When burn survivor Thomas Jones climbed into his demolition derby car Saturday night at the Ogle County Fair he was surrounded by family and friends—both on the track and in the grandstand.
Jones, 26, along with Oregon drivers Marc Mongan and Nathan Meeker competed in the third heat of the night. He was making his driving debut on a perfect summer night after being critically burned while preparing a demolition derby car last year.
Jones' participation seemed out of the question months earlier after he suffered mostly third degree burns over 85 to 90 percent of his body on Aug. 20, 2012 in an explosion and fire in Oregon at his parents' home.
"I swear it was everyone behind me," he said about his recovery prior to the race. "It was harder on them than me because I was in a coma."
After months in the hospital and in a rehabilitation center, followed by weeks of intense physical therapy, Jones climbed into car 771, a 1985 Lincoln with "Reasonably Bad Decisions" painted on its door, ready to compete.
With his dad Mick watching from the pits and his fiance, Chelsey Janssen, 23, sitting with family members in the pits-side bleachers, Jones raced onto the derby course to cheers from the packed grandstand.
Janssen said preparing a demo car and racing it again was one of Jones' goals.
"When he was in the hospital and under all the pain medication he was still talking about the demolition derby and getting his car ready," Janssen said. "He was grabbing the blanket and when I asked him what he was doing he said it was a gas line for the demo car. He's been thinking about doing this since the accident."
After Jones advanced to the feature, he and his friends quickly replaced a front flat tire in the pits.
Meanwhile, Mongan who was parked alongside Meeker and Jones, made some "adjustments" on his ride by taking a sledge hammer and giving his trunk numerous whacks.
Jones was knocked out midway through the feature event, but Mongan, 43, fared a bit better, finishing fourth.
"I've been racing since I was 16," he said after his 1980 Lincoln would not restart.
Janssen said she was happy Jones was able to race again.
"I'm glad he did it," she said.