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John Crockford: I nearly died in 130mph bike crash - now my son, 7, will race too
HIS scars are a daily reminder of the Brands Hatch crash that nearly killed him. It is 13 months since John Crockford suffered multiple injuries on the final day of the 2011 British Superbike season.
He was given a 20 per cent chance of survival following the 130mph collision on the iconic Kent circuit’s Brabham Straight.
Little more than a year on, he is close to a full recovery.
Nearly as remarkable is the fact that John is now preparing his seven-year-old son Brody – who witnessed the crash with mum Rachael from the pit lane – for his first season in motorsport.
Neither Rachael nor Brody, who were in a crowd of around 50,000, will forget the carnage that included 30 fractures to John’s leg, pelvis, back, neck, ribs and arm – as well as a ruptured diaphragm and crushed lungs.
But the Eurosport cameras were trained on the leading pack when he was flung from his Kawasaki ZX10 on the first lap of the final race of last year’s National Superstock 1000 Championship.
So it is only thanks to the dramatic CCTV footage that John can describe the chain of events in vivid detail.
After pressing ‘play’ in the living room of his Blackfield home, John provides the commentary, frame by frame: “The last thing I remember before the crash is putting my helmet on, giving my wife and son a kiss and letting the clutch out to go.
“Another crash meant the safety car came on just as I was coming out on to the final straight.
“I was up to 16th, having done well to qualify in 19th, when the guy at the front of my pack saw the safety car flag.
“What you should do is slow down to 80 per cent of your pace until you catch the safety car up.
“But he just shut off. There was a concertina effect and not enough time to react. I caught the inside of the guy in front as I tried to avoid him.
“I was thrown to the ground and was sliding into the safety barrier by the pit lane exit when the bike I hit caught my legs, spinning me through 90 degrees.
“It saved my life. Instead of hitting the barrier headfirst, I barrel-rolled into it then fired out, did a couple of somersaults and landed like a sack of spuds in the middle of the track.
“The bike I hit landed just behind me. My wife instantly knew it was me and so did my son Brody.”
John was only racing that day because a friend returned a favour, paying for the former Suzuki professional to relive his glory years of 2000-05, when he was crowned British Superbike privateer champion and regularly beat the likes of former world champion James Toseland.
“There was no pressure and it had been a fantastic weekend up until that point,” he says.
“I’d qualified well and was riding the new Kawasaki ZX10 for the first time. It’s an awesome machine, probably the most powerful I’d ridden.”
The bike suffered only ‘cosmetic damage’.
But Crockford was well and truly crocked, suffering more injuries in those few seconds than he had done in the previous 20 years. He will always be grateful he did not go the same way as the three friends he has lost in similar accidents, including fellow Sotonian Gavin Lee and Craig Jones, whose fatal crash occurred on the same stretch of track.
Alongside John’s trophies stands the helmet that saved his life. He picks up a mini mannequin, a gift from his wife, used to catalogue all his injuries.
“My leg break was a big one and I had five fractures in my pelvis, which had split in half and broken into four bits.
“My stomach was pushed into my chest so it partially crushed my right lung and fully squashed my left lung, at the same time rupturing my diaphragm. It broke all 12 of my ribs.
“The medical team at the circuit thought I’d died. They didn’t know the full extent of the injuries but didn’t think there was any way I could have survived.”
John was flown by Air Ambulance to the Royal London Hospital, where he stayed for several weeks before being transferred to Southampton General.
That he not only survived, but within six months was back working as a machinery technician at Fawley Refinery, is a tribute to his relentless positivity as well as the support, expertise and hard work of many people.
“When my wife first arrived at the hospital, the trauma consultant told her people didn’t normally survive these types of injuries,” he reveals.
“My back was so badly broken I couldn’t sit up. The doctor described it as being like a pack of polos – but with the polos all broken and cracked.
“It was doubtful whether I’d survive the surgery. But the British Superbike medical team, Kent Air Ambulance and the surgeons and nurses at Royal London were phenomenal.
“Having so many injuries made it a logistical nightmare for them. There were all sorts of complications they had to get round. Five people were needed just to roll me into the brace I wore for 12 hours a day.”
It was towards the end of his 17 days in intensive care that John recalls his earliest postcrash memory – the voice of his wife, who combined her visits with managing a care home in New Milton.
“The first thing I remember was Rachael saying I’d smashed myself up but that it was just broken bones and that I’d be fine if I did what the doctors said. She’s a terrific woman.”
Astonishingly, John was well enough to return to the family home in Blackfield for Christmas.
But he found it harder to manoeuvre his wheelchair than a high-speed motorbike.
“It was a total eye-opener realising what some people have to put up with, day after day,” he says. “The camber of the pavement and people looking at you a bit weirdly took a bit of getting used to.”
Last week, John went back under the knife to increase the motion in his left arm and is having physiotherapy to improve the mobility in his right leg.
But he has been on his feet since January and is even back on two wheels.
“I’ve got enough bend in my knee to cycle to work and I can do a 20-metre run, which is more of a waddle at the moment but at least means I can race Brody home from school.”
Now 41, John has also been back on a motorbike. But he cites the contrasting tales of two great Italian riders when confirming he will never race again.
A big fan of the late Marco Simoncelli, John was “gobsmacked” when a nurse revealed the 24 year-old prodigy had died in a similar crash, just a fortnight after his own.
We met a few hours after Max Biaggi announced his retirement, also aged 41.
“I used to be in awe of Biaggi but we’re at that age when family takes over,” John explains.
“Nothing beats charging into a turn at 100mph with your knee on the deck, but it’s a young man’s game.
“The equipment is damn good – it’s incredible that I didn’t have any head damage – but the body can only take so much pounding. I don’t bounce as well as I used to!”
- I WANT TO BE LIKE MY DAD
DESPITE witnessing his dad’s terrifying crash at the age of six, Brody Crockford has continued to develop his own prodigious two-wheel talent.
A year on, the Blackfield Primary School pupil is preparing for his debut in the 2013 National Minimoto Championship.
“When I was back from hospital, Brody asked me if I was going to return to racing,” John says.
“When I told him it was the end, he replied ‘So it’s my turn now then!’ “After a lot of discussion, his mum and I took him to the Scott Redding Young Riders Minimoto Academy in Wiltshire.
“He’s since gone from strength to strength and is now the second youngest rider in the Academy to be upgraded to the ‘Fast’ group, which contains riders that compete in the National Minimoto Championship.”
Brody began to follow in his dad’s footsteps when he was still in nappies.
“He would point his first bike downhill, stand on the frame and slide it at the bottom of the hill by locking the back wheel with his feet when he was only two!” laughs John, who finds watching his son hit top speeds of 30mph more frightening than anything he experienced on a bike.
“I now have a lot more respect for those that take their sons along to race, it’s more nervewracking for sure.
“But they have no fear at that age and Brody’s more focused than I was.”
Brody’s parents have ensured he is racing for the right reasons.
“To share a passion with your son is something that should be embraced but I don’t want him to do it because I did it,” continues John, who used to coach 2011 British Superbike champion Tommy Hill.
“We’re going to do a season to see how he gets on and if he enjoys it we’ll crack on. But if it’s not for him there’s no pressure.
“It’s important for Brody to have a balance so he plays for the local football team and he’s tried gymnastics and street dancing.
“But it always comes back to two wheels and the paddock’s a fantastic environment to bring up a kid in.
“I’d much rather Brody had a go at this in a safe environment now rather than trying to prove a point on the road at 16.”