Keeping Ray Skillman away from cars is nearly impossible.

On Oct. 27, the longtime Center Grove resident and local automobile dealer was injured in an accident during a drag racing qualifier at the National Hot Rod Association Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas. He was hospitalized for two days with broken bones and deep bruising, but the 75-year-old was talking about an immediate return to racing.

“I was talking to my grandson about, ‘Hey, can you guys get that racecar ready? I think they’re going to let me out of here in about an hour.’ That’s how goofy I was,” Skillman recalled nearly five months later.

The wishful thinking was largely fueled by the pain medication. The crash briefly knocked the owner of nine central Indiana car dealerships unconscious and left him with a broken rib, a fractured L2 vertebra, 23 stitches in his hand and a ton of bruises. But the desire behind that pipe dream was very much real.

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He’s now been cleared by his doctor to return to racing and with official clearance from the NHRA expected at any time, Skillman plans to return to the track next month for a National Hot Rod Association event at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

When he crashed in Las Vegas, Skillman was racing in the Comp Eliminator division, where most runs don’t last more than eight seconds and top speeds often reach upwards of 175 miles per hour.

Racing has been in Skillman’s blood for almost his entire life, and this accident certainly wasn’t going to convince him to give it up. In fact, he said quitting was never a consideration.

“If you had a bad pair of shoes, you wouldn’t go barefoot the rest of your life,” he said back in December, midway through his recovery.

Where it all started

Skillman was born and raised on Owensboro, Kentucky, and it was there that he developed the passion for cars — more specifically, selling and racing them — that has become his life’s work.He began drag racing at the age of 14, and by the time he was a senior in high school he was already trading and selling used cars on a small scale.

In 1979, Skillman moved to the Indianapolis area, and he’s been selling cars both here and in Kentucky since. He has also been a regular on the race track, competing in late model and NASCAR races for more than 30 years until he reached his mid-60s.

Since then, he’s been a fixture on the drag racing scene — alongside his son Bill and his grandson Drew, who was named the NHRA’s top rookie following the 2015 season.

It’s likely Ray Skillman would still be competing anyway, but having his family involved has made it all the more enjoyable for him.

“I think that’s pretty neat,” he said. “There’s not too many sports or anything that three generations can go do.”

The obvious downside to that, of course, is that accidents happen in motorsports — and the eldest Skillman hasn’t been immune to that. He’s been in crashes before, but points out that they’ve been few and far between — and that he’s been fortunate enough to come away from each without any irreparable injuries.

“I did all of this circle track racing through my livelihood, and never spent a night in a hospital,” he said. “Now, I probably should have spent some nights in hospitals, but didn’t. But yeah, I’ve broken bones and done other things.”

He apparently didn’t even know about some of the broken bones through the years. When the doctor updated Skillman’s wife, Ann, after the Oct. 27 crash, he told her not to worry about the fractured vertebra, noting that Ray’s back had already been broken in a couple of places.

“I don’t know when I broke my back the other times,” Ray Skillman said, “but I know when I broke my neck a couple of places.”

Though he’s had other accidents, Skillman concedes that this last one was the toughest to recover from.

Head over heels

Skillman says he doesn’t remember anything about the crash, which came at the end of a qualifying race against South Dakota native Travis Gusso — but he does recall everything leading up to it.“I remember all of the run that I made,” he said. “I remember going up, lining up, doing the burnout, staging the car. … It was just a perfectly great run, just a real good run, and then past the finish line, it was lights out, I guess.”

What forced Skillman to lose control of his E/Altered Automatic Mustang shortly after crossing the finish line remains a mystery. The NHRA impounded the car after the race, and an official determination was never made regarding the cause of the crash.

Much of what is known comes from Gusso’s post-race account, as told to CompetitionPlus.com. Skillman’s car, racing in the right lane, veered hard to the left in front of Gusso, hit a ditch and landed on top of the concrete wall on the left side of the drag strip. The car flipped and skidded along briefly on its roof before eventually rolling back onto its wheels and finally coming to a stop in the gravel pit at the end of the raceway.

Skillman, unconscious for that entire stretch, can vaguely recall just two parts of the immediate aftermath. The first was when he came to inside of his car, still in the gravel, and realized his vehicle — a pretty new one — was about to be cut open in an effort to extract him.

“I saw the Jaws of Life, and I started politicking with them,” Skillman said. “I don’t remember talking to them, but I (supposedly) said, ‘Hey, this is a brand new race car; there’s nothing wrong with this race car. If you give me a second, I can get out. I’m okay.’ “

Despite Skillman’s pleas, the car was indeed cut — and though it may still be used for burning out tires before races, it probably won’t be used in competition again.

The second moment he remembers came after he was taken out of the car.

“I didn’t know where I was or that I was even on a stretcher, but evidently I was on a stretcher,” Skillman said. “And my wife was standing there, and I looked up and saw her and I said, ‘Hi, honey. How are you?’ And I was just kind of a little bit lost of what was going on.”

Can’t keep him down

Generally, bodies heal more slowly as people get older — but Skillman’s recovery has been remarkably quick and drama-free.Released from the hospital late on Oct. 29, he was back at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following day to watch Drew race. He flew back to Indianapolis on Nov. 1, and after spending the remainder of that week at home, Skillman returned to work at his dealerships the following Monday.

That first week back was a difficult one to get through.

“I would get tired at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Skillman said. “If I left at 8 (a.m.), by 2 o’clock in the afternoon I kind of wanted to go home and lay down. It just took a bunch of energy out of me.”

Since then, it’s been largely business as usual. Skillman even stopped taking the prescribed painkillers in November because he felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits; the pain, he says, has been surprisingly manageable throughout the recovery process even without medication.

And though he had to wear a back brace for about three months, that particular injury never really bothered him all that much.

“The back didn’t hurt as bad as the ribs,” Skillman said. “And I only broke one rib, but I pulled all of the cartilage off the rest of them, if you know what I mean. I didn’t have any idea where the broken one was, because all of them hurt equally.”

By December, Skillman was feeling fine and back to his regular work routine. The only thing that’s been missing from his life has been racing, and he’s ready to get that back.

The necessary medical paperwork to be filed with the NHRA is being delivered in person by Drew, who is competing in Gainesville, Florida, this weekend. By the time Ray Skillman gets back from a family spring break trip, he expects to be cleared to run again.

The track has been his happy place for more than 60 years, and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.

“I love cars, and I love people,” Skillman said. “I like being around all the people that we race with, from drivers to crew to fans to officials.

“Everything that makes up racing, that’s what I enjoy, and that’s what I want to continue to do for a little bit as long as I feel that I can be competitive and I like doing what I’m doing.”

The Skillman file

Ray Skillman

Age: 75

Born: Owensboro, Kentucky

Current home: Center Grove

Business: Ray Skillman Auto Group owns nine dealership locations in the Indianapolis area, including two in Johnson County. Skillman also maintains a classic car garage adjacent to his Ford dealership in Greenwood.

Racing: Formerly raced Late Model and NASCAR; currently competes in NHRA races along with his son Bill and grandson Drew

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.