Kyle Hewins was being prepared for discharge Monday night from Maine Medical Center in Portland, only 48 hours after he was severely burned in a freak accident at Oxford Plains Speedway.
That the Leeds driver walked out of the hospital under his own power is something family, friends and eyewitnesses classify as nothing shy of a miracle.
“Somebody up there got him out,” said Monica Martin, Hewins’ longtime girlfriend.
Hewins, who wasn’t originally scheduled to drive the car, had just completed the first circuit in a scheduled 20-lap race Saturday when something caused his black car with dayglo numbers to catch fire in the second turn of the 3/8-mile oval.
Family and crew members who have surveyed the remains of the car speculate that a faulty fuel filter may have ignited.
The car was fully involved when Hewins skidded to a stop in the narrow strip of heavy sand and gravel that borders the concrete wall on the backstretch.
Track officials and rescue workers rushed to the scene and attempted to douse the flames while the driver frantically worked to free himself. By multiple accounts, the incident lasted about 10 seconds.
“He said it felt like forever,” Martin said. “He had to undo his shoulder strap and belt, and then he said he somehow shot himself out of the car.”
Hewins’ hands were badly burned. There was a secondary burn on his right leg, from about six inches above the knee to four inches below.
First responders stabilized Hewins at the scene. He was transported to the adjacent Oxford airport. From there, he was whisked away to Maine Med in a LifeFlight helicopter.
The driver was conscious throughout the ordeal. Hewins’ car caught fire shortly after 7 p.m. He was in surgery within about two hours.
“He landed hard on his hand as he was getting out of the car, so there was dirt all through it,” Martin said. “They had to scrub that down. Then they put a silicone glaze over his hands that is supposed to act like a layer of skin. As the new skin grows, that falls off.”
The next day, Hewins was eating, walking and joking with a steady stream of visitors.
He gradually has become more comfortable communicating the details of his experience. Pictures of the car taken Sunday show a driver’s seat and door panels that were badly charred.
“At first he was upset and took it really hard. He didn’t really want to talk about it except to say that he didn’t think he was going to make it out of there,” Martin said. “Now he’s doing pretty good. He’s just tired of lying in that bed. He got up and walked around quite a bit [Monday]. They have to check his burns one more time and wrap his hands again and then we should be finished up.”
On Hewins’ immediate agenda are rest and returning to as normal a life as possible. He and Martin have a son, Karson, who is almost 2 years old.
Hewins will be unable to work or drive either a street car or a stock car for up to two months.
“We just have to take it day-to-day. He builds kitchens at his job and he has to lift a lot,” Martin said.
As might be expected, the worst part of the equation in Hewins’ mind is the prohibition against driving.
He is one of three members of his immediate family to win a division championship at OPS.
“He’s just going crazy about that,” Martin said. “He wants to get back out there before the end of the season so he’s not afraid, but like they told him, if you can’t do anything with your hands for one to two months, you can’t race.”
Martin herself raced throughout her childhood, including a short stint as a teenager in the same four-cylinder Runnin’ Rebel cars that her partner drives.
She has been exposed to the inherent risks of the sport and understands them keenly. It was still a shock, however, when she received the call while traveling in Minnesota.
“I got back here as quickly as I could,” said Martin, whose flight landed in Portland on Sunday night. “I’m really glad I wasn’t here to see it.”
Hewins is planning to be in the pit area at Oxford’s next race on Wednesday, Martin said.
Maine’s racing community has rallied around the driver and his young family, with two tracks mobilizing to raise funds and ease Hewins’ financial burden.
OPS will hold a collection by having drivers pass their helmets through the crowd Wednesday. One night later at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, driver and track employee Dan Walker will spearhead a campaign to take donations at the annual Thursday Thunder awards ceremony.