Jason Priestley's Close Call

We know Jason Priestley as the handsome young star of the long-running television show Beverly Hills 90210. Last summer, most of us learned he is also a professional race car driver when he was involved in a serious racing accident.

In an exclusive interview with 20/20's Barbara Walters, Priestley talked for the first time about the crash and his grueling recovery.

Priestley's face was smashed almost beyond recognition. His feet and back were broken. He survived thanks to a highly skilled rescue operation and his own determination to live, but the experience left him a changed man.

Throughout the 1990s, the charismatic 90210 star, who stood out for his boyish charm and sex appeal, led the life most teenage boys fantasize about. Priestley's picture adorned the covers of countless magazines, and posters of him covered teenage girls' bedroom walls.

Last summer, he made the headlines again. This time the news was devastating. Priestley was close to death after the worst crash ever seen on the Kentucky Auto Racing Speedway. When he woke up a day later, he had no idea what had happened. "It was really quite shocking," Priestley said, describing his reaction when he first saw his injuries.

More frightening, Priestley said, was the thought that he might not walk again. He said he thought of Christopher Reeve, and of Sam Schmidt, a racing friend who was paralyzed after an accident. "I was really, really terrified that that was gonna be me."

Priestley knew the dangers of racing; he'd been making at least part of his living racing cars for 10 years. Cars roar around a banked oval track within inches of each other at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour.

A Split Second Changes Star Forever

Early on Aug. 11, 2002, Priestley was making a final practice run before the most important race of his life. During the warm-ups a car had blown its engine, and crews had to put down a "quick-dry" substance to cover up the oil on the track. As Priestley attempted to avoid another driver's car, his wheel hit the substance and he lost control of the car.

"I just touched up on the quick-dry," Priestley said. "From what I understand … only a few inches of the wheel got on it and it was enough to upset the car."

Just eight-tenths of a second elapsed between the moment Priestley hit the brakes and his first head-on impact against the track's retaining wall, according to Priestley's friend and racing manager, Jim Freudenberg.

The accident was unusually severe because Priestley, who had been driving at a speed of 182 mph, endured not one — but two head-on collisions with the concrete walls. "When he caromed off the wall, he was going 86 miles an hour. When he hit the second impact, which was probably a sixth of a mile down the track, he was … he hit it at 56 miles an hour," Freudenberg said.

‘No Signs of Life’

Flight paramedics Chris Smith and Elizabeth Clark heard the track's emergency radio code.

"We recognized it was the most serious code, which told us that basically there were no signs of life out on the track where they were extricating Jason," Smith said. "My initial impression was that he was close to death when he came in," said Clark.

In fact, Priestley was technically dead for about 45 seconds.

"I actually checked out," he said, "and for some reason I got sent back. I got returned."

"They tell me that when they were pulling me out of the car and they pulled my helmet off, my nose was pushed so far up into my forehead, they could actually see into my sinuses. And look into my head," Priestley said.

Just 28 minutes after the accident, Priestley arrived at the University of Kentucky Hospital trauma center. Fearing the worst, family and friends gathered at the hospital. Luke Perry, his friend from 90210, was there within hours.

Perry said doctors thought it would be a good sign that Priestley's cognitive skills were intact if he could recognize Perry. Perry climbed onto Priestley's bed and looked directly into his friend's face.

"He looked right at me, and he said my name. And everybody in that room breathed a big sigh of relief," Perry said.

Road to Recovery

Priestley, 33, survived his brush with death on the race track, but the road to recovery was difficult. The accident forced him to face the very real possibility that both his racing and acting careers would be over. Determined to prove wrong the reports that he might never walk again, he is making amazing strides.

He's walking well without a limp or sign of pain, but he's not yet able to run. "If I am off my feet for a while they start to hurt when I get back on them, but that goes away pretty quickly," he said.

Priestley recounted the extensive surgeries he's undergone during his recovery. "I had the operation to repair the shelf that my eyeball sits on. I had the operation to repair my nose." He also had extensive back surgery to fuse his broken vertebrae.

He said it will be about a year before he is totally healed. And while, unbelievably, he still wants to drive race cars, he said he won't go back on the track until he has completely healed from the accident.

Drawn to Risk

Priestley has always loved driving fast and living on the edge. Even as a young man, growing up in Vancouver, Canada, he was a risk taker.

"When I was 16, everyone else got a car, I got a motorcycle," he said. "I was a rugby player, I was a hockey player. You know I just love to challenge myself and I love to compete."

He also loved another risky business — acting. Since 90210, he has appeared in seven movies, playing a range of characters. In Die Mommie Die, a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, he played an FBI agent masquerading as a gigolo.

And car racing was taking an even larger role in his life. He did color commentary on ESPN for the Indianapolis 500. But his private wish was to qualify to drive in the race.

Priestley has crashed or spun out numerous times on the race track, and once in a boat race. But in 1998, his restlessness turned to recklessness when he crashed his Porsche into a telephone pole in Hollywood Hills.

Priestley was arrested for driving while under the influence. He spent five nights in jail. His driver's license was suspended for a year and he had to complete an alcohol-management program.

Priestley said he learned a lot from that experience. "The fact of the matter is I'd had too much to drink to be operating a motor vehicle. And for me it was — it was a learning experience."

He said he doesn't think he's an alcoholic, but he's not sure. He said he hasn't had a drink in 10 months.

"The one thing that I've learned in the last couple of years," Priestley said, "is that I really don't know much at all."

Does he still want to race in the Indianapolis 500? He's not sure.

"I don't know if I would be able to take a car into the corners with the velocity that you need to, to compete in, in that race," he said. "I don't think you can go through something like this without being changed by it."

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