Bailey’s first career comeback was kick- started in 1994 when ESPN hired him to do color commentary with longtime colleague Art Eckman for supercross races. He threw himself into the gig, learning the ins and outs of the television-production business while also coaching riders.
Always ready for a new challenge, Bailey discovered one of the most brutal competitions in sports: the Ironman triathlon, considered by many to be the ultimate test of endurance. Founded in 1978 in Hawaii by a group of former Navy SEALs, the event, an all-day masochistic test -- 2.4 miles of swimming through ocean waves, 112 miles of biking, and a full 26.2-mile marathon along rugged lava-covered coastal terrain -- draws nearly 2,000 participants. Paraplegics like Bailey use a three-wheel handcycle for the bike ride and then switch to a three-wheel racing wheelchair for the marathon.
“Ironman is something that gets your attention,” he says. “It’s one of the quickest ways to prove to yourself that you can go through hard times and get results and capture what you’re after.”
His first serious effort in 1998 yielded a third-place finish in the triathlon’s wheelchair division. He finished second in 1999, the same year he was elected to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. And in 2000, at one of the Ironman’s most memorable wheel-to-wheel competitions, he triumphed over former SEAL Carlos Moleda, who had won the event the previous two years.
“It’s something that I had put to bed, closed the book on. I went out on top with nothing more to prove,” Bailey says. “Then, I went through hell.”
After his Ironman appearances, Bailey trained less but traveled more. Eventually, the combination took its toll on his body, and by 2006, his system was in shock. On Valentine’s Day of that year, Bailey took up an offer to ride again. His friend and fellow paraplegic, 18-year-old Ricky James, had created a motocross bike specially designed for paraplegics and had tested it out at Lake Elsinore, California. The ride was a real rush for Bailey, but he became sick afterwards from a pressure sore becoming infected, which led to surgeries that left Bailey lying face down in his bed for over a year. “I was closer to dying than I was to living,” he says, remembering. “I really didn’t want to live at one point, I felt so bad. I was ready to throw my arms up, but my family and friends wouldn’t let me.”
As Bailey had no insurance to pay his daunting medical bills, the industry he so loved came to his aid by raising $100,000 to defray medical costs and his mortgage payments. Slowly, Bailey recovered. First, he moved from his bed to a wheelchair. Then, he made it into the swimming pool to rebuild his upper-body strength. When he was able to get out and drive again, he landed a job at Italian protective clothier Alpinestars in nearby Torrance, California. Bailey also rejoined the TV booth, thanks to a call from Davey Coombs, vice president of MX Sports, which runs the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship.