With the news that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be missing at least this weekend’s New Hampshire 301 due to issues with concussion-like symptoms, it brings up a question of whether or not NASCAR might have a bigger problem on its hands.
While Earnhardt, Jr. has suffered from these symptoms before and even missed races in 2012 and gave up his chance at a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship because of it, he can’t possibly be the only driver who has felt these symptoms. He just might be the only one who has stepped up and said something.
I find it really hard to believe – no, scratch that – I find it IMPOSSIBLE to believe that other drivers in NASCAR’s top three series haven’t at some point felt even the slightest type of concussion-like symptoms. With all of the big crashes and the hard hits these drivers take and at the speeds at which they are taking them, there have had to be other instances of drivers being concussed.
There are drivers who have had multiple big impacts over the past couple of seasons. Drivers like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Danica Patrick, Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, etc. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many drivers who haven’t had some sort of wreck or contact in the past couple of seasons. And even if the impacts seem small or inconsequential, you have to remember that some of them are coming at high rates of speed, where even the smallest impacts are dangerous and painful.
The problem becomes that no matter how many tests are run or when the tests are run, the only person who truly knows how the driver is feeling or what the driver is feeling is the driver. And these guys don’t want to pull themselves out of a race unless they absolutely have no choice, no matter how dangerous it might be for them to be on the racetrack. That doesn’t just mean dangerous to themselves, but dangerous to the other drivers around them as well.
Drivers feel a strong responsibility to their teams, their sponsors and their fans to get out there and compete each time their series takes the track. For them, a slight headache, nausea or feeling lethargic might not be reason for concern. When in reality, those symptoms may just be the beginning of a larger issue.
One of the biggest issues facing NASCAR is simple – if the doctors clear a driver, that driver has to be permitted to drive. If the medical professional says the driver is fit to race, who is NASCAR to disagree? It would also seem reasonable that as long as doctors clear a driver, NASCAR would lean on the side of allowing the driver to race even if they suspect that driver might not be feeling 100%. After all, NASCAR’s bottom line is making money (like any other sport) and a marquee driver missing a race generates less money.
So it’s quite simple when broken down in terms of economics.
But it isn’t that simple in the long run. Look at the problems that have been plaguing former NFL players. They are finding out years down the road how much the violent hits to the head impact a person’s long-term health. Obviously NASCAR drivers don’t take the constant beating to the head that NFL players take. But any time a driver is involved in a wreck, their head is jarred and rattled, despite all of the advancements in safety.
It’s NASCAR’s responsibility to make sure that drivers know the inherent risks of any sort of head injury. These injuries aren’t like a broken leg. You can’t set it with a cast and give a timetable for recovery. Head injuries are a serious business, and can even be life-threatening. What makes this a more slippery slope for NASCAR is there just isn’t the research on the brains of drivers like there are on NFL players. There is evidence that has been accumulated from numerous former NFL players that tell us the cumulative effect that impacts on the football field have on one’s brain. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other brains out there from former drivers that can be studied. Like some other athletes, Earnhardt, Jr. has donated his brain to concussion research once he dies.
NASCAR has to rely on its drivers to understand the risks and have the faith in drivers that they are willing to speak up when they might not feel right. But self-reporting a concussion isn’t exactly an easy thing to do for a driver.
For younger drivers in the Camping World Truck Series or the Xfinity Series, some of them are fighting to advance their careers to the Sprint Cup Series level and would not want to stunt that progress by missing races. For drivers who are racing for a championship in any of the three top series, missing a race could be detrimental to their championship hopes, especially like in the case of Earnhardt, Jr., who doesn’t have a win this season and hasn’t clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Like some other athletes, Earnhardt, Jr. has donated his brain to concussion research once he dies. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other brains out there from former drivers that can be studied now as there are for NFL players. Eventually there will be at least some sort of hard evidence about the impact that NASCAR wrecks have on a driver’s brain.
But for now, NASCAR needs to make sure its drivers are safe. Not only on the track, but in life.