Lauren Fournier, PT, DPT, Vestibular Rehab Therapist
Growing up, my Dad and I followed NASCAR racing almost every Sunday. During football season, it might have just been the channel we switched to during the commercials, but it was always on. My Dad was a huge fan of Dale Earnhardt because of his aggressive driving style and overall grit (he was nicknamed the “Intimidator” after all). I was a huge fan too, but mainly followed his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. We loved how aggressive they drove and how they were always in the thick of things, which meant they were also involved in the big crashes at times. My Dad and I were watching the fateful race when Dale Sr. was clipped from behind while trying to protect his son’s and teammate’s positions in 1st and 2nd place. This caused Earnhardt to collide at a critical angle head-on into the retaining wall at a speed between 155 and 160 mph, totaling the car and causing his death on impact from a fatal head injury.
There have been a total of 28 deaths in the sport, with Dale Sr. being the last one to date. Ever since that fateful day, NASCAR has made extensive changes in their regulations for the drivers’ cars and their personal protection equipment, such as making the HANS (head and neck support) device mandatory. This has been a significant improvement; however it does not mean that there haven’t been head injuries. In the case of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he had multiple concussions over the course of his career. The newest changes on how drivers are screened after being in a crash, and how they are cleared to return to racing after sustaining an injury was in part because of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. His experiences with concussions and the potential for lingering effects are what ultimately caused him to walk away from the sport in November, 2017.
In a recent book written by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. called “Racing to the Finish,” he pulls back the curtain on his experience with concussions and the struggles he had working in an industry that wasn’t a supportive environment for head injuries. Many people feel that driving around in a circle doesn’t constitute a sport, but when you experience what it feels like to drive 150 to 200 mph in those cars you won’t feel the same. The speed is incredible and don’t forget there are a bunch of other cars going the same speed only a few inches away in every direction. Now add the incredibly uncomfortable metal seat, massive helmet, restricting HANS device, a ton of seat belts, deafening roar of the engine and tons of vibration from the bumps on the road/power of the engine, keeping the steering wheel on target and all the visual scanning required in the busy atmosphere. The amount of adrenaline surging through your body while driving at those speeds is incredible, but equally as terrifying because one small mistake can cause devastating effects. All of this is just a normal day at the office… now imagine if you had a concussion on top of it. Symptoms might include feeling increased pressure/headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, blurred or “bouncing” vision, increased fatigue, dizziness and feeling you’re in a “fog” with slower reaction times and having to think more about performing ordinary tasks. All of these symptoms would be difficult for most people just driving to and from work or while running errands, let alone at the intense level and for several hours at time that NASCAR drivers are required to endure.
Dale Jr. grew up around racing and was exposed to the mentality of “you tough it out and walk it off.” One driver named Ricky Rudd even taped his eyes open after hitting his head so hard that his eyes were practically swollen shut. Dale’s own father raced several races with a broken femur just so he didn’t have to have a substitute driver. The one time Dale Sr. had someone take over due to a broken collar bone in the middle of a race, he equated watching his car go around the track without him as the feeling one would have watching someone date your wife right in front of you. Dale Jr. talks a lot about how there is a fear in drivers of being perceived in the garage as “damaged goods” or that you’ve “lost your edge” if you’re injured or unable to race. As a result, he was reluctant to reveal he was suffering from a concussion. He would keep secret notes/logs of his symptoms on his iPhone to have as “evidence” in case something ever happened to him. Just like the rest of the world, he was reading the articles in the news about football players suffering from CTE and committing suicide as a result of their chronic head injuries throughout their careers and was worried he would meet the same fate.
Dale Jr. estimates that he has had around 20 concussions over his career and began to notice the effects were taking longer and longer to fade. He would wake up every morning and the symptoms were there. He finally sought help when he began to notice he was having trouble with his temper, he was more emotional and was having trouble with his vision, which would make even driving to the grocery store difficult. He went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program and met with Dr. Michael “Micky” Collins who is an expert in sports-related concussions. He was put through testing that isolated his affected areas and was sent to their physical therapy clinic for further testing and ultimately treatment for his current symptoms.