Sometimes horrible things happen to the ones we like the most. With a crash at the Rolex 24 At Daytona in January of 2014 that crumpled his feet, broke his back, and all but ended his career as a professional driver, racing’s uglier side was visited upon Memo Gidley.
Wracked with unending pain during the worst part of his recovery, the Mexico-born, California-bred open-wheel and sports car veteran struggled to stand and was barely able to sit, much less find a position that would allow for more than the bare minimum of sleep. In an interview five years after the crash, Gidley admitted that at the lowest moments, he contemplated sailing off into the Pacific Ocean and calling it quits.
It’s an inner conversation many have held with themselves, and thankfully, Gidley chose to persevere and fight through the pain and years of physical rehabilitation to regain the life he had before that fateful day in Daytona. His loving and empathetic girlfriend Mari was there for every new step in the process, and in time, they’d get married. His incredible mother, whose adventurous spirit was passed down to her son, was unwavering in her support throughout the ordeal, and Gidley’s teenage daughter also kept him bathed in warmth and optimism.
The rundown of Gidley’s seven-year journey to reach full mental and physical restoration came to mind last weekend as his efforts were finally rewarded with a return to victory lane. And not just once, but twice at the SRO GT America event in Sebring with the burly Flying Lizard Motorsports/TKO Motorsports Bentley Continental GT3 (pictured above).
At 51, and with a life-altering crash that brought a halt to his world, everybody would have understood if Gidley wanted to pack decades of pro racing away and embrace a simpler existence. But if you’ve had the good fortune to know him or follow his career, and have come to appreciate the bottomless well of talent and motivation that delivered Gidley to CART, the IRL, the ALMS, World Challenge, and Grand-Am, you know that standing beneath the Florida sun and spraying champagne is exactly where he belonged.
— Flying Lizard Motorsports (@FlyingLizard_MS) October 3, 2021
“It’s been so long, being in a car like this, being in a pro series like this, and just to get up there and stand on the top step, it was a little unreal,” Gidley told RACER. “You know, it took a second to register what was happening because it didn’t feel real. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to the podium?’ I couldn’t stop smiling. People were coming up the whole time, people I didn’t even know, congratulating me, and I just couldn’t stop smiling.”
There was another form of motivation that kept Gidley going to excruciating rehab sessions and weight training to reapply the muscle mass that withered away from his arms and legs while wearing braces and casts. It was an event in the country of his birth on May 11, 2005, where he and co-driver Michael McDowell — the future Daytona 500 winner — drove the No. 19 Finlay Motorsports Riley-BMW Daytona Prototype to pole and victory at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
More than 16 years removed from his last pro racing win, Gidley powered through the recovery process with dreams of spraying champagne at some undefined point in the future. With a pair of overall wins at Sebring in the SRO3 class, those dreams finally came into focus.
“I always tell people, ‘Go off of your passion, go after that thing you really love,’” he said. “Now, some people, especially as they start getting past their prime, they stop chasing their passion, but it’s like, who cares? Your prime is right now; you’re at the best you are ever going to be today, on this very day, so just get out there and see what you can do. Who cares if you were better before; go be your best right now.
“And that’s what I did, staying after it and going after my dreams. And because I did, because I didn’t quit, it opened up the TKO Motorsports opportunity. Dave Traitel, who owns TKO Motorsports, he was the first guy after I had my accident to reach out and want to get me back in a car. Three years after I recovered, he actually bought a Porsche GT3 R for us and we started driving that as I was clear to do so. And now we’ve gotten some big wins together with the Bentley. This is all pretty special because of what Dave’s done to get me here, to get us here.”
Something else that’s rather special also happened for Gidley in 2021. Earlier this year as he and Mari welcomed their first child — a daughter — to the world. One might argue that while the sickening crash seven years ago brought a major stop to his career along with a loss of income and security, good old Jose Guillermo ‘Memo’ Gidley is a richer man today.
Together with the rediscovered professional fulfillment with TKO, a loving wife, amazing mother, a newborn to care for, and a teenage daughter who looks up to him as a living inspiration, Gidley’s heart is full.
“I have a 17-year-old daughter, and she’s into the horses right now,” he said. “She’s like, ‘I think I want to be an orthodontist, because they make good money and then I can go ride horses.’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s not what you want to do. You want to go after what you have a passion for, and because you love it, you’ll work harder to get it and you’ll stand out and do well. Don’t do the safe thing and make your passion the rare thing that you get to do in life.’ And that’s the same thing I’m going to preach to my six-month-old.
“She’s going to see that, and that’s the same thing that I was preached to when I was growing up by my mom and dad. ‘If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else!’ That was what I was told all the time. And Mari’s support, and my mom’s support has been so great since the crash. I couldn’t drive myself to the gym, I couldn’t dress or undress myself…they got me here to where we are today. I’m living a dream. And that’s what I want everybody else to do as much as they can, because life is short.”
Who cares if 16 years transpired between wins; what matters is the fact that Gidley kept pushing until it happened again and became his new reality. Memo’s story is the kind we live for in motor racing.
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