NASCAR Needs Concussion Protocol

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By Ryan Isley

Where do we go from here?

That has to be the question on the minds of those in charge at NASCAR after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced last Thursday that he would be sitting out two races due to suffering his second concussion in five weeks after the wreck on the final lap at Talladega.

It would stand to reason that NASCAR would need to make sure they have plenty of precautions in place to make sure that drivers are not driving while suffering the effects of a concussion, as Earnhardt, Jr. did after sustaining the first one during a tire test at Kansas at the end of August. Much like the NFL, it may have taken this injury and consequences to open their eyes about the safety of their athletes.

For the NFL, it came under scrutiny last season when Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns was allowed to go back into a game just a few plays after being hit on a helmet-to-helmet blow by James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers. McCoy was never tested for a concussion on the sidelines and told coaches he was good to go to return to the game and the coaches took him at his word.

After it was revealed that McCoy did sustain a concussion, the NFL instituted a new protocol forcing all teams to have a certified athletic trainer in the press box to help monitor head injuries in the league.

It makes you wonder if NASCAR will take any similar precautions considering that Earnhardt, Jr. was allowed to walk away from a hard crash in testing at Kansas and get back into a car without any clearance from medical personnel. Earnhardt, Jr. even admitted that he never saw a doctor about the concussion after the Kansas wreck when he talked to the media on Thursday.

“I didn’t see anybody at Kansas,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “I regret not seeing somebody after that happened. I was stubborn, and I’d had concussions before and knew what I was — thought I knew what I was dealing with and felt like that I was capable of doing my job.”

The decision to get back into a car at that point was left up to Earnhardt, Jr. without any doctors being involved. Leaving that choice up to the driver – especially with the Chase right around the corner – is not what NASCAR should be doing. As Earnhardt, Jr. said, he wasn’t willing to “volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car.”

It is one thing for a driver like Earnhardt, Jr. to admit that he might need to be out of the car, as he knows that when he is healthy the ride is right back in his hands. The decision for top tier drivers like Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, etc. to take themselves out of the car if the situation calls for it might not be as difficult because there isn’t any threat of them losing their ride if they miss a couple of weeks.

Drivers who are not in that top tier, however, are another story. These guys feel the need to be in the car each and every week because if they were to miss a race, they could end up losing their car for good.

 

This is where NASCAR needs to step in and have some sort of protocol in place for any driver who is involved in a wreck to be checked for a concussion before allowing them to get back behind the wheel. NASCAR needs to take the decision out of the hands of their drivers and teams when it comes to injuries such as concussions because drivers are going to be too stubborn to admit that they shouldn’t be in the car. It took Earnhardt, Jr. two concussions in five weeks to decide that he needed to get checked.

As it is now, if a driver can drive away from the wreck, there is nothing in place that forces the driver to be checked out at the infield care center. A driver could roll away and not even know he is suffering from a concussion and without any medical attention, they may never realize what happened. Even if a driver is taken to the infield care center, it is not mandatory that the driver be checked for a concussion.

While NASCAR needs to put something in place, it will still also come down to the drivers being honest with the doctors because sometimes concussions are not easily detected without the symptoms being revealed by the individual who is suffering.

“90 percent of a concussion probably depends on individual information,” Dr. Jerry Petty – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s neurologist – said last Thursday. “By and large it’s the history that the patient gives is the thing that tells you that they’ve had a concussion.”

NASCAR needs to make it clear to the drivers exactly what is at stake should they get behind the wheel when suffering from any symptoms of a concussion. All drivers know the inherent risks they are taking week in and week out on a normal basis but those risks go up exponentially when there isn’t something right in their head. All it would take is an instant of the driver losing concentration because of the concussion for a disaster to occur.

No matter how many safety precautions NASCAR puts in place with the cars or the tracks, the fear of serious danger always lurks around each corner during every race. All NASCAR and the drivers need to do is look at Mark Martin’s wreck from Michigan this August to see how dangerous a wreck can turn despite all of the precautions. That wreck happened while the drivers were of sound mind and judgment. If it happens then, how much more likely would it be to happen if a driver isn’t all there mentally because he is dealing with a concussion?

People might want to argue that drivers of yesteryear didn’t worry about concussions or injuries after wrecks but the fact is that we now have more information about concussions and their effects than we have ever had in the past. Drivers in past generations had no idea what they were putting their bodies through every week when they climbed into the car. With all that we know now about concussions, it is better to take the more precautious approach than to let drivers put themselves and everyone else in danger if there are any questions.

By danger, I don’t just mean the on-track risks that the driver would be taking either. Sure, they are putting themselves and every other driver on the track at risk by driving with the effects of a concussion, but they also need to think about their long-term health. This was something that also factored in Earnhardt, Jr.’s decision to see a doctor after Talladega.

“I want to live a healthy life so I’m going to make sure that I’m doing the right thing, and that’s all I felt like I was doing here,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “I think if I give myself time to get healed up, I can race for as long as I want to race, and that’s my objective.”

With all that is in play, it will be near impossible for NASCAR to not do something about concussions and concussion testing in the sport. That might be the best thing that comes out of this entire situation.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryan@morethanafan.net