Almost three weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. climbed out of his wrecked race car at Talladega after a late race wreck had ruined his day, ended his faint chances at a series title and apparently scrambled his brain. After suffering a concussion during the tire test at Kansas a few weeks earlier, and then a second one at Talladega, the most popular driver in NASCAR was left with a decision that no race car driver, or athlete for that matter, ever wants to have to face: his mortality. Suddenly, scary health news turned the iron will of a race car driver vulnerable, a future left shaky due to brain trauma that, if left untreated could leave a lifetime risk of permanent damage. So after taking that look in the mirror, Earnhardt decided to take the doctors’ advice and stay out of the car for at least two weeks. It was two of the longest weeks of his life, agony from the couch while having to watch someone else drive the No. 88. But in hindsight it was the right thing to do — for both Earnhardt and for the sport.
While facing the media Friday, during his first availability since he announced he was stepping out of the car, Earnhardt acknowledged he was scared, frustrated and bored out of his skull (no pun intended) during the last two weeks. Initially, he was told to not do anything mentally stimulating, so he spent a couple of days just wandering around the house. During his next appointment, he informed the doctors that they needed to find something he could do because he was going nuts doing nothing. Eventually, he took a trip to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Michael Collins, a renowned concussion expert. After some rigorous testing and a lot of questions and answers, Earnhardt went home feeling more positive about what was going on and what was going to happen in his short-term future.
Earnhardt stuck to the exercise regimen that he was assigned by Collins and, after a 125+ lap test at Gresham Motorsports Park on Monday, he was cleared to compete this weekend at Martinsville. Ticket sales for the race jumped, people around the sport sent congratulatory text messages, and Earnhardt prepared to get back to the sport he loves.
Not only is Earnhardt happy to be getting back into the car, the sport most certainly is glad that its most popular driver is going to be competing again this weekend. There are famous stories about Bill France and Bill France, Jr. calling drivers into the NASCAR trailer when they were misbehaving and reminding them that NASCAR was there before them and would be there after them. While that is also true of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., at a time when the sport is still trying to regain its foothold as the second most popular sport in the United States, Earnhardt’s presence on the race track is crucial. Having him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is equally important, even if he is hopelessly mired in 12th place in the standings. Similar to Tiger Woods in golf and Lebron James in basketball, Earnhardt Jr. moves the Nielsen needle when he is on the track. More people are in the stands when Earnhardt is racing and even more when he is competing successfully. Ticket sales and television ratings are the main focus of NASCAR and no one directly impacts both of those numbers like Earnhardt.
The long-term impact of the past couple of weeks could be far reaching and have multiple results. By getting out of the car for concussion symptoms, Earnhardt put a point of focus directly on head injuries in the sport. With the NFL facing a huge lawsuit over concussions, NASCAR has to be taking serious notice and developing a plan for how to deal with the health of its drivers and specifically their gray matter. The sanctioning body is looking at updating its concussion policy to include baseline testing. NASCAR is one of the few major motorsports sanctioning bodies that does not require it at this point in time. Thanks to Earnhardt’s honesty and genuine concern for his well-being, drivers in the future may be safer.
Earnhardt admitted that his latest concussion scared him. His concussion at Kansas was a typical frontal lobe concussion, but the one that occurred at Talladega was completely different. It was centered at the base of the skull, where it meets the spine, and had a dramatic effect on his emotions and anxiety. That anxiety led to him reaching out to Dr. Collins and allowed him to get all of the answers he needed to feel comfortable getting back into the car.
The location of the second concussion most likely added extra concern to Earnhardt’s situation because his famous father died from a basal skull fracture. While searching online reveals no mention of fractures of that type being hereditary, it had to weigh heavily on his mind. But Earnhardt says that, even if he has more concussions in the future, they will not force him to retire. He expects to race another five to ten years, whether he has another concussion or not; however, he’ll be more open and honest about any injuries he receives with the authorities in NASCAR. This time, he has clearly learned his lesson about the danger of not reporting head injuries to the proper authorities.
Racing is Earnhardt’s career vocation and he was feeling completely out of sorts the last 15 days. Now that he has been cleared, he’s hoping the focus returns to the racetrack and not his past, present and future health. But similar to how his famous father’s death changed the safety of NASCAR racing forever, Earnhardt’s own plight could equally affect the lives of drivers for the future of auto racing. NASCAR is trying hard to regain popularity. If they implement a new baseline program to make drivers safer, it can only enhance their product even more. While drivers dying in the sport has become a far rarer event since that fateful day in 2001, the sport is still a natural risk, with high speeds causing drivers to put their lives on the line every time they take to the racetrack. So let’s hope that a new and improved concussion policy will help keep that tragedy-free string alive for years to come.
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