Driven to Win

After beating cancer, pro driver Joe Bacal
enlists Lexus to continue the fight—on
the off-road racing circuit.

I’m working at this huge automotive tradeshow back in November of 2006. It’s four days long and requires lots of walking. Normally I’m a pretty energetic guy, but for some reason I was having a really hard time getting around. I was only 37. Healthy and fit. I run competitively and go mountain biking, but all of a sudden it was like I had zero energy.

That’s when I knew something wasn’t right. This wasn’t like your typical flu. It just felt different. Your body tells you these things.

Two weeks and several doctor appointments later, I went in to get my test results. I had a golf-ball-sized tumor in my throat and another one in my chest that was pushing against my lungs. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. If I didn’t get treatment soon, the doctor said, I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday.

Bottom line: If I was to have any chance of living, I needed to get chemotherapy and radiation. Fortunately, I came across Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a talented organization that specializes in cancer. So that’s where I decided to go.

I took time off from my job working as a factory test driver for Toyota and Lexus and started treatment on New Year’s Day. For the next four months I had chemotherapy every other week, and then a whole month of radiation.

I wasn’t doing so hot. Crazy things go through your mind. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and say to myself, Am I really going to make it to see next year?

But I’m very driven and focused. As a professional driver, you obviously have to be that way. You’ve got to get to the finish. You have no choice. My wife was a fantastic caregiver, and my son too. You really can’t do it alone. Eventually I started to have about three good days every two weeks.

By November, the doctors cleared me. They did all the scans. All the tests. But it didn’t really hit me until later that month when I was driving 70 mph through the desert in the middle of the night, racing on a team in Mexico’s Baja 1000. I thought, if I’m racing in one of the toughest off-road races in the world, I must be okay. It was like a slap in the face. I really did it. I beat cancer.

I loved my job, but life is short and I decided it was time to do my own thing. So I opened a consulting company, JT Grey Performance Driving, and I started building my own racing team.

I talked with Cancer Treatment Centers of America and Lexus, and they both jumped on board as team sponsors. We set out to build a phenomenal, race-ready Lexus LX 570, and in June 2009 we raced in the Baja 500, also one of the most dangerous off-road races in the world. It was the first time Lexus had ever been involved in off-road racing. And we won!

At first, some people thought a luxury SUV doesn’t belong in off-road racing. But we’ve changed their minds. We’re still winning races and have a good shot at the off-road championship.

Along the way, I’ve realized there are so many similarities between off-road racing and beating cancer. Off-road racing is extreme. There’s stuff being thrown at you constantly. You can’t make it without the help of your pit crew, and you’ve got to take the wheel and take control even while everything around you is falling apart.

Beating cancer actually made me a better driver. I’m more driven and focused now than ever before. And I’m out to prove that I have the endurance to win.