I have been around race cars drivers for a long time. And in that time I have learned a lot of things about dudes that like to drive fast. Number one among those things is that race car drivers hate – I mean hell hate – getting out of the race car.
That’s what makes Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision to get out of the car last week at New Hampshire and possibly this week and Indianapolis such a big thing for NASCAR. For the second time in his career, Junior missed a race due to concussions symptoms that surfaced after crashes at Michigan on June 12 and Daytona on June 2.
“The symptoms that I have are balance and nausea,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the in his weekly podcast recorded Sunday night. “I’ve struggled with my balance over the last 4-5 days, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to drive a race car this weekend. Making the right decision really was out of the question; I made the decision I had to make.”
If he is not ready to go this week, Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement to pilot the No. 88 Chevy in the Brickyard 400. But Junior is hopeful to be back in the car, even though there is no timetable for his return.
“My mind feels real sharp,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I took the ImPACT tests, which measures thought process and the speed of your thought process, and memory and retaining memory, and my results matched my baseline, which made me feel confident that my brain was pretty sharp. It feels good.”
Like any athlete, NASCAR drivers operate with a certain sense of invincibility and there is a rub-a-little-dirt-on-it mentality that is instilled in kids when they start playing sports. And traditionally concussions have always been a weird thing for athletes. It’s why we are seeing a couple of generations of retired football players dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When you get a ding to the head, you suck it up and keep playing.
That’s the thing about concussions, it’s not an injury that you can see; no bruises or cuts or blood, so you must be OK. We lionize those who play through injury: Willis Reed in the 1970 NBA Finals, Jack Youngblood with the broken leg in the 1979 NFC Championship game, Ricky Rudd racing in the 1984 Daytona 500 with his eyelids duct taped open. It’s part of the ultra-macho culture of sports.
I have to commend Earnhardt Jr. and John Wes Townley (who is sitting out of his second truck race with concussion-like symptoms) for stepping up and doing the right thing. When I was a much younger man, I had my share of concussions from car accidents, swimming pools, wayward lug nuts and general clumsiness. For a few weeks afterward, I could barely drive a car on the street and could not imagine being behind the wheel of a race car at 200 miles per hour.
Nearly 10 years since the last one, I still have headaches and memory loss.
Despite our advanced medical and scientific knowledge, we still don’t know a whole lot about concussions and brain injuries. To that end, Earnhardt Jr. has pledged his brain for research upon his death. Former driver Fred Lorenzen made the same pledge this week.
Since Earnhardt Jr.’s first concussion-related absence, NASCAR has implemented a new protocol.
“NASCAR requires drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment such as an impact test. And again this are only one tool as a prerequisite for being licensed to compete,” said David Higdon, Vice President of NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications. “This mandate followed a comprehensive industry-wide education process launched by NASCAR in 2013.
“Additionally, NASCAR’s medical advisory group, a team of consulting physicians who work directly with the league on policy development, while regularly meeting with drivers to continue the education process, includes many leaders in the neurological field such as Dr. Vinay Deshmukh of the Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates.”
It’s great that NASCAR has taken steps to protect their most important assets against a lot of pressure from sponsors, fans and, I’m sure, TV partners. It’s a major ding for the sport to take a guy like Earnhardt Jr. from a race. He is a draw. People come to the racetrack to see him. But NASCAR and Junior realize that one hard hit right now and he is missing more than a couple of races. It could be the end of his career or worse.
And what does that post-racing life look like if you keep taking blow after blow to the noggin? We are seeing that harsh reality right now with NFL retirees. We don’t want to see our racing heroes end up like that.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column during the NASCAR season. He can be reached by email at [email protected]