FOSTORIA, Ohio (AP) — John Mills has spent the majority of his life around cars.
Whether it be in his 1,500-plus square foot shop or at his day job as the service manager at Mazda Direct in Fostoria, Mills is all about cars, all the time.
Ironically, cars are what nearly killed Mills just over eight years ago.
Mills has been racing cars for the better part of the last 34 years, generally in the surrounding states. And he’s no slouch on the race track.
He has previously set lap records at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, and at Grattan Raceway, just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A skilled fabricator, Mills built his own race car from the ground up in 2007. In late May the following year Mills traveled to the Cleveland area for a weekend of racing, where he finished second in both races.
He and his new car were performing well, until the next weekend.
In June 2008, at Mid-Ohio, Mills was in third at the 2.4-mile road course. He dove in for a pass into the second position, but the car got loose, spun and eventually struck the concrete wall with enough force to knock him out instantly.
Mills’ head smashed into a side bar on his roll cage, leaving a noticeable black smear on his helmet that is still visible today. After the impact his head slouched, cutting off air supply until a bystander ran out and pulled his head upright.
Mills had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury that would alter his life forever.
He still doesn’t remember anything from the day of the crash or the seven days to follow. It was the beginning of a long road to recovery — a recovery that some thought may never happen.
“They said during the seven days I don’t remember that I was awake and talking to people, but I wasn’t making any sense,” said Mills, whose cars typically run roughly 135 miles per hour.
Doctors told Mills he came within centimeters of death. He spent the next month in the hospital rehabilitating and relearning basic skills such as tying shoes and reading a clock.
“After that I started coming around a little bit,” Mills said. “I realized I had crashed my car, but I couldn’t figure out why I was in the hospital. I would look down and I felt fine. The only marks I could see on me were from IVs.
“I felt like (the doctors) were crazy. I felt fine. And I think that’s the natural reaction because you don’t realize how off you are. When I would talk I would slur my words, when I walked I would drag my foot, but I wouldn’t realize I was doing that. … It’s denial.”
After months, even years, Mills felt right physically, but was mentally elsewhere. He was always on edge with a heightened sense of awareness and he never felt like he could relax.
Mills’ motor skills were affected to the point where he had to think about each step he took and had to think about how to pronounce a word before actually talking.
“The nurse projected that I would feel fine in a year,” he said. “And that was a date I kept looking at. Then it was two years. And I was like, ‘I don’t feel good yet.’ Then it’s like, ‘Will this ever quit?’
“It’s one of those slow things that comes back where all of the sudden you’re living your life and you realize that you’re not thinking about talking anymore and I’m not thinking about walking anymore.”
Mills stayed determined, and once he turned the corner, he sprinted toward a full recovery. He got his competition racing license back in 2010 and returned to his race car in May 2011.
Mills took 2013 and 14 off from racing to form JMR LLC, “a company that promotes TBI awareness, education and motivation,” according to his website JohnMillsRacing.com.
Today, Mills is back to racing five to six times per year. His last race was three weeks ago at Mid-Ohio where he finished third. He’ll travel to South Haven, Michigan, on July 9 and 10 for two days of racing.
But it all has a bigger meaning to Mills. His goal is to connect with TBI survivors, to let them know that they can overcome what obstacles they are facing.
In 2010, Mills began speaking to groups around the state, sharing his story in hopes of providing inspiration to those who have experienced his pain.
“When I speak, I don’t know why, but especially to survivors, I connect with them,” Mills said. “I touch people when I tell my story, and that’s a good thing.”
Mills’ dream is to pursue a career in the Trans-Am Series, which is similar to what he races in now, but at a higher level, with more travel, bigger and better cars, and more competition.
As with anything bigger, the cost is also much bigger, so Mills is hoping to secure sponsorships to race in Trans-Am with the goal of spreading his message across the country instead of just in surrounding states.
“My main message is that you can be anything you want in life,” Mills said. “It’s positive thinking and surrounding yourself with people that are good to you and good for you. Believing that you can do it. For me to get back in a race car, I never had any doubt. It’s just that belief that you can do that.
“When I talk, I talk about setting goals. My goal after my injury was to get back into that car. And now that I’ve done that, I’ve got to set another goal. And that’s why I’m trying to get into the Trans-Am series.”
Information from: The Sentinel-Tribune, http://www.sent-trib.com