The Frontstretch: Professor Of Speed: A Difficult Lesson To Learn by Mark Howell -- Thursday October 18, 2012

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Professor Of Speed: A Difficult Lesson To Learn

Mark Howell · Thursday October 18, 2012

 

It’s all-too-common knowledge that men hate going to the doctor. The thought of turning heads, coughing, getting shots, and any procedure involving rubber gloves can transform a chronic ailment into a mere nuisance. Men often downplay their health complaints until the pain/illness/swelling/oozing cannot be ignored. If the patient seeks help promptly, his potentially-dangerous problem can be diagnosed and corrected. If the patient waits too long, his minor condition can quickly turn into a major concern.

Lucky for NASCAR Nation that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. paid attention to his symptoms last week following the wreckfest at Talladega. Lingering headaches gave way to concern that something was amiss, especially in the aftermath of a hard impact at Kansas several weeks ago during a tire test. A visit to Dr. Jerry Petty’s office revealed the nature of Junior’s headaches: he was suffering from the effects – yet again – of a concussion.

Concussions have been in the news lately. Most notably, the condition popped up on sports pages following the death of Alex Karras, the all-pro defensive lineman who spent a decade with the Detroit Lions. In the days prior to Karras’ passing, it was widely reported that he suffered from both cancer and dementia, although it was kidney failure that ended his life on October 10th.

Alex Karras had been – according to his widow, actress Susan Clark, in an interview with ESPN.com shortly before his death – “formally diagnosed with dementia several years ago”, and had symptoms for more than a dozen years.” Repeated collisions on the football field were being blamed for Karras’ “long-term decline”, which prompted him to become one of “many former NFL players suing the league regarding the treatment of head injuries”.

Similar tragic stories appear on our sports pages every now and then – the situation of a former NFL player who suddenly attacks his girlfriend or wife, or the report of a football player whose bouts with depression and confusion cause him to take his own life. The same kinds of dementia haunt professional boxing, as well.

So why don’t we read such stories about dementia in NASCAR? Dale Earnhardt, Jr. suffers from a concussion, which is a traumatic injury to the head like those experienced by NFL linemen and professional fighters, yet he’s not out there lurching around his backyard Western town looking to strangle his girlfriend…. A couple weeks off and he’ll be as right as rain, right? I mean…. Junior’s suffered from concussions before – he’s even raced multiple weeks with one – and he’s always bounced back to find Victory Lane; the plight of an NFL defensive lineman is nothing like the safety measures protecting stock car drivers, so what’s the big deal?

What’s the big deal? Try everything.

Public pressure following media coverage of head injuries in professional football and hockey has put everyone in-and-around contact sports on high alert. College and high school sports have done likewise in an effort to reduce incidences of head trauma. Medical research is being conducted (and published) to address all manner of danger, damage, and prevention. “Concussions” have taken their rightful place alongside “steroids” as the latest, most recognized sports taboo.

I’m sure Lance Armstrong would like it if news about concussions bumped news about doping scandals off the sports pages. Maybe these recent events will do just that….

The funny thing is that automobile racing – for all of its high-speed impacts and subsequent wreckage – is often ignored as a viable threat for what the medical community calls “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or CTE. According to research from 2009, the connection between brain/head injury and dementia can be traced back to the 1920s, the era when boxers were prone to suffer from what was then called “dementia pugilistica”. Today, the condition is known as CTE, and it occurs far more often than most people imagine.

Regan Smith was tapped to drive the No. 88 at Charlotte this weekend, after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was found to have suffered a second concussion the week prior at Talladega.

According to researchers, between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the United States each year (from data covering the period of 1998-2006). Developments in assessment, treatment, and prevention have likely (and hopefully) caused this number to shrink, but even one seemingly minor diagnosis of CTE is one diagnosis too many. It might be a good idea, however, to pay closer attention to the sports researchers have singled out as being primary causes of CTE.

As one of these recently-published research articles explained it:

Repetitive closed head injury occurs in a wide variety of contact sports, including football, boxing, wrestling, rugby, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and skiing. Furthermore, in collision sports such as football and boxing, players may experience thousands of subconcussive hits over the course of a single season…. Although the long-term neurological and neuropathological sequelae associated with repetitive brain injury are best known in boxing, pathologically verified CTE has been reported in professional football players, a professional wrestler and a soccer player…. Other sports associated with a post-concussive syndrome include hockey, rugby, karate, horse riding, and parachuting, although the list is almost certainly more inclusive. (published in “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy following Repetitive Head Injury”, 2009)

In other words, we should probably add automobile racing and/or motorsports to our catalog of culprits….

To better understand how concussions and their long-term effects have affected NASCAR, we only have to consider the tragic tale of LeeRoy Yarbrough.

LeeRoy Yarbrough, as presented in a Car and Driver article written by Steven Cole Smith back in October of 2008, was the quintessential old-school NASCAR driver. It was as if he’d been born solely to race cars. He grew up in a working class neighborhood in Florida and advanced his career by competing on local short tracks and in NASCAR’s Modified division. His natural ability was discovered at Hickory Speedway by Junior Johnson, who observed LeeRoy behind the wheel and suggested to car owner Ray Fox that he quickly snatch up the young talent, which Fox did.

LeeRoy Yarbrough drove more than stock cars, however. He also raced Can-Am cars, a Mercury Cougar in Trans-Am events for Bud Moore, and USAC Champ Cars in three Indianapolis 500s. Yarbrough competed against the likes of Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney, while going fender-to-fender with Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Fred Lorenzen (who appears to be yet another victim of head injury-related dementia, according to a recent column by Tom Higgins).

Yarbrough raced Cup cars for twelve years (mostly during the 1960s) and scored 14 wins in 198 career starts. After winning two events in the years of 1964 and 1968, LeeRoy experienced a stellar season in 1969. During that year, he swept races at Daytona and Darlington while driving Fords and Mercurys for Junior Johnson. He also earned victories at Charlotte (where he lapped the field twice in the World 600), Atlanta (where he drove with a 102-degree fever), and Rockingham (where he lapped the field after problems earlier in the event). By the end of the 54-race, 1969 Grand National season, LeeRoy Yarbrough had won seven times in his thirty starts. He earned Driver of the Year honors, and also won NASCAR’s “Triple Crown” for his collective victories at Daytona and Darlington.

LeeRoy Yarbrough was one of the top factory Ford and Mercury factory backed drivers of the late 1960s, becoming the first to win NASCAR’s Triple Crown of the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and World 600 in 1969. The after effects of multiple concussions led to his untimely passing in 1984.

The 1969 season also demonstrated Yarbrough’s checkers-or-wreckers approach to racing. Richard Petty once said that LeeRoy had only one speed, and that was “wide open…. just ran flat-out lap after lap”. For the thirty starts Yarbrough made that year, thirteen wound up DNFs, mostly because of engine failures or accidents. Such on-track experiences may have led to the off-track events that resulted in his eventual downfall.

One of the most significant on-track experiences was a violent accident Yarbrough suffered during a tire test at Texas World Speedway in the spring of 1970. From that time on, LeeRoy seemed different to those who knew him. Yarbrough became absent-minded and confused about even the most basic things, like his friends and family. He ran only 19 races that season because of decreased factory support and sponsorship, although he managed to score a win at Charlotte. Overall, 1970 was anything but a good year for LeeRoy Yarbrough, especially coming on the heels of his amazing 1969 campaign.

1971 wasn’t any better for Yarbrough. In addition to a serious practice wreck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, LeeRoy suffered a tick bite while on a camping trip. The tick bite turned into a case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which – if left untreated – has been known to affect the brain. From that point on, through the remainder of the decade, Yarbrough continued to slide into confusion and ever-increasing dementia.

Personally, I remember hearing about Yarbrough’s struggles during this time and how his bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever supposedly led to the night in February of 1980 when he tried to strangle his mother to death. His words to her were simple and clear: “Mother, I hate to do this to you….”

Steven Cole Smith reported in his story about Yarbrough that it took a sharp blow to the head from a nephew wielding a full jelly jar to stop LeeRoy from choking his mother. Such an action was necessary since other measures were not working, but such an action was also more of the same injury that led Yarbrough to that tragic state.

As such, LeeRoy Yarbrough had exhibited traits of dementia all during the decade of the 1970s, demonstrating “violent tendencies, memory lapses, and irrational conduct” according to Smith’s 2008 article. Junior Johnson told of how LeeRoy would need to be reminded to eat, even though a plate of food had just been placed before him. Years of prior head injuries (and most likely concussions) from racing had taken their toll on Yarbrough.

LeeRoy was eventually found not guilty of first-degree attempted murder by way of insanity. His failing condition resulted in his being placed in a mental hospital near his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. This was where he died after having a seizure and suffering yet one final head injury in December of 1984.

Yarbrough’s last seizure supposedly resulted in additional traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition brought on by – as LeeRoy’s former car owner Ray Fox once put it – “just too many crashes”.

It’s the correlation connecting my memories of LeeRoy Yarbrough, the events surrounding Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Alex Karras, and details provided by Steven Cole Smith’s article that links all this frightful information together. The moral of the story here is simple: if the symptoms of concussions are ignored, and if proper assessment and treatment is neglected, a long-term result could be life-threatening dementia. This condition is serious and all-too-common within the culture of high-contact sports, and there’s no doubt that automobile racing needs to be counted as a primary cause of CTE.

But have we not grown complacent about the dangers of stock car racing? Cars in all of NASCAR’s touring divisions are required to include an extensive array of safety measures, including cockpits that are packed tightly with padded roll bars and state-of-the-art seats, all surrounded by energy-absorbing foam encased in sheet metal.

Sure, the era of LeeRoy Yarbrough and Fred Lorenzen was a different time – the days when speed and safety weren’t necessarily joined at the hip in the eyes of NASCAR. Accidents at Talladega during the 1960s and 1970s were much different than the ones we see today; those wrecks back in the day were far more violent and far more dangerous…. Or were they?

When my wife saw in-car footage from Earnhardt’s Chevrolet during the Talladega wreck, her immediate response was: “That didn’t look so bad. He was injured in that?”

We know now that it was not the Talladega accident that prompted Junior’s visit to Dr. Jerry Petty. His trip to Petty’s office was motivated by the lingering headaches that stemmed back to Earnhardt’s tire test accident at Kansas over a month ago. A visit to the doctor was the right thing to do, even if Petty’s recommendation caused Junior to miss two races and end his run for this year’s Sprint Cup championship.

Maybe if LeeRoy Yarbrough paid more attention to his symptoms, he’d have been able to avoid his eventual tragic demise. If his family, his fellow racers, an alert doctor, or even NASCAR had been more aware of concussions and their dangers, perhaps Yarbrough’s tale would have had a happy ending. His “official” cause of death was cited as the result of traumatic brain injury (TBI), but I fail to see much difference between what used to be considered TBI and what doctors today define as CTE.

The dangerous connection between the two seems as obvious as ABC…

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pepper
10/18/2012 10:03 AM
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Thank you for promoting awareness of the concussion issue. Often times, we don’t know what we don’t know. NASCAR must be proactive in this or they may one day be the focus of a lawsuit like the NFL is now.

Carl D.
10/18/2012 10:52 AM
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Thanks for the excellent article. I had forgotten about LeeRoy’s tragic story. When it comes to safety, it’s up to the drivers to take care of themselves. The tragedies that can result from ignoring the risks to a driver’s health and future well-being aren’t worth any amount of personal glory.

Brian in Portland
10/19/2012 03:05 AM
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Thanks for this story remembering LeeRoy. After hating his guts in ’69 (Glotzbach/Mopar fan) it was very sad to get what little news you could about his decline in the early 80’s. Junior Johnson once said “you could put his brains on the head of a pin, but it would take a boxcar to contain his bravery.” RIP LRY. For a time, he truly was “the man.”