CONCORD, N.C. – While NASCAR drivers are genuinely concerned over personal safety, they are willing to accept racing’s inherent danger because it comes with what they love to do.
So it’s fair to say that while they certainly don’t relish the prospect of injury, they aren’t afraid of it.
Let me amend that. They are indeed afraid, even terrified, of injury if it means one thing: They can no longer race.
A driver’s love of racing and his competitiveness fuel his need for speed. Racing is more than a job. It’s fun. And in most cases it’s all he knows how to do or wants to do.
It’s been suggested that for a driver speed is a narcotic. He’s addicted and in no way wants to learn how life would be without his fix.
Yeah, that’s a bit far-fetched. But then, it’s accurate.
It would explain why a driver would cover up an illness, injury or some other infirmary. If he reveals it, it could mean he won’t be able to race for a period of time – or worse, lose his job.
Both have happened.
I daresay there’s not a single competitor in NASCAR today who hasn’t, at the very least, described an injury as something far less than it really was.
And you don’t have to be told how many of them have raced despite fractures, sprains or any other form of pain.
The desire to race – and, sometimes, to not risk the potential loss of employment – is simply too great.
But there comes a time when a physical impairment is too intense to ignore.
Such was the case for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was announced on Oct. 11 that Earnhardt Jr. had sustained a concussion after a hard crash during a test at Kansas on Aug. 29.
The injury was aggravated after the Hendrick Motorsports driver was involved in the last-lap crash at Talladega on Oct. 7.
Just days afterward, Earnhardt Jr. visited noted neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty – a familiar name in NASCAR circles – who came to the conclusion it would be best if Earnhardt Jr. sat out for two weeks.
Of course, missing Charlotte and Kansas next week eliminates Earnhardt Jr. from championship contention.
Like every other driver, Earnhardt Jr. hates not being in the seat of his car. He also hates being removed as factor – however distant – in the Chase.
“He couldn’t clear me to race this weekend,” Earnhardt Jr. said of Dr. Petty on Oct. 11. “I trust his opinion. He’s been a good friend of mine and has helped me through injuries before.
“So believe me, when he tells me I don’t need to be in the car and I need to take a couple of weeks off then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Which is a wise decision, however difficult.
As Brad Keselowski, the Chase point leader, duly noted.
“The temptation is to persevere though adversity,” he said. “But sometimes you compete through an injury and perpetuate whatever damage there is.
“Or, even worse, risk those around you.”
A concussion is an insidious thing.
Sometimes it is not easily recognized. Many athletes have gone about their business with no idea they’ve had one.
Doctors tell us there are different levels of concussions – slight, moderate, severe – which are accompanied by various symptoms.
While I’m no doctor, it’s safe to say that what concerns a physician most is not so much a single concussion as it is a multiplicity of them.
Many negative results are compounded by several concussions that can occur over time. It may take years but they are present.
And they can be devastating. You are probably familiar with the ongoing legal controversy involving the NFL. It is being sued by scores of former players who suffer debilitating injuries.
They want restitution from the league because they claim it did not do enough to prevent head injuries – especially concussions.
Recently this has been intensified due to the death of former NFL great Alex Karras, who, among other things, suffered dementia for several years due to multiple head injuries.
By the way, expect questions to be raised about NASCAR’s efforts to prevent concussions. It’s inevitable.
Earnhardt Jr. admitted that “layers” of concussions have lifelong consequences.
But that didn’t stop him from keeping his concerns to himself.
The fear of not being able to drive was just too great.
Earnhardt Jr. admitted that, in the past, he had suffered a couple of mild concussions yet continued to race.
He said he remembered everything about the accident in Kansas. Afterward, he knew something wasn’t right.
“But I decided to just push through and work through it,” he said. “But I knew I didn’t feel just right. You know your body and I knew something wasn’t just right.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he felt good after a week or two, was “80 or 90 percent” by the time the Chase began and felt “100 percent” at Talladega.
Then came the accident. Afterward, Earnhardt Jr. felt disoriented. He said, again, he knew his body wasn’t right and he realized he had re-injured himself despite the fact the impact at Talladega wasn’t nearly as hard as in Kansas.
“I still went a couple of days wondering how my body would react,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was still having headaches.
“I talked to my sister and we ended up getting steered toward Dr. Petty. I was honest with him and how I felt through the whole time after Kansas.”
It’s well that he did.
But think of this: Earnhardt Jr. knew he wasn’t physically right for several weeks. Yet he told no one and continued to drive.
He might have thought he was fully recovered at Talladega but it turns out he wasn’t. The accident exacerbated his condition.
And think of it – what happened to Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega could have been far worse.
That’s when he decided to come forth, to seek a doctor’s care.
By no means is this a condemnation of Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. On the contrary, it is to illustrate that he is like every other driver, including his late father.
All of them have, from time to time, remained silent over sickness or injury. They have raced with pain when, in their own interest and that of others, they probably shouldn’t have.
Their fear is that they won’t be able, or allowed, to drive. They won’t be able to do what they love and dominates their lives.
It’s who they are.
But sometimes they must give in and face reality, and wisely so.
“I’m just looking forward to getting this cleared up and getting back in the car as soon as I can,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to get back to work with my team and get back to competing on Sundays.”
Thankfully, he has the chance to do so.