A flagman waves the green flag at Riverhead Raceway. (July...

A flagman waves the green flag at Riverhead Raceway. (July 16, 2011) Credit: Daniel Brennan

As Rich Wilson waited for the start of last weekend's charger division opener, a wash of calm fell over him. Sure, he was a little nervous, as any driver would be at the start of the racing year. But for Wilson, this was different. He was finally home.

And the journey back to the comfortable lanes of Riverhead Raceway was a long and arduous one. Last March, Wilson, 28, of Southampton, was taken to Stony Brook Hospital with compartment syndrome, a condition in which he lost circulation to his extremities, and kidney failure, Wilson said.

"They were 99 percent I was going to die, at first," Wilson said. "After I pulled through and they knew I was going to live, they were certain that they were going to have to amputate both legs."

After his right leg began to respond, it was determined that only the left one had to be amputated. Wilson spent 66 days at Stony Brook Hospital and was then released to a Southampton rehab facility. After three months of rehab, Wilson was given a prosthetic leg.

Racing last summer was out of the question, but Wilson said he went to the track for "three-quarters" of the schedule, loving the atmosphere, but hating not being behind the wheel. "It was terrible," he said of not racing. "I'd go to the track and watch the cars go around, just wishing I was out there."

Last Saturday, despite not driving anything other than a golf cart or a lawn mower since the amputation, Wilson got "out there" again, finally settling behind the wheel of his No. 12 car, driving for the Dirty Socks Racing Team. He finished 10th in the 13-car race.

"I had some butterflies in my stomach," he said. "[But] I felt very comfortable and back in the swing of things. Getting ready for the race, all the people that came over to wish me good luck was overwhelming. It felt great."

Wilson feels confident that, in a few weeks, he'll feel completely comfortable using both legs and use his hands only to steer. He will take to the track again tonight.

"We want to get the car handling right, not have the clutch slip, and have everything right with the car," He said. "[For now], our goal is just to do better than last week. Our ultimate goal is to win."

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