his return to Wheatland this weekend for the 8th annual Diamond Drag Boat Nationals. He recently was the named the driver of Tom Sorci's "Locked and Loaded" Top Fuel Hydro for the remainder of the season, after Kevin Burgess' retirement.

Starting from the time he lands in Kansas on Thursday and begins the three-hour drive to Wheatland, Gregory said the emotions will be running high.

"I'm sure my heart is going to be pounding when I see that big sign that says 'Lucas Oil Speedway' and drive through that front gate," Gregory said from his home in Elk Grove, California, just south of Sacramento.

As for his first qualifying pass on "Lake Lucas" since the accident, and the anticipated emotions, Gregory held nothing back.

"That's probably going to be pretty emotional," he said. "When it's over ... for my fans, my family, myself and my sponsors who have been behind me through all of this, that's probably gonna be a pretty emotional moment. That's gonna be big."

After the accident, there was nothing certain about Gregory's drag-boat racing return - other than his determination. He recalled laying in the hospital bed after the accident, with racing announcer Kenny Sargent at his side.

"That first night, it wasn't 'if,' it was 'how' do I get back," Gregory said.

The hard work and rugged mind-set paid off.

"After a year, I could go back to work at the business I own in California," Gregory said. "Then it was walking with a normal life and no pills and I did that and checked it off my list. Then it was snow skiing, snowmobiling and riding my Harley and dirt bikes. I checked that off my list.

"Kevin Falcons in California gave me the opportunity to climb back into a Pro Mod boat. I did that successfully in Bakersfield earlier this year. Then (sponsor) Tommy Thompson and (owner) Tom Sorci gave me a call and said they looking for someone after their driver crashed. I jumped at the opportunity and came out to San Angelo and did a couple of laps."

Asked about the emotions of being back in a Top Fuel Hydro for the first time since the accident, Gregory said there was a lot to process.

"On one side of me, my heart was pounding with second-guessing," he said. "But after the first pass was done, I could breath again. Everything was right and the whole world was back to normal."

Racing has been a life-long passion for Gregory. He began riding dirt bikes at age four before getting into Midget and Sprint Car racing. He said he got started in boat racing about 17 years ago, in the Top Alcohol division and worked his way into Top Fuel.

"It's something that I fell in love with," Gregory said. "I tried to walk away many times - especially these last four years. But there's something about it that is so attractive, so beautiful and fulfilling.

"Drag boat racing and the Lucas Oil Series is a crazy, wonderful experience. I can see myself doing this the rest of my life and if I'm unable (to drive) I would love to be involved in other ways."

The Diamond Drag Boat Nationals are Gregory's immediate focus. No matter the results this weekend, Gregory already has won, simply by returning to the scene of his crash and climbing into the cockpit of a Top Fuel Hydro.

"The day that accident happened, I never forgot about Wheatland, Missouri," Gregory said. "When I got the call to come back this year, and I knew I was coming back to Wheatland, it was excitement, nervousness and determination all wrapped into one. I can't wait to get there."

Weekend Diamond Drag Boat Nationals schedule:
Friday and Saturday

7 a.m. - Registration opens
8 a.m. - Spectator gates open
9 a.m. - Round 1 Qualifying (Sportsman session)
10:30 a.m. - Round 1 Qualifying (Pro session)
12:30 p.m. - Round 2 Qualifying (Sportsman session)
2 p.m. - Round 2 Qualifying (Pro session)

8 a.m. - Spectator gates open
9 a.m. - Eliminations

***All times are tentative and subject to change without notice.

Admission prices
Ticket prices (All tickets include access to drag boat pit area):

General admission (6 and over) $10
Kids (5 and under) FREE
3-day general admission $50
3-day seniors (62 and over)/Military $44
3-day youth (ages 6-15) $20

Saturday (includes admission to dirt-track racing on Saturday night)
Adults (16 and over) $25
Seniors (62 and over)/Military $22
Youth (ages 6-15) $10
Kids (5 and under) FREE
3-day general admission (16 and over) $50
3-day Seniors (62 and over)/Military $44
3-day youth (ages 6-15) $20

Adults (16 and over) $25
Seniors (62 and over)/Military $22
Youth (ages 6-15) $10
Kids (5 and under) FREE
3-day general admission (16 and over) $50
3-day Seniors (62 and over)/Military $44
Kids (5 and under) FREE

On the dirt track: The Lucas Oil MLRA Dirt Late Model Racing Series returns to the dirt track on Saturday night for the MLRA Larry Phillips Memorial Presented by Rugged Radios, paying $5,075 to the feature winner. The Ozark Golf Cars USRA B-Mods will also be in action as the drivers battle for a special $750 to win top prize.

Gates open at 4 p.m. to the dirt track with hot laps at 6:30 and opening ceremonies at 7.

Dirt-track admission prices:
(Free with Saturday boat-racing ticket)

Adults (16 and over) $20
Seniors (62 and over)/Military $17
Youth (6-15) $10
Kids (5 and under) FREE
Family pass $40
Pit pass $40

For ticket information on all events at Lucas Oil Speedway in 2018, contact Admission Director Nichole McMillan at (417) 282-5984 or by email at Fans also can go online to purchase tickets for any event on the 2018 schedule.

Dan Robinson
Lucas Oil Speedway General Manager
Office: (417) 282-5984