BOBBY LAGANA JR.'S CRASH LAID THE FOUNDATION FOR DOM'S RECOVERY 22 YEARS LATER
Dom Lagana sadly knew the odds were likely not in his brother’s favor.
Dom, then 14, was in the team’s tow vehicle making a mad dash to the New York International Raceway shutdown area just moments after his old brother Bobby had just made a run in the family’s Top Fuel dragster. The throttle had stuck, sending the Twilight Zone dragster off the track, through the sandtrap, and deep into the woods in Leicester, New York.
“It was like an airplane wreck,” Dom recalled. “They kept pointing towards the sandtrap when we drove down the racetrack to get the car. Unfortunately, stumbling upon the car, it was like, ‘He’s gone. There ain’t no way anybody survived this.’ I mean, we ran through the woods for a quarter-mile, me, my dad, my uncle Alfie and a couple of our crew guys, and it was insane. It seriously looked like an airplane wreck.
“My dad kept yelling, ‘Bobby, Bobby!’”
A severely injured Bobby responded, ‘I’m good. I’m good. Get me out of here.”
Bobby was good in heart and spirit, but the rest of him not so much. It was this moment in 1998 that would lay the framework for an even more horrific test later in their lives, with reversed roles.
The Lagana brothers, now noted wrenches on the championship-winning Torrence Family CAPCO team, work with the inspiration of their own battles with misfortune behind them. One misery is still fresh in the minds of many; another, which happened back in July 1998, is forever burned in the brothers' memories.
Bobby doesn't grimace when others bring up the story of his accident. Instead, he smiles because he understands that on that day, he was in God's hands regardless of how dire the situation looked.
"I was just running some errands this morning with Gary's family and Richie, his family's cousin," Bobby recalled. "He just told me the first car he ever saw go down the track was me crashing in '98. … So I was just, 'Oh my God. What did you think?"
"I don't want to talk about it. That was a rough day for you," Richie responded.
"I'm like, 'I'm alive. It's all right,’” Bobby said.
Bobby wasn't putting on an act; it was his outlook on life.
"I remember that was only the 12th run I'd ever made in a race car in my life, and I stepped on the gas, and it started spinning the tires at three or four hundred feet, and I went to lift. It didn't lift,’” Bobby said. "That car didn't make big horsepower back then, so it got hooked back up and just started charging down the track. I tried pulling my foot back as hard as I could, and next thing I know I'm passing the finish line."
Then wise beyond his years, the 20-year-old Lagana didn't panic. Instead, he methodically tried to find a solution though time and race track real estate were rapidly diminishing.
"I kept pulling back on the gas, and the gas pedal never shut off, so the car never shut down," he explained. "By the time I realized the gas pedal's stuck, I got to do something different. I'm halfway through the shutdown area.
"One of the things I thought was, I know it rained really bad, and they were parking cars all down the guardrail that weekend; everywhere they could. And I'm like, 'Man, I don't think I should hit the guardrail in case I go over.’”
"I just didn't know where anybody was at that point, so you just kind of hold on and just run down the end of the racetrack and just pray, which is what I did."
The largely inexperienced driver admits he made his first mistake of holding onto the brake and steering wheel instead of bracing for impact by holding his belts.
"By the time I hit the fuel shut-off, I was so far down the track, and I pulled the parachutes, but the frame had a buckle in it," Bobby said. "So we don't know if that's why the parachutes didn't come out."
The sandtrap was nothing more than a speed bump for the speeding dragster. Then the situation which played out before his eyes became the most horrific ride he'd ever experienced.
"I remember seeing grass and sky and the noise and the violence of each impact, going for a quarter-mile, was something I'll never forget it," Bobby recalled.
If he was to die on this day, Bobby said wasn't concerned with the notion. He was more concerned with the quality of life following the accident.
"I kept saying, 'Please don't break my neck or my back,’" Bobby said. "I remember specifically saying that. And then by the time I finished crashing, I'm upside down and I was like, 'I can't believe this. I'm fine.’”
Adrenaline was not Lagana's greatest asset at the time.
"I felt no pain and visually saw everything," Lagana said. "I was just upside down looking at the dirt and I started to panic. So my helmet strap was choking me, so I went to take my chin strap off, and when I put my hand up to my helmet, I didn't feel anything. And I'm like, 'Ah, what? That's weird.’
"I looked at my hand and it was full of blood, fingers ripped off, and I'm like, 'Oh.’”
"So then I panicked. And then I pulled the seatbelts, which was stupid, because then I fell down and I was hunched over and couldn't get out of the car."
The IHRA's safety crew and National Tech Director Mike Baker arrived on the scene, followed by Bobby's father, Dom and Uncle Alfie.
"They were trying to get me to calm down and cut me out of the car, but I was already trying to roll out. I'm like, 'My back isn't broke. My neck isn't broke. You got to get me out. I can't breathe,’” Bobby recalled.
"I was starting to have a panic attack. So then they helped me out, put me on the ground, put the neck brace on, and I remember all that.
“And I remember a couple of the EMTs that were there. One guy's name was Forest. I remember him. And there was another really wonderful woman that was there, and they stabilized me because I was bleeding really bad."
Bobby's hand, legs, and foot were a medical mess. Fingers were ripped from his left hand due to holding onto the steering wheel, a bone protruded from his ankle, and his leg was broken in two places.
At that point, Bobby realized he had never been so fortunate in his life.
"Dom, my dad and my Uncle Alfie, they all thought for sure this is going to be a fatal accident because there's pieces everywhere," Bobby admitted. "The car's chassis stuck in the ground, the rear end, everything was all over the place. They just assumed that it was fatal. Then when they got there, they saw me kind of crawling around, and everybody was just like, 'Hoky moly, what's the next step?’”
The safety crew carried Bobby out of the woods on a stretcher, loaded him onto an ambulance, and transported him to an adjacent property. He was transported via helicopter to a nearby trauma hospital.
Bobby, being Bobby, smiles when he tells the story. He smiled back then. He was more concerned for others than himself.
"Honestly, I was really concerned with my mom knowing that she was going to be really upset," Bobby said. "We were very fortunate the way we grew up. It wasn't a perfect household, but we had the perfect parents. They cared, weren't perfect people — which none of us are — but they cared about their kids so much. I knew that it was going to be pretty hard."
Bobby remembers the long and hard road through rehabilitation. He also recalls the best medicine in the healing process.
As Bobby likes to say, "Thank God for Nintendo 64 ... James Bond and Super Mario."
He and Dom spent countless hours trying to one-up each other in the video games.
"It was hours on end," Bobby recalled. "We're not really sleepers anyway, so you're not sleeping. You don't have a race car to work on; you're healing. You can't walk around because one leg is broken in two spots, the other leg, they took my foot apart to rebuild my hand. So, I wasn't going anyway. They didn't put any pins in my foot because they said, 'You're not going to walk anyway, so might as well let it heal naturally.’
"And so that meant basically three months off of your feet, so you had to do something."
"That’s what mentally kept him going," Dom added. "Who the hell would have known that those video games would be such a big, big step in recovery?"
Bobby made a full recovery, returning to drive a year later. His recovery was an inspiration to many, especially his impressionable little brother, who would face a battle of his own two decades later.
"I knew he was tough as hell," Dom said. "Obviously, I’d seen my dad crash the dragster. The wing fell off one time, had a fire in a Funny Car, and I knew drag racing was dangerous. Growing up in it, you’re a kid, you want to drive the thing one day. Then to see Bob’s wreck firsthand was insane and it just made you respect race cars and drag racing that much more and just taught you another life lesson. To see my brother’s drive to be able to want to get back in the race car after something like that was pretty awesome.
"I stayed by his side in the living room and just played video games and kept him mentally going. He returned the favor to me after my accident. It just shows you how all the people cling together and be there for my brother and obviously what the drag race community did for me."
On August 9, 2020, Dom, along with Richie Crampton and Jake Sanderson, were involved in a non-racing accident on an Indiana highway when the high-horsepower 1957 Chevy wagon they were in left the road and struck a utility pole.
Dom suffered severe burns and a head injury. The damage done to his legs required amputations. He spent a month and a half in a coma and 103 days in a burn unit.
Bobby finds it hard to believe there's a correlation between his road to recovery and its effect as the baseline for Dom's incredible return.
"I have a tough time believing that because his injuries were so much more severe than mine, and it takes a really tough person to be where he's at in his life right now, and move on, and work hard," Bobby said. "His injuries were just so severe. I think that it's. He's tougher than me, that's for sure. I feel like mine was more of some very small injuries compared to what he went through.
"Even though I was 20 at the time, you still ... It just feels a little bit different. I feel like his mentality, he's a very positive person. I am also, but the problem with me is I have a little bit of realism in me. He says that he uses that as part of what got him to recover, and I'm glad that he can say that, but I think most of his recovery is how strong he is and the people that are around him at this moment in his life. All the people that have prayed for him and all the people that have worn shirts and all the people that have asked for him, it's definitely made him want to push harder."
So how did the Lagana beothers get so danged tough and positive?
"I got that from our dad and from our mom, and so did Dom, but he was a little bit younger when my mom passed away," Bobby said. "The best part about the way we are is when I say that our parents weren't perfect. I mean that.
"Our dad always taught us never to hold a grudge when we have arguments with someone. You can argue and still be friends with someone. I think the way we were raised is definitely, watching Dom recover and how I recovered years ago, was a product of how we were raised. And you hope that others can see from the outside now that they can maybe move on and be happy, depending on whatever situation they've been thrown into."
The universal passion of drag racing, Bobby says, is what drove them both on the road to recovery.
In 1999, Bobby believed his short drag racing career was finished with the accident.
"Even my mom, my dad, my grandpa that we lived with, my sisters, my friends at that time wouldn't let me give up," Bobby said. "And then, guys like Luigi Novelli were immediately, 'Want to help out. How can we help with your recovery? How can we help?’
"And then all of a sudden it was like, 'Well, what are we going to do about a race car? How are we going to get you back out there?’
"I didn't give up the dream, but I just thought maybe that wasn't going to happen again. And guys like Luigi, he was 100% the biggest motivation and reason why we got back racing, really. We bought a car that was from a guy in Chicago, and we started the rebuild while I was still hurt. So that was big, too."
Deja vu, kinda sorta, because as soon as Dom had healed sufficiently to become mobile, he was at work in the shop.
" I see the same thing with Dom," Bobby said. "His recovery was sped up by the fact he wanted to get back to the racetrack. And I try to explain it to people that we race because we love it. We never really cared about money, and watching Dom heal and other people in this world, other people in our drag racing world, heal quick from illnesses, and from deaths. People in our circle here, they experience death like everybody else in life, but it seems like you move on. When I say you move on, you don't forget that someone passed, but you move on to your life and you're able to get back to being positive."
Looking back on it all, the pain and the desire to fight back to a life of normalcy, given a do-over, Bobby would live that July 1998 afternoon all over again if only to help his brother all these years later.
"I never felt bad [even before Dom's accident]," Bobby admitted. "Never had, 'I wish that didn't happen moment. Why me?’
“Never. Never once. I'd take a lie-detector test on that. Maybe it was a part of our growing up. I know that's what we say now with Dom's accident; it's hard to see at first. But once things settle down and you heal, and you're functioning at your next level, things start to open up; your vision of what the future is.”