There was a time in 2017 when Mike Stearns was unsure if he’d ever get a chance to do one of the things he loves — stock-car racing.
The resident of Aberdeen, S.D, long-time driver of the 24S Wissota Modified, suffered a traumatic brain injury at a curling tournament in Fargo, N.D. in February 2017. It was suggested by one doctor that Stearns step away from racing, and it was recommended that he take six months off — so he decided to take the whole 2017 (aside from one weekend) season off to recover.
“The doctor suggested I never race again. As a medical professional, he’s going to tell you not to do something that puts you at risk,” Stearns said from the pit area at Brown County Speedway in late July. “The fact of the matter is walking down the sidewalk is more dangerous for me. You love (racing), it’s not that easy just to give up.”
The racing comeback for Stearns actually started in September 2017 when he ventured north to compete at the John Seitz Memorial in Grand Forks.
“Taking the whole year off was my own deal,” Stearns said. “They said six months; I raced one time last year to make sure being in the car and G force didn’t mess with me. I didn’t want to spend all winter building a car I couldn’t race in. We raced one weekend at the Seitz Memorial in Grand Forks and all went well so we were full throttled ahead.”
Back being the wheel on a regular basis this year, the 36-year-old has made a triumphant return to the track. He has four wins, four runner-up finishes and 16 top five finishes. Stearns was sixth on the Advantage RV Tour points and also won the Allstar Performance Hard Charger Award by one point. He has no effects of the head injury which sidelined him for 2017.
“I said I’m as good as I ever was,” Stearns said with a laugh.
Stearns has raced since 2005, when he started in the super stock class. After three years in super stocks, he moved into the modifieds and has been there since. He was the 2013 Wissota Modified national title and also is a past winner of the Advantage RV Tour. Stearns has five career track titles, including four in the mods.
The head injury happened on a fluke deal. Stearns doesn’t remember much about the incident. He was the skip and called out to sweep, and he had to go over a couple of curling rocks. He didn’t quite clear them with his leap, and he figures he came down on the heel of his foot, which led to a fall and his head hitting the ice hard.
“They said my feet were as high as my head,” Stearns said, “and my head was the first thing that hit the ground.”
He suffered a tear in two spots at the front right side of his brain spent the night in the ICU in Fargo. A CAT scan revealed some bleeding.
“Any time you hear ICU…it scares a guy,” Stearns said. “I had good doctors and good nurses that keep you up all night. With an injury like that you can’t really go to sleep.”
He had another CAT scan in the morning and the bleeding hadn’t gotten worse, and he was discharged after lunch. That doesn’t mean the recovery from there was smooth sailing.
“The first couple of weeks at home were hell.” Stearns said. “Headaches, you can’t hardly sleep — and you have to make sure you stay on top of pain medication..”
Stearns battled dizzy spells after the injury, often when standing up or changing positions. That went away for a while but then came back for a while but have since subsided. There was one lasting effect of the injury — he lost his sense of smell. He does have a little sense of smell but nothing like he had normally previously.
Getting back on the racetrack was a welcome relief as well.
“When the doctor tells you (you might not race again) it definitely hits home,” Stearns said. “It felt good to be back. You end up with a lot of racing family, and that is the thing I would miss if I couldn’t race. It was definitely nice to be back.”
Wissota Modified #24
Residence: Aberdeen, SD
Sponsors: Intercomp, Josh Vargason Motorsports, Sand Lake Sales, Titan Machinery, Nickeson Angus Ranch & Custom Harvesting, Barton Heating and A/C, Ranek Ag, Bren Buising Trucking, MAD Racing, Mastersbilt by JMR, Stearns Farms, Tim’s Automotive Machine, Extreme Graphix, Penske Shocks, Crop Production Services and Pfaff Customs.