COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Every day is different and although some bring back bad memories, others produce amazing ones. Good or bad, some days are more memorable than others, and without experiencing both, you haven’t truly lived life. The husband and wife rally team of Nathan and Brandye Conley of Monument, Colorado have had more happy and sad moments in the past three years than most experience in a lifetime, and because of one event leading to another they have a few dates that they will remember for the rest of their lives.[/dropcap]
It all started on July 20, 2008 during the 86th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). Just weeks earlier Nate and Brandye qualified to compete against the best rally racers in the world at the 14th Annual Summer X Games in Los Angeles, California, a career dream for every rally racer. Their plan was to race at their home course in the PPIHC and then head out to LA a week and a half later to chase their X Games dreams, but you can’t plan for everything and that’s where this journey begins.
Leading up to the race they had great practice runs and never ran into any major problems so they weren’t worried when there had been multiple red flags on the course leading up to their run. Brandye describes it as “just a different day” with conditions that were more extreme than usual for Pikes Peak.
The green flag dropped, Nate threw the car in gear, Brandye started reading her co-driver notes, and they were on their way to the 14,110-foot summit of America’s Mountain. Typically Brandye is the one doing all the talking in the car, but after just a handful of turns she heard Nate yell “Hold on!” and then any racer’s worst nightmare happened, they hit a tree at 90+ mph. Brandye, “I wasn’t looking at the road because I was reading my notes so I didn’t even know anything wrong was happening until Nate yelled.”
With the wreck happening so close to the start line, safety crews were able to attend to them almost immediately and get them airlifted to a local hospital for treatment. After receiving CAT scans they learned that they both had broken backs, including a shattered T12 vertebrae for Brandye and compressed/fractured T12 and L1 vertebrae for Nate. Luckily, Nate would be able to heal without surgery but Brandye wasn’t as lucky and had to be airlifted to St. Anthony’s Hospital just outside of Denver to undergo immediate surgery. Nate said, “It’s one of the worst days of my life, you go from racing one minute to the lowest of lows thinking you’ve paralyzed your wife the next.” Nate had himself transferred to St. Anthony’s so he could be with Brandye during her surgery and they could recover together. Fortunately, Brandye’s surgery went as planned and have both been able to make full recoveries since.
Coincidentally, the morning after Brandye’s surgery her Dad went into the hospital’s chapel and found a bible open to Psalms 116 and preceded to read verses 8 and 9:
“For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.”
The fact that the bible was already open to Psalms 116 is amazing. Not only does this excerpt relate to Brandye’s condition and a full recovery, but 116 is also the number that they ran on their car when the wreck happened. Nate said, “I’ve never been super spiritual but when things like that happen it sure makes you think there’s a higher power.
With X Games a week and a half after their wreck, they obviously weren’t able to compete, but still wanted to get the X Games experience that they worked so hard for. To do this they went straight from the hospital to home to pack, and then turn around to leave for LA. Nate, “We didn’t know if we would every get a chance to go back, so we went and took advantage of the full experience.”
After their backs healed Nate decided to get back in the car, while a pregnant Brandye sat out and watched. Even without his regular co-driver in Brandye, Nate was still able to compete with the elite and on September 20, 2009, he placed 3rd in Rally America’s Rally Colorado event against the likes of Travis Pastrana and Ken Block. After that podium Nate took a short break and on November 10, 2009 the Conleys gave birth to their first and only child, Ryder Robert Conley (name inspired by both families motocross backgrounds). After a year and a half of recovery and pregnancy, Brandye decided to get back in the car with Nate and give rally another shot.
You would think that it would be hard for them to get back in the car together because of the accident, but in fact they wanted to prove that they weren’t afraid to get back in the car and it was something else that made things difficult. Nate said, “The hardest part about getting back into the car was saying goodbye to our son Ryder before every race. He was only two months old when we first competed again at the Snow Drift Rally.” As you can imagine baby on board isn’t the greatest idea for rally racing, so grandma would come along and watch Ryder when mom and dad were out racing stages.
The husband and wife rally-duo were at it again and after a few events, decided to retire due to multiple run-ins with mechanical problems and simply loving the life of being parents and a typical family. Nate even said, “Some of the greatest times of our lives were when we were just parents.” They honestly thought their racing careers were done and that they would have to give up on their dream of being able to compete at X Games, but then Nate saw a Global RallyCross Championship (GRC) event on ESPN and it convinced him to enter himself in the third and final race of the series which was conveniently located in his hometown at Pikes Peak International Raceway (PPIR).
The Conleys saw this event as an opportunity to experience what they missed three years earlier when their X Games dreams were shattered. The next day Nate called his friends at Revolutions Performance, to see if they could help get the car ready on a short notice and a cheap budget.
All of the sudden June 17-18, 2011 rolled around and Nate was ready to finally get his opportunity to drive with the big dogs again. Going into the event Nate’s goals were very reasonable stating that he just wanted to jump the car and keep up with the factory teams. He did very well in practice and had everything dialed in for the 70-foot gap jump; and all that was left to find out was if he could in fact hang with the big dogs.
To make it into the rallycross final, Nate would have to establish himself through three races as one of the top 8 drivers in a field of 15 featuring names including Tanner Foust, Marcus Grönholm, Rhys Millen, and Brian Deegan. He hadn’t been able to qualify through the first two heat races; but was able to finish in the top four in the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ) to advance into the finals and compete against the likes of: Marcus Grönholm, Tanner Foust, Brian Deegan, David Higgins, Rhys Millen, Michael Jernberg, and Stephan Verdier.
In the finals Nate had his work cut out for him, competing against seven factory drivers and representing all the mom and pop racers as the only privateer. One of the major differences between the two is simply budget, with the some of the factory guys spending more money on one event, than most Americans make in a year; and the Conleys using a budget that would suffice for a new big screen TV. There is such a huge difference that after the first day of competition, Nate had to snatch up the factory teams’ used tires to even have rubber to compete.
Finally it was time for Nate to show the rally-world what privateers with old metal can do, against the biggest and best in the sport. The green flag dropped and the pack took off. Nate was doing great and kept up with everyone, but spun out halfway through his first lap. He was able to get the car going again and realized that he was no longer a contender for the win, but he didn’t see it as a lost cause, “I wanted to enjoy every moment of it, and jumping was the first thing that came to my mind.” He proceeded to fly his orange “Bullet” over the 70-foot jump every lap, a task only required to complete once . Although he spun and took the long way on four of five laps he was able to sneak away with a fifth place finish, when Brian Deegan had mechanical issues, and Tanner Foust and Michael Jernberg got tangled up just before the finish line.
Nate started turning heads after his gutsy four-jump race and fifth place finish, against some of the worlds best. Fans from all over the world were commenting on GRC’s Facebook page saying how impressed they were and deserving of an X Games invitation Nate was for his performance. Nate even got a shout out from one of his favorite drivers, Tanner Foust, when Tanner posted a picture of Nate’s car on his own Facebook fan page with the caption, “Distracted getting crotch dropped on a concrete rail but @Conley116 heard you hit the jump every lap just 4 fun… awesome.” Not only did he impress fans worldwide and fellow drivers, but he also caught the eyes of the X Games invitation committee and got an official invitation on June 24, 2011.
The Conleys have tallied a lifetime’s worth of memories and dates to remember in the past three years, and in just a week, they can add two more, July 30-31, 2011 for X Games 17. Be sure to tune in to ESPN on these days and supports the events top privateer that went through an amazing journey to get there.
Pikes Peak Update
The Conleys plan on competing in rallycross events around the country next season but haven’t ruled out making a return to Pikes Peak. He hasn’t competed in the event since the wreck partially due to the mixed tarmac/dirt racing surface, but has been considering a comeback once the mountain is completely paved it 2012. There is even talking about taking the car from the wreck and building it into a specialized Pikes Peak only car.
This is the package that I made back in the studio. It’s only my second one ever so its a little rough.
Highlights from GRC at PPIR.
Conley in-car from GRC at PPIR.