Priestley, 32, emerged from the boat mishap unscathed, but last week the former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob came perilously close to running out of luck. While making a practice loop two hours before a 100-mile race at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta on Aug. 11, Priestley ramped up his open-wheel car to nearly its maximum speed of 180 mph. Heading into the second turn, the actor skidded—and crashed head-on into a wall. Unconscious, he was lifted from the car by a 15-member medical team and flown to the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington.
Priestley had started the day full of confidence after finishing second in a qualifying heat for the Infiniti Pro Series race. "Most oval drivers at some time just put their faith in a higher power that they're actually going to make it around the corner," he told ESPN.
He didn't make the corner, but Priestley's faith may have been justified: Despite a broken vertebra, a broken nose, broken bones in both feet and a concussion that caused temporary memory loss, the actor was declared alert and stable the next day. Within hours of the crash, Priestley's father, Lorne, 62, his sister Justine, 34, and 90210 pal Luke Perry, 35, arrived at his side—as did his British girlfriend, special-effects technician Naomi Lowde, 26, with whom he recently moved from his native Canada to the Hollywood Hills. (He split from his wife, makeup artist Ashlee Petersen, 32, in '99.) On Aug. 12 Priestley was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he will undergo surgery on his feet and spine. "His journey over the last 72 hours is amazing," Lowde told PEOPLE on Aug. 13. "He is going to get through this." Staff surgeon Scott Bjerke, who predicts Priestley will be released within three weeks, agrees: "He will heal up."
Priestley's racing colleagues aren't surprised by his resilience. "Jason's a very tough individual," says Jim Freudenberg, general manager of Kelley Racing, Priestley's team. Track officials discounted driver inexperience or error and focused their investigation on oil dry, a cat litter-like substance that drivers were alerted had been spread 10 minutes before Priestley's lap to soak up an oil spill. Fellow racers say Priestley has dealt with oil dry before. "It was simply an accident," Freudenberg says.
Some fans may perceive Priestley as an actor who dabbles in racing, but his track colleagues know better. "He's a legitimate racecar driver," says competitor Ronnie Johncox. "I would run wheel to wheel with him on any track." Earlier this month, says driver Gary Peterson, "Jason said that he put quite a bit of his acting career on hold. He said his goal was to run the Indianapolis 500 either next year or the year after."
Priestley has courted danger on and off the track. In Dec. '99 he totalled his Porsche when he crashed into a power pole in L.A. After Priestley pleaded no contest to drunk-driving charges, he spent five nights in jail, completed a three-month alcohol-counseling program and endured a yearlong suspension of his driver's license. Asked in April if his family worried about his safety, Priestley said with a laugh, "I think my parents gave up on that a long time ago. I got my first motorcycle when I was 16; everyone else got a car." Bungee jumping came next. Then, in 1991, Priestley began his love affair with car racing. After he left 90210 in '98, he made the occasional film, like 2000's Eye of the Beholder, while concentrating on the track. A color commentator for the Indy Racing League last year, he ventured into the new Infiniti Pro Series this spring.
Priestley says that his racing highs owe little to the thrill of feeling the wind on his face. "Everybody thinks it's about the speed, about going fast," he told PEOPLE. "For me it's about challenging myself to improve." Once he has healed, Priestley will likely hit the tarmac once more. "I've crashed a lot of racecars," he said in April. "That's part of racing."
Vickie Bane in Los Angeles, Angela T. Koenig, Trine Tsouderos and Le Datta Grimes in Lexington and Gary McKechnie in Miami