Professional motorcycle racer rebounds from serious accident on Labor Day
Jeremy Higgins, a track champ at Crusaders in Medina, brings determination to recovery from brain injury
(Editor’s Note: There is a Jeremy Higgins Road to Recovery Benefit on Saturday from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Ridgeway Firehall, 11392 Ridge Rd., Medina. Doors open at 3 p.m. with tickets for raffles available from 3 to 6 p.m. A spaghetti dinner will be served from 4 to 7 p.m. The Crusaders Motorcycle Club will present awards and trophies from the 2019 season at 6 p.m. with raffle winners to be announced at 7 p.m. Tickets for the dinner are $10 each.)
BATAVIA – Jeremy Higgins was right where he wanted to be to start the race on Labor Day at the famed Springfield Mile in Illinois. Higgins was second in the heats and that put him in the front of 18 racers in the second qualifier. (He had the second fastest time for the mile lap, completing it in 35.3 seconds.)
But Higgins, 27, of Batavia got off to a bad start, and found himself behind several competitors after the first turn.
There had already been several laps from earlier heats on the track that day, and the track had lost some of its traction.
“At Springfield the surface changes fast,” Higgins said. “It got slippery.”
He was trying to get out of the pack after the second turn in the 8-mile race that would determine placement in the final main race, which was 25 miles.
After the second turn, Higgins was pinned between the wall and other racers. The front tire of his Kawasaki twin cylinder slightly clipped the back tire of a racer ahead of him. Higgins’ bike started to wobble and then crashed. He was going about 100 miles per hour when he fell, with the left side of the back of his head banging down on the track.
Concern after crash
Amber Higgins was on the other side of the track, about a half mile away, too far away to see what happened. She saw other racers slow up and come near the starting line. That is what they do when there has been an accident.
She looked for her husband, number 82. But he didn’t show. That’s when she knew he had been in the crash.
Jeremy normally has two or three accidents a year on the race track. “I would just get up and wipe off the dirt,” he said.
In the past he has broken his collarbone, his wrist and hand – “for a racer that’s insanely good,” he said.
On Sept. 2, Amber was driven to the back side of the track and she saw Jeremy laying on the clay surface behind an ambulance. She could see blood on his head. He was conscious, but combative, an indication of head trauma.
Amber is a nurse at Rochester General. She was by his side when Jeremy was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. He was in and out of consciousness.
At the hospital, a CAT scan showed significant bleeding on the left side of his brain. Doctors did surgery to relieve some of the pressure.
Early start in Medina
Jeremy Higgins started racing when he was 3 ½. His dad, Jack Higgins, taught him to ride a motorcycle in Bergen before he could ride a bicycle without training wheels.
His father grew up on a farm and didn’t have a chance to race when he was a kid. He wanted to give his son the opportunity.
“I just took right to it,” Jeremy said with a smile.
His first race was the Crusaders Motorcycle Club on Culvert Road in Medina. He has raced there every year since then, and has been the track champion several times.
He started on a PW50, a beginner bike. He had a knack for keeping his balance on the turns and didn’t shy away from the speed on the straight-a-ways, topping out at 70 to 80 miles per hour at the Medina track.
“I was just addicted to the speed and how precise you had to be,” he said. “But I struggled like a lot of kids just starting out in a new sport. What drove me is the self accomplishment.”
He became a crowd favorite, and was nicknamed “Hollywood Higgins.” Jeremy showed a flair at the races. When he won a race, he carried the checkered flag, doing a stand-up wheelie down the backside of the track for the crowd.
Higgins likes the track in Medina – “there is none other like it in the country.” The track has left and right turns, hills, a straight-a-way where riders can hit 70 mph or more. The stone dust track has loose dirt on top. There is always a big crowd at the races, with people backing up pickup trucks and campers along the track to watch the action.
“It’s a whole family atmosphere,” Higgins said.
The racers will share parts and expertise, to help each other compete.
“The whole scene at Medina is what made me want to get into racing,” he said. “We all help each other out. The flat track community is known for its hospitality. The racing community is absolutely incredible. I don’t know anything else like it.”
He was named the track’s champ in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
(The Crusaders are raising money to help Higgins with his recovery. There will be a spaghetti dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Ridgeway Firehall on Route 104.)
Higgins has been racing professionally for about a decade on the Waters Autobody Racing team based in Albion and owned by David and Rhonda Waters. Higgins became a professional racer at age 16.
The past 10 years he has spent many weekends in the American Flat Rack Series, which includes races at 18 different tracks around the country. He travels to most of the races in a motorhome, trips to Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia. It was an 800-mile ride to Springfield, Ill.
Higgins doesn’t have a super-rich sponsor. The Waters team competes on a much smaller budget, and relies on their own ingenuity to repair their motorcycles.
“I just wanted to compete and be considered one of the best racing against the million-dollar teams,” he said.
Jeremy appreciates Dave and Rhonda Waters for their support the past decade.
“They’ve watched me group up,” he said. “They have a love for motorcycle racing.”
Higgins won a race in Virginia the week before his accident. The Springfield Mile hosts big races each year on the Sundays before Memorial Day and Labor Day. (This year the race was moved to Labor Day after rain the day before.)
Higgins would train his body for the demands of the sport. In a race, he is crouched down to reduce the drag, cruising at speeds well over 100 miles per hour. He would train by riding a bicycle 50 miles around Genesee County, lifting weights, doing cross fit and cardio exercises. He would race at a trim 145 to 150 pounds.
“You can’t be out of shape when you’re racing a motorcycle on a flat track,” he said.
On a flight to California for a race in 2012, Jeremy sat next to Darryl Baer of Harrisburg, Pa. Baer is a flat track machinist. His sons also raced motorcycles.
Higgins and Baer spent a lot of time together that weekend. After that trip, Baer told his daughter Amber she might want to take a look at Higgins. Baer was impressed with him.
Jeremy and Amber had seen each other at the races. She was there to support her brothers. With her father’s nudging, Amber and Jeremy started talking more, and then dating. They were married on Oct. 13, 2018.
‘You keep fighting through, no matter what’
Higgins was in intensive care at an Illinois hospital for 3 ½ weeks before coming to Rochester to be at a neurological rehab facility at Unity Health for another 3 ½ weeks.
He doesn’t remember the accident or much from the first month in the hospital. His wife said he was “zombie-like.” She stayed by his side and did everything she could to help him recover, and also to stimulate his brain. She would massage his body, give him constant stimulation and range of motion exercises. With a traumatic brain injury, Amber said the first three months are the most important.
In late October, Jeremy was cleared to go home. He was given a big greeting by his Labrador retriever, Toby. The dog was his best man at his wedding and attends nearly all of his races. For the wedding, Toby wore a bowtie with a leather leash and collar. The dog is very popular at the race tracks. Jeremy adopted Toby as a rescue dog about six years ago.
Toby and Jeremy’s cat Edgar stayed close to him while he recovered on the couch. When he was home, Jeremy said he could feel himself making progress.
Big milestones in the beginning were walking to the end of the driveway to get the mail, and making his own coffee in the kitchen.
“Once I got back here with my animals, that’s when I started remembering, and things started to come back,” he said at his home during an interview.
When he came home after nearly two months in the hospital, Jeremy was down 30 pounds. He worked with a physical therapist and poured himself into regaining his strength. The therapist had Jeremy running and jumping, and he could do it.
His wife watched with amazement – and thankfulness.
“You keep fighting through, no matter what,” Jeremy said. “When I was doing the rehab, I would not quit.”
Jan. 7 – clearance
Jan. 7 was a monumental day for Jeremy and Amber. That day he went to the neurologist. Jeremy had made tremendous progress, getting back on his feet, regaining his strength and stamina.
He wanted clearance to do more, especially to drive again. The doctor was stunned by his progress and gave him clearance to do more.
“I was bawling,” Jeremy recalled after seeing the doctor that day. “I was shouting. That was a huge day.”
He could drive again, as long as there was someone in the vehicle with him.
It was a big thrill for him to drive about 3 miles from his home to the Walmart in Batavia. He has a membership at the Planet Fitness gym in Batavia. He appreciates getting a sweat after working out.
He walks into his kitchen and makes his own coffee and meals, and feels a deep sense of gratitude for his recovery.
“I feel like my life is coming back to me,” he said. “I feel like I can call myself normal.”
‘I appreciate life so much more’
Higgins, a 2010 Byron-Bergen graduate, graduated from the Ohio Technical College, becoming certified as a power sports technician. He has worked as a mechanic for snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVs. He worked as a technician for Harv’s Harley-Davidson in Macedon.
He is currently shadowing at a molding company in Gates, trying to ease back to work. He started that about a month ago and initially felt exhausted after a few hours. But now he can stay the whole shift. He is still early in his recovery, but is so thankful for his progress.
The couple acknowledges they have felt the gamut of emotions – sadness, anger and joy.
Jeremy has brought the same determination in being a top racer to his recovery.
“I saw this whole thing as a challenge,” Jeremy said. “You can choose to let it drag you down or you can buck up. I appreciate life so much more.”
Amber agrees. It was only about five months ago where doctors were very concerned about Jeremy’s condition and his prognosis.
Now, he is driving his wife out for dinner.
“It’s made us look at the little everyday things so much more,” she said.