After dealing with a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning at the end of the 2020 season, Mini Stock veteran A.J. Sanders enters the Icebreaker at Florence Motor Speedway confident and rejuvenated following a strong, second-place run in the New Year’s Bash at Dillon Motor Speedway.
Sanders has logged thousands of laps at Florence since he began racing there at the age of 13 when it was a dirt track, and admitted that the unique design of the facility still presents numerous challenges for drivers to overcome if they want to visit victory lane.
“The track provides a whole different atmosphere with no walls,” Sanders said. “You really have to judge the outside edge of the race track coming up off the corner. If you get a little bit too far, you end up off the race track.”
One of the most accomplished drivers in the history of Mini Stock racing on the East Coast, Sanders has claimed over 500 victories during his storied career along with 15 different championships that included a NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series title back in 2014.
Sanders maintained his consistency in 2020 by dominating Caraway Speedway’s Mini-Stock division with 11 wins, which him to defeat Johnny Baker in the track standings by 137 points. With another championship under his belt, Sanders turned his attention towards Caraway’s 34th Annual Russell Hackett’s Original Thanksgiving Classic as he looked to end the year with another victory.
Sanders had one of the quickest cars in the 50-lap Mini Stock feature, but he ended up passing out during the race after carbon monoxide fumes worked their way into his cockpit. Sanders was initially transported to Cone Health Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina before being transferred to Duke University Hospital for further treatment.
Once Sanders arrived at Duke, doctors placed him inside a hyperbaric chamber where the air pressure was doubled so that Sanders’ lungs could gather more oxygen and filter out the carbon monoxide. The rehabilitation process for Sanders was quick, and he was ready to get back behind the wheel of a Mini-Stock in January for the New Year’s Bash.
“It was different, but they got me straightened out,” Sanders said. “That hyperbaric chamber was awesome. It makes you go back to a normal person after you’ve been in there a couple of times.”
Sanders’ first race back proved to be an eventful but successful one for the veteran, as he overcame some damage sustained from hitting the outside wall while battling for the lead to come home second behind winner Cody LeBlanc in the #26 owned by Bill and Will Brewerton.
Sanders will be teamed with the Brewertons once again for the Icebreaker’s Mini-Stock feature and will battle many familiar faces from the Carolina Mini-Stock Nationals at Carteret County Speedway and the New Year’s Bash such as LeBlanc, Robert Strmiska and B.J. Thrasher, but Sanders knows that taking home a checkered flag on Saturday will come down to patience more than racing against his fellow competitors.
“You’re going to have to save your stuff for a few laps at Florence because the wind blows sand onto the track without any walls,” Sanders said. “You can’t just abuse your tires at the start and expect to win the race. It will come down to who is the smartest on that day, but you need to have a good-handling car too. If you’re off even a little bit, you will probably not have a good day.”
Once the Icebreaker ends, Sanders plans to stay busy with auto racing around the East Coast in 2021. He hopes to have the opportunity to reach the 50-win mark at Bowman-Gray Stadium with just two more victories while also assisting his son Stephen, who has carried on his father’s winning ways with two Mini Stock titles at Carteret County.
Photo by Andy Marquis