KENNEWICK -- Watching Scotty Pierce work on his Grand Prix hydroplane this weekend, you would never know he was in a wheelchair two years ago.
Pierce, the 1991 national unlimited hydroplane champion in the Miss Budweiser, had started his unlimited career in 1981. But years of crashes and hard hits added up to excruciating back pain. He was coping with nerve damage and four herniated discs.
In March 2009, Pierce's Woodinville boat shop, alongside his and wife Sue's home, burned down after a heater malfunctioned. The physical work Pierce performed to rebuild the shop pushed him to the edge. He couldn't lie down, instead he had to sleep in a chair.
Orthopedic surgeon Jay Williams put Pierce in the 1 percent pain category.
"Only 1 percent of people have ever been in the pain you've been in," Pierce recalled Williams saying.
Yet, the surgeon thought he could get Pierce back on his feet and back into racing.
Pierce left hydroplane racing in 2001 to focus on his business and was a sprint car racer from 1998-2008. But racing was the last thing on Pierce's mind. He wanted to do something, anything, to stop the pain.
"I'd wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, and my wife would run in with a bottle of pain pills and a glass of whiskey," Pierce said.
On June 15, 2009, Pierce had the surgery, known as a laminectomy. The procedure, in which part of the vertebral bone -- the lamina -- was removed, released pressure on his nerves.
Three days after the operation, Pierce left the hospital and was able to walk out the door.
The next month, Pierce, with stitches still in his back, was in the Tri-Cities for the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup and, his wife said, was greeted as a returning celebrity.
Seeing the boats on the Columbia River stoked his competitive fire, but how he would keep it burning didn't become clear until he watched his friend Mark Evans race later that year on Lake Chelan in a Grand Prix hydroplane.
"They went and took off, and they were so cool and so fast. I said, 'You know, I think I'd like to have one of those,' " he said.
Pierce partnered with Larry Garcia of RCL Motorsports to buy a GP hydroplane, and in April 2010, the RCL team debuted in the Grand Prix West series in Moses Lake.
He was behind the wheel of the GP-99, and he has remained there since. He's ranked fifth in the American Power Boat Association Grand Prix standings.
Though he still has some disc trouble, Pierce, 55, is otherwise healthy. He has no pain in the boat, largely thanks to his full containment seat, "the best money can buy," he said.
But he owes perhaps the biggest part of his recovery to Williams, who died in February 2010, less than a year after operating on Pierce.
"I miss him a lot," he said. "He saved my life, literally."