As Lyle Barnett lay in the hospital, recovering from burns sustained in an accident at the Lights Out VI event, he had no idea five years later he’d have an important date with destiny at South Georgia Motorsports Park, the multi-purpose facility located outside of Valdosta, Ga.
Two years earlier, an energetic and beautiful one-year-old toddler named Blake Neumann, was also in a burn center over 1,000 miles away being treated for burns sustained in a hot grease spill.
On February 14, 2020, their lives intersected in person for the first time. Credit Netflix with being the conduit to join two people with horrific experiences in life for a positive purpose.
“This time last year we were in California filming the final episode of the season for Fastest Car which kind of highlighted my story and talked about my comeback,” Barnett explained. “When it aired in September, obviously there was a lot of positive feedback. I got tons and tons of messages and phone calls, and texts and whatnot regarding the show.”
Dan Neumann and his son Blake were one of those who had watched the episode.
“Blake had just really kind of started expressing an interest in cars,” Dan explained. “We would be driving around, and he’s like, ‘oh look at that Corvette, dad. Oh, look at that Mustang, dad. Oh that’s, I bet you that’s a fast car dad.”
“He kind of started talking about them. So he’s kind of at that age where with sports and activities, and hobbies and interests, we’re just kind of, I think, letting him explore everything, and kind of seeing what sticks and kind of where that passion really starts to develop for him. So and because of his liking for fast cars and whatnot, we were browsing Netflix, and we had watched season one of Fastest Car.
“When season two came out, we watched that, and of course Lyle was featured on that one. So we watched his episode. Anybody who’s been through an experience of burns was pretty quickly able to identify what he had happen, and then, of course, he went into the details of it. And then, because of that, Blake has never really heard somebody else’s story.”
As Dan recalled, Blake had never really been comfortable about discussing his scars. Even though Blake had never met Barnett, it was evident the two bonded without ever having met.
Dan wasted little time in reaching out to Barnett.
“He was like one day we would like to meet you,” Barnett recalled. “And I said well, if we raced in Minnesota because that is where that Blake and his family are from, I said it would be awesome for you guys to come out to a race. And Dan immediately responded with it doesn’t have to be in Minnesota. We’ll travel anywhere. And the wheels started turning.”
It was then Barnett realized he had a date with destiny.
“We talked back and forth for a week or so, and the next thing I knew they had plane tickets booked, hotels booked, and a rental car ready and they’re coming to South Georgia,” Barnett said. “Now mind you, I’d never met this kid. I didn’t know these people at all. They had just reached out to me over Facebook.”
“I was down in Houston visiting a friend, and I got a text from Dan that said I have never seen Blake like this before,” recalled Mikki. “That just his reaction to Lyle and the cheering and stuff like that. So it was, and as Dan said, he’s never heard anybody else’s story before, so I think that his reaction was so profound.”
“Blake would not stop talking about him the whole night,” Dan added. “Just, ‘oh my God, do you think he’s going to win the final? We’ve got to keep watching so we can get to the final. Beer Money is an awesome car, that car’s so … Just the whole night, whole night talking about him, asking me yeah, can we find him? Can we find him online? Can we send him a message, or can you call him? And just kind of just would not let it drop.”
There was no denying this was an ordained moment the first time they met. It didn’t take long for Blake and Barnett’s scars to become part of the conversation.
“Blake is a very shy eight-year-old kid, and it took him a little while to warm up, much less show me his scars,” Barnett explained. “But it was something that fairly early, as we conversed there in the pit, was something that I ask him about.
“I’m like look, dude, look at my hands. There’s nothing wrong with these scars. They don’t prevent me from doing anything that I want to do day to day. They don’t prevent me from doing what I love, which is drag racing, and your scars shouldn’t prevent you from doing anything that you love either.”
As Barnett understood, those scars told a story. When Blake was only a little over 13 months, with dinner cooking in an electric skillet, he grabbed the cord of the appliance causing it to spill hot oil on him. The oil splashed on his face and arm. He suffered third-degree burns to 20-percent of his body. He suffered severe burns to his whole right arm, top of his hand, across kind of the collar line of his shirt, a significant portion of his right cheek and jawline.
Blake was hospitalized for three weeks while doctors worked to repair the damage.
“His cheek and his whole arm were grafted, and the spots underneath his chin and his chest, those were kind of thin burns,” Dan explained. “So instead of grafting all those, they actually removed that area and then took the two good sides of skin and sutured them together.”
Barnett understood the pain all too well. After all, Barnett experienced 28 seconds of direct exposure to the flames during his accident, which resulted in third-degree burns to 15-percent of his body.
Barnett spent two months at the JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., where he underwent numerous surgeries and skin grafts to repair the wounds.
“We talked more about how he was very shy and very self-conscious about them,” Barnett explained. “And I’m like, ‘Blake listen, dude, it is what it is, and those scars tell a story, and that story deserves to be told. And it’s nothing that you should be ashamed of. The good Lord left you here for a reason, and it’s not to cover those scars up and hide from them.”
At that moment, Barnett and Blake connected as only two burn victims could.
“One of the biggest fears for him is taking his shirt off in the hockey locker room when he’s changing clothes or whatever,” Barnett explained. “He goes and hides in the corner and doesn’t want people to see. And I’m like, Blake, ‘Screw that! Show off your muscles; it doesn’t matter. If those scars don’t keep you from playing hockey, they shouldn’t keep you from feeling comfortable in front of your friends.”
“And he doesn’t like to take his shirt off at the pool, and that’s just not the way that an eight-year-old kid like that should have to live. Regardless of what his body looks like, or what his scars look like, it’s something he should be proud of.”
From this point, Barnett admits there were no barriers.
“Since Blake and I started talking, and Blake has stood up in front of his class at school and talked about his injuries, and talked about his scars, and how now his scars are cool,” Barnett said with a smile. “And it’s a feel-good story. If it doesn’t make you feel good, there’s something wrong with you.”
There was a day when Barnett and his doctors didn’t see him surviving the accident, much less returning years later to be an inspiration to a young man who needed inspiration.
“I never thought that my story would reach out and touch the lives of people around the world,” Barnett said. “I’ve had people from literally all over the world, several continents, all different countries, reach out to me. And some of them obviously can’t even speak good English. They’re using a translator, and they’re typing a message on Instagram or on Facebook. And never in my wildest dreams did I see it impacting, or maybe even saving someone from doing the unthinkable. You just never know.
“Maybe my purpose and my reason for still being here is to help kids or people, or adults or teenagers or whoever like Blake who is having trouble overcoming the psychological side of having burn scars, or any type of scar. It’s just cool to see Blake kind of come out of his shell. And instead of being ashamed and hiding from his scars, to be proud of them.”
There was a time when Barnett wasn’t so much different than Blake.
“I was most worried about is exactly what Blake is worried about, is people’s perception of me in public,” Barnett admitted. “What was somebody going to say when they look at Lyle Barnett walking through the airport with his face all burned up and scarred up, and when they reached out to shake my hand, and it was all scarred up and felt funny?
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day I would stand in front of a group of people and speak about overcoming obstacles like this, and trusting in God’s plan. And then definitely didn’t envision seeing an eight-year-old kid who had been through what I had been through, and helping him to overcome what he’s been through, and be proud of the scars that he carries around every day.”
Dan and Mikki could only sit back and watch the interaction to see a blessing come forth in full force.
“I think it’s been really hard to put into words what the whole weekend meant for us,” Mikki said. “I think that seeing Blake with him, just instantly drawn to him, and Blake didn’t talk much over the weekend.”
“Lyle talked a lot of stuff to Blake, but Blake didn’t talk a whole lot,” Dan added. “But the minute we would see Lyle when we got there each day, he just would leave us and just go right and stand right in front of Lyle like, “Hi I’m here.”
The Neumanns couldn’t have asked for a better role model
“[Blake’s] eyes lit up, and he wanted to stay into the night and didn’t want to leave, and, ‘just let’s just watch one more race,” Dan recalled. “Let’s just watch him race one more time.”
“My heart literally felt like it was going to burst, because he was just so enthralled with this experience, and we’ve never seen him like that before.”
Barnett understood before he met Blake, and understands even more after the experience, the importance of always holding himself to a higher standard.
“There’s always somebody watching, and you don’t ever know who, you don’t ever know when, but I try to do my best to carry myself in the most professional manner,” Barnett said. “And then also, no matter what I’m going through, keep the lights on, and because you just don’t ever, as I said, you just don’t ever know.
“You don’t ever know who needs to hear you say that I’m pushing forward, or that this is what happened to me. And I’ve decided to, instead of laying down and feeling sorry for myself, I’ve gotten back on my horse. You never know what that means to somebody, and there may be people out there who have seen it and haven’t reached out. I feel as though, just judging by what people have said, and what the messages I’ve got, that my story and the things that I’ve decided to do with my story have helped, I don’t know, I don’t want to say thousands, but you never know. Hundreds? Ten? I don’t know, there’s, but it’s definitely been a positive feel for a lot of people out there.”
And for an eight-year-old kid named Blake with scars of his own, a weekend at the drag races with Lyle Barnett might have been the greatest healing measure ever.