Today the NASCAR racing series will set their starting grid for the Daytona 500, stock car racing’s most prestigious event. Over the next few days the sporting world will cast a keen eye on the racing series. On Tuesday the Associated Press ran a story about how NASCAR has been handling concussions. It really began in earnest when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died due to massive head trauma in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Traveling in a motor vehicle at nearly 200 mph obviously has a high risk factor for catastrophe; since the series took drastic measures for driver safety, starting in 2001, there has not been one death. Interventions included updated helmets and neck restraints along with an overhaul of the driver area inside the car and safer walls on the track.
Times have changed in this sport, like others, but concussions remained vastly misunderstood until about 2004, when the series began keeping track; tracking only 29 and 11 in the last five years. Drivers whose careers have spanned the before and after of Dale Sr.’s death can definitely tell the difference;
“I whacked my head — a lot,” Waltrip said. “If you think about this, I showed up in ‘85, when it was relatively ‘safe.’ We thought we had it figured out. I raced all the way through 2001 when people were getting killed. And all through that time, I was hitting my head and knocking myself out and getting concussions and going to the hospital. And I don’t know what that means to me in 10 years. But I know it’s a concern.”
The 48-year-old Waltrip gets uneasy when he hears stories about NFL players and other athletes who are having serious neurological problems after they retire, issues that a growing amount of research indicates may have been caused by repetitive brain injuries they sustained during their playing days.
Could that happen to him, too?
“I would be the perfect case study to see what’s going to happen,” Waltrip said. “Because I can go back and look at the races and count up times I was knocked unconscious that I can’t count on both hands.”
Waltrip concedes that the younger drivers have less to worry about in terms of concussion, due to all the new safety precautions that NASCAR has under taken. One procedure that NASCAR has it place is that if a concussion is suspected (see violent crash) then they are sent to the hospital for a work up. In the cases of confirmed concussions the driver must be cleared by a neurosurgeon with at least five years experience with brain injuries.
Those that drive cars face the same decisions that other athletes have, honesty about the injury. The incentive is the same across the spectrum of sports, amateur to professional;
“They always ask you,” Burton said. “The key to that, though, is honesty. Unless it’s obvious. Sometimes you can tell. But a lot of times, in football and in every sport, people say, ‘I’m fine.’ It’s hard if you don’t tell them the truth to help you.”
Burton acknowledged that drivers, along with athletes in other sports, have an incentive to hide symptoms.
“There’s fear in not being able to do what you want to do,” Burton said. “NASCAR’s always been really good saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to keep you from racing unless it’s in your best interests.’ They’ve been pretty good about that. People are always nervous, I think, in any sport to stand up and say I’m having these issues, because they want to race or they want to play. But if NASCAR doesn’t want you to race, then you probably shouldn’t be racing.”