Skinner Healing Nicely

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Mike Skinner is a brand-new man. Now he hopes his racing career can be rejuvenated as well.

Skinner is coming off reconstruction surgery on his left knee, and where he needed a replacement ligament. The surgery is apparently taken hold, and Skinner is ready to take on the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season with renewed enthusiasm with his new team at Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Skinner will drive the No. 4 Kodak Chevy.

A ligament from another part of his own body would have taken too long to rehabilitate, but his doctor, Craig Hankins, suggested another kind of surgery.

Hankins took a ligament from a cadaver, put it in Skinner’s knee, and Skinner would be ready in time for the 2002 Daytona 500. Hankins told Skinner the national failure rate for that kind of surgery is less than 10 percent, so Skinner said go for it.

“I told them to find a young guy about 23 years old who was really strong, preferably a basketball player,” Skinner said of a ligament donor.

All kidding aside, Skinner said it’s not weird to be walking around with another man’s ligament in his knee. What would be weird would be not walking around at all, or walking around with a lot of pain in his knee.

“It is already better than when I had it scoped in ’98,” Skinner said. “I had it operated on in ’98, and I had a lot more trouble than I’ve had now. Hats off to Dr. Hankins, his staff and the physical therapists. They’ve been great, and they’ve taught me a lot about my body that I didn’t know.”

Skinner is now working on his upper body, on his neck, and, of course, his knee.

“It was tough. It’s still tough,” Skinner said. “We work out three or four times a week. We’ve been doing physical therapy ever since then. … It’s all good. We’re chomping at the bit. We’re ready to go.”

Skinner first had to use two crutches to get around, but he got rid of one and then both. He’s not 100 percent, but he won’t be for a long time.

“This type of knee reconstruction is a four- to six-month minimum (rehab) to be back 90 percent,” Skinner said. “We’ve been three months. It’s going to take a little bit more time. But it’s doing very, very good.”

Skinner has been diligent in his rehab, maybe even too diligent. He said he thinks he can’t hurt it by doing construction work, plumbing, things “you wouldn’t usually see a race driver doing.” Skinner doesn’t like to sit around and do nothing, and he pushes himself and his knee too hard.

“I’ve got to find the warning system,” Skinner said. “When it starts giving me the warning, I’ve got to listen to them.”

One thing Skinner didn’t listen to was his own doubts. Last year was a difficult one, as he re-injured his knee, broke his ankle, was fired from his ride at Richard Childress Racing, and then underwent the difficult reconstruction surgery.

“When you have the injuries and some of the crashes we’ve had, sometimes you sit back and start second-guessing: ‘Man, do I really want to do this? Is this what I really want to do?’ ” Skinner said. “When I got out of the race car and got my knee and my ankle operated on, it just reassured me that this is what I want to do. Sitting back is not for me. I want to race. I’ve always wanted to race. I want to run up front, and I want to make a difference where I go.”

So he went to Morgan-McClure Motorsports, a team that has struggled the past few years. Skinner saw in that team a little bit of himself. Morgan-McClure needed surgery and a long rehab process.

“This team has had a rough couple of years,” Skinner said. “We had a rough year this last year, went through a lot of injuries. We need each other.”

After five years at RCR, Skinner didn’t feel as needed. He was always the second driver to Dale Earnhardt, and even though he came close, Skinner never made it to victory lane in the No. 31 car.

“We were kind of in the shadows for a long time at RCR,” Skinner said. “A lot of things happened, and we still ended up in the shadows. Being the main focus of the race team will help me mentally.”

Morgan-McClure, a 14-time Winston Cup winner, hit rock-bottom last year. The team went through four drivers and finished a lowly 37th in the owner points.

“We can’t rebuild myself and this race team overnight,” Skinner said. “But we will rebuild it, as long as everybody keeps pulling that rope in the same direction.”

Skinner likes the attitude of the team led by crew chief Scott Eggleston, but even Skinner admits there is “ground to gain.”

“I don’t know what it’s going to take, what sort of special guidance it’s going to take, what kind of people Larry’s going to plug into what holes,” Skinner said. “I’m going to give my input. Maybe I was a little too quiet in my last job.”

McClure has welcomed Skinner’s input, but Skinner said he won’t speak up too loudly too quickly.

“One thing we’ve talked about is patience with one another,” Skinner said. “That’s got to work both directions. I have to have patience with them. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d rather not say. For me to come in here and say, ‘Larry, we need to move this guy,’ or ‘Do this, let this guy go, hire that guy,’ I don’t think that’s fair.

“I need to go racing with them and give them the opportunity to prove themselves as a race team and me the opportunity to prove that I can fit in with them.”

If they fail, then Skinner will speak up a little louder. Of course, Skinner already has made one suggestion: hiring someone to give Eggleston a little support, a “first mate,” as Skinner calls it.

Skinner has a “first mate” of his own, if you will, in the form of a knee ligament. Now, though, Skinner is itching to get going.

“I’ve been ready,” Skinner said. “I am ready, believe me.”

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