By Aaron Waldron
For the vast majority of those who will ever pick up a radio, operating an RC car is a hobby. Whether it’s a basic toy store monster truck or a highly-tuned racing machine, RC cars provide a short escape from the stress of real life. For 32-year-old Matt Gerald of Hortonville, WI, racing RC cars was a way to get back to what he loved after his life changed forever.
Short course off-road racing was in Gerald’s blood. His father, Curt, was an avid buggy racer throughout Matt’s childhood and won several championships. “I’ve been around off-road racing my whole life,” said Gerald, “and even as I was growing up I always wanted to race.” He got his chance at just 17 years old, when he started racing buggies full-time.
It was around the same time when he discovered RC racing, as well.
“I got started racing RC cars when I was in high school,” said Matt, “I was working at a local hobby store in Appleton, where I grew up, called Galaxy Hobby. My first car was a Team Associated RC10B3 with a Trinity Speed Gem motor and Novak Rooster ESC.” Gerald raced at the local outdoor track during the summer, which was the only off-road track within 50 miles of his house. To keep enjoying his new hobby during the cold winter months, Gerald picked up a stadium truck - a Team Associated RC10T3 - to race on carpet with foam tires. Eventually, he picked up a 1/12-scale pan car for indoor carpet racing and competed with his B3 and T3 vehicles during the summer months. “I’ve always been an Associated guy,” said Matt. Gerald alternated between carpet racing in the winter and off-road racing during the summer for about 4 or 5 years before hanging up his transmitter. “I needed money to build a new race car,” said Matt, “so I had to sell my R/C stuff.”
Matt (right) with his father Curt at Dirt Heaven.
The decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and stick with racing full-size off-road cars was an easy one - Gerald quickly found success behind the wheel of a 1600-class light buggy, amassing a total of 25 wins in his career while competing in the now-defunct CORR and WSORR series as well as the TORC championship.
Photo: RaceOne Online
Gerald first got the chance to fulfill his dream of racing a Pro-Lite truck for the first time when the WSORR series visited his home track in Oshkosh, WI in 2008, and he was asked to fill in for his hero - Jeff Kincaid. Gerald earned fifth and seventh place finishes that weekend, preserving Kincaid’s championship points lead. “That race was really special,” said Matt. Kincaid went on to win the title that season, and the WSORR folded after just two years.
The upward trend continued for Gerald after that race, including back-to-back World Championships at Crandon International Off-Road Raceway in Wisconsin, the most famous closed course track in off-road racing called “The Big House.” “My most memorable win was my first world championship, in 2009,” said Matt, “because it was like getting a huge monkey off my back. That race always seemed to haunt me, and I’d have the strangest things happen. That year, I came out of the first turn in second place and was in the lead by the end of lap one - I checked out and won by five seconds.”
Photo: RaceOne Online
While Gerald’s racing career was skyrocketing upward, he also returned to RC racing in 2010 - right in the middle of the short course truck craze. “I bought an SC10 and started racing at several tracks. It really was a lot of fun, and I met a ton of awesome people.” One of the friends Gerald made while racing his SC10 was Brad Geck, who manages promotions and social media at Team Associated.
It’s not that he had much time to dedicate to RC racing. Gerald’s 2009 and 2010 world championships, as well as a strong 2011 campaign, landed him a full-time seat in a Pro-Lite truck in 2012. “I was racing for a smaller team against the top-level organizations that have near-unlimited funding,” said Matt, “and we didn’t have much testing time.” He finished 11th at the season opener in Charlotte, NC, before heading to the famous Red Bud MX track in Buchanan, MI, for round two - where his truck, and his world, came crashing to the ground.
Photo: RaceOne Online
On May 23, 2012, Gerald was pushing his truck to its limit while running in fourth during qualifying at Red Bud. “I went too big over a step-up and crashed into the next jump at an extreme angle,” said Matt. The impact broke Gerald’s T12 and L1 vertebrae. He was transported to a a spinal injury specialty hospital in South Bend, Indiana, where he was in surgery for ten hours. After the surgery, Gerald endured a grueling ten-day stay. “I lost a lot of muscle mass from being bed-ridden,” said Matt, “and it was super hot because the air conditioning didn’t work. I didn’t get out of my bed or leave the room at all. It was just miserable.”
Gerald received plenty of support from the off-road racing community, however. TORC racers Todd LeDuc, Chad Hord, Casey Currie, Rick Johnson, and the Kincaid and Greaves teams all checked in on him. “It was really cool to hear from Trey Canard and Ryan Hughes as well,” said Matt, “and all of the visits from everyone really meant a lot to me.” Both Gerald’s TORC and RC friends organized several benefit events to help him financially, which was important because Gerald wasn’t able to work - and he was having a difficult time getting signed up for state disability insurance. “Jeff Slegers, Andy Zipperer and so many more were such an incredible help,” said Matt, “and I can’t thank them enough.”
Matt and Allison got to meet Trey Canard for the first time at the Phoenix Supercross in 2013.
Even with so many friends and family members reaching out to offer help and encouragement, Gerald’s time in the Indiana hospital was rough. “Being stuck in bed was very depressing,” said Matt, “and it wasn’t until I got to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago that they got me out of bed and got me moving.”
Gerald stayed at RIC for three months, and he didn’t have to look far to find inspiration to push himself to get better. “I remember meeting an Air Force veteran in his 70s that had fallen and broken his neck, and he was out-working everyone in the hospital,” said Matt, “and I realized that I was far more lucky, breaking my lower back and having an incomplete spinal cord injury. I put my head down and went to work - I was the first one up and ready for physical therapy every morning.” Gerald felt a special connection with his main therapist, Martha, as well as the head nurse, Sonia. “They were so supportive of me,” said Matt.
Using a harness suspended from a track on the ceiling, the therapists at RIC taught Gerald how to walk again. He pushed himself further every day, eventually graduating from the ceiling harness to a walker as his strength improved. Toward the end of his full-time stay, after being able to complete laps around the hospital, several of his occupational therapists took him for walks outside. “It was pretty cool to check out the city and eat all kinds of good food.”
After his three-month stay at RIC, Gerald returned to Wisconsin and entered outpatient physical therapy four days a week for two years. He also had a surprise gift waiting for him. “Brad Geck and Cliff Lett both found out about my injury,” said Matt, “and they sent me a 1/8-scale buggy kit while I was in the hospital. It was waiting for me when I got home, and it was really nice to get back into my race shop and build something.” Geck has continued to be a huge help with Gerald’s RC program since.
Gerald made the most of his ongoing physical therapy, setting goals and pushing himself. “I kept fighting to build my strength and endurance, because I wanted to get back to spending time with my family.” Gerald returned to coaching his nephew’s basketball team, and is helping his stepson, Levi, improve in sports as well. “I’m very proud of the athlete he’s becoming. He’s a natural on the basketball court. We enjoy shooting hoops in the driveway and playing baseball in the backyard,” said Matt. Gerald made it clear that it wasn’t all about hard work, however. “Levi, Allison and I spend a lot of time doing as much fun stuff as possible,” Matt said.
The crash did nothing to deter Gerald from racing again, either. “I always had a goal to get back to racing if my doctors said it was okay,” said Matt, who was cleared by both his doctors as well as USAC officials last August. After his first test, it was clear that his buggy needed some modification to the seat and cockpit. “Mike Vanden Heuvel spent two weeks designing a new cockpit to help me use the limited strength I have in my hips and ankles to the best of by abilities, and getting the padding right.” Throughout the fall, Gerald burned up a lot of fuel and tires at the practice track to get reacquainted with driving at the limit. “It wasn’t a hard decision to start racing again after talking with my doctors. We got an ISP seat and Simpson safety gear, the best stuff on the market, and that was reassuring to both my mom and me.” After driving around tracks on his own, Gerald tried practicing in a group of other vehicles. “After the first test session with other cars and I got roosted, I knew I’d be okay,” Matt said. His finished fourth in his first race back on the track and that solidified his resolve to pursue racing full-time.
Shortly after making the choice to get back in the driver’s seat, Gerald contacted fellow Wisconsin RC racer Brandon Rohde about partnering with LiveRC. “I asked him for more information, and it seemed like a mutually beneficial opportunity - LiveRC gets more exposure to a growing crossover of off-road racing fans who are getting into RC, and we get to help an RC racer get back to doing what he loves.”
Photo: Cheynesaw Social Media
Gerald is continuing to race RC cars regularly as well. “I’ve raced a few bigger races at Trackside and Leisure Hours, but most of my time at the track is just for club races,” said Matt, “I race for fun and try not to take it too seriously because full-scale racing takes so much of my attention and funds. Sure, I’d love to race RC all over and sink tons of money into it, but with my family schedule it’s hard to dedicate more than one night a week to RC even though I enjoy it so much! I plan on doing the Crandon off-road RC series this summer and returning to indoor racing after Labor Day with my B5M and, hopefully, a new SC5M.” Along with LiveRC, Gerald’s RC sponsors include Team Associated, JConcepts, and Shearer It Designs.
While Gerald has recovered well from the accident, it left a profound impact on every aspect of his life. “My outlook is so different,” said Matt, ”I'm enjoying other things in life besides racing, and not taking things for granted. When you've been through a serious injury like I have you really look at life differently and try not to sweat the small things, because it could be worse! I just look at the people I spent time with in the hospital and they might have it worse then me psychically, but they all had good attitudes, were really positive, and encouraged me to get back to racing. I know I might not be able to run any more but I can still enjoy 90% of the things I did before the accident.”
Like anyone who suffers similar trauma, Gerald credits his close network of friends and family for helping him through such a difficult time. “My biggest supporters have been my family - my mom basically took four months off of work to be with me every step of the way,” said Matt, “along with the Gilson family, my good friends Mikey Vanden Heuvel, Chad Rayford, Matt Ashauer, Tyler Wians, Travis Fritz, the Hill family and, lastly, my racing family. I can't thank them enough.”
Gerald’s next race is at Bark River International Raceway in Bark River, MI, on August 15-16.
Photo: RaceOne Online