Speedway driver Stuart Marshall almost lost his life in a horror racing crash in March. Nine months on, he and his wife Jo talked to Neil Reid about the near-tragedy and his ongoing miracle recovery
Jo Marshall realised her husband was in serious trouble as soon as his racing vehicle made contact with an opponent's on the Western Springs track.
She, and the pair's eldest daughter Alyssa, aged 13, were among thousands watching the action at the famous circuit on March 16.
But what was meant to be a night of cheering on Stuart Marshall in the F2 Midget class races almost turned into tragedy after one of the front wheels of the 43-year-old's vehicle clipped an opponent's rear wheel, leading to a heavy crash.
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Stuart – a specialist glazier - suffered a severe brain injury in the crash; with his wife being warned later that night by a specialist at Auckland City Hospital: "you probably need to be prepared to say goodbye".
But he has defied that grim warning, and after spending five months in a rehab centre is recovering at their Bombay home.
In the couple's first interview since the near-tragedy, Jo recalled the moment when the family's life changed forever.
"I was up out of my seat and running. I don't think I have ever run so fast in my life. I just knew [it was serious]," Jo told the Herald on Sunday.
"By the time I got down trackside, I could see straight away he was unconscious. I was thinking, 'Oh ...'."
Alyssa was filming the race so that her 10-year-old sister Tayla, who was unwell and had been taken home early by an aunty, would be able to watch the action.
Track safety crew and members of the St John national motorsport team rushed to Stuart's stricken F2 Midget.
Jo revealed she feared the worst after a sheet was held up between the car and spectators; normally something used after a racing fatality.
"It put the fear of God into me," she said.
The Marshalls were later told the sheet had been used to ensure sparks from cutting away the roll cage didn't go into the crowd.
While work continued to free Stuart, Jo said she was "escorted, half carried, to St John's room".
A member of the St John crew later rushed into the room to tell Jo her husband had been freed, but added: "We do have a head injury".
Stuart was eventually rushed to an ambulance bound for Auckland City Hospital, with Jo following in a St John support vehicle.
She said she later went into "full panic mode" after the ambulance stopped outside the gates of Western Springs.
The stop enabled her husband to be intubated en route to hospital, with a senior St John officer who was trained in the procedure – which sees a flexible plastic tube being placed in the trachea to maintain an open airway or serve as a conduit to administer certain drugs – having luckily been in the crowd.
Shortly after arriving at hospital Stuart was taken for a head scan.
"The doctor said 'you probably need to be prepared to say goodbye' ... that was as he was going through for the scan. They thought he was going [to die].
"But he is sitting here today."
Within hours of the crash, Stuart was placed in a medically induced coma, enabling specialists to carry out tests on how severe his brain injury was.
That included reducing the levels of sedation to test his reactions.
"It was a bit scary ... it was a sitting and waiting game on how he would recover. It was not known if he would be ... severely brain damaged. There were no answers."
Jo kept a loving vigil at Stuart's bedside while her husband was in a coma.
Stuart's mother and sister looked after the couple's two young daughters, with Jo saying their girls initially weren't taken to hospital as the sight of their dad in ICU was "very confronting".
Jo said the family received "phenomenal support".
"ICU became home," she said. "In the waiting room every night would be 20 or 30 people waiting to see him."
Visitors included Sonny Bill Williams, who had gone to Auckland City Hospital to support survivors of the March 15 Christchurch mosque shootings.
Jo met him in the corridor in ICU and told the All Black star about her husband's plight. Williams would spend 20 minutes with Stuart while he was in a coma, including praying at his bedside for him.
"He was such a lovely guy, while I was a blabbering mess," Jo said.
A day after coming out of the coma, Stuart was transferred to intensive care's high-dependency unit.
Stuart's initial progress was slow, and every achievement was celebrated by his loved ones; including in his third day out of the coma when he was assisted by nurses and a walking frame to take his first steps.
"To us, it was a big tick. Slowly and surely, day by day, it was another step."
Stuart was in hospital for three weeks, before being transferred to the Acquired Brain Injury rehab facility in Ranui, West Auckland.
He spent his initial time there in a locked facility.
"It took a while to start rehabilitating," Jo said.
"Stuart would sit there and to him he thought we were all crazy. It was like, 'Why am I here, why can't I just go home?'. To a brain injury patient they don't understand and see what we see."
He was finally released to go home after five months, on June 27.
"The girls were so stoked to have dad at home after he had been gone for so long," Jo said.
The family were now taking Stu's recovery "one day at a time".
That included formulating a gradual return-to-work plan.
"Fatigue is the last biggest thing of a brain injury. And it will just take time," Jo said.
"A couple of days working around our property, pulling weeds and that sort of thing, and by day three he is on the couch for the whole day ... he will hit the wall.
"But we are very lucky. We are counting our blessings."
For now the Marshalls want to thank all the people that have helped them right from the moment of Stuart's near-tragic crash.
That includes the first responders at Western Springs – who Jo said gave immediate help which saved her husband's life - the medical teams at Auckland City Hospital, staff at the ABI unit, loved ones, friends and everyone who donated to a Givelittle page to support the family.
The Marshalls have also been helped out by the Speedway New Zealand's driver support fund.
"I am stoked about all of the people that helped Jo and the kids out," Stuart said.
"It was a hard thing to happen to us, but the generosity that everyone gave to help us and keep us going was great. I want to go back to how life was before."
Added Jo: "The hospital staff are just amazing ... they are fantastic people ... a credit to their jobs.
"To go onto the Givealittle page and see what was donated and how many people had been donating, I literally would cry every day I went and looked. I have been left speechless about the generosity of people."
Speedway driver lost memory of father's death and racing career
Stuart Marshall almost lost his life in a horror speedway crash at Western Springs in March.
And as he bravely recovers from a severe brain injury, him and his wife Jo have opened up about subsequent memory loss which left him with no recollections of his father's death, nor of his speedway racing career leading up to the night he almost died.
While undergoing care at the Acquired Brain Injury rehab facility in West Auckland, the stricken racer repeatedly asked why his father was yet to visit him.
Battling post traumatic amnesia, he could not remember his beloved dad had died seven years before the crash.
"I thought he was still around," Stuart said.
Jo said medical specialists had told her that head injury patients often forgot "big emotional things of the past".
She could not bring herself to tell Stuart that his father was dead.
"On a daily basis when he asked 'Where is dad?' me and mum were just saying, 'Oh, he is busy'," she said
"One day we thought it would click [that he had died], but it just didn't. I couldn't say the words, I couldn't break his heart."
Eventually one of Stuart's closest friends who was visiting from Australia broke the news to him.
"He took the lead, showed him a photo of his dad not long before he had passed and told him," Jo said.
Racing on the famous Western Springs circuit had been a long-held ambition for Stuart.
After 20 years of crewing at the venue – including for future NASCAR star Kyle Larson – the 43-year-old finally got a shot behind the wheel of the F2 Midget class last November.
And while he lived out that dream in 10 meetings during the 2018-19 speedway season, Stuart's reminders of his racing career are photos, video footage and the remains of his protective gear he was wearing when he crashed.
"I can't remember any of it," he said.
"I had wanted to do it my whole life. For it to be one of the best, if not the very best, car in the field was pretty cool."
Jo said the Marshall family had been "over the moon" when he was offered the ride for the 2018-19 season.
"To be part of it was overwhelming," she said. "It is devastating that he can't remember it. He will never do it [race] again."
Nine months on from the crash and Stuart said he still faced struggles with his short-term memory.