Denny Hamlin Getting Out Of His Car Was Right Decision

Hamlin was right to turn over his car to Erik Jones at Bristol.

Hamlin was right to turn over his car to Erik Jones at Bristol.

This won’t be one of my lengthy diatribes on an issue. It’s pretty simple. Athletes that are in sports that expose them to repeated high g-force impacts are in danger of repercussions of their health in later years.

There have been a few calls from pundits in the motorsport media that question whether or not the present NASCAR rules are too easy for a driver to opt out of a race if they are a lock for the Sprint Cup Chase. It’s a legitimate question, but doesn’t address whether or not them opting out is legitimate if they are injured.

Football, boxing, UFC or any impact sport can have a cumulative effect on the individual. The most common concussion can have severe ramifications if the injured goes back onto the track or field too soon. It’s called “Second Impact” syndrome.

Racing cars while injured is nothing new. In the early days of Formula One the mortality rate was 50% in a given season. By the time Niki Lauda had arrived they had brought that statistic down to a 20% chance of being killed in any given race. Those odds are more in line with a war zone firefight than a sport.

The era of the invincible macho man driver is just not acceptable in the modern era.

There will always be danger in auto racing, if anything that was not thought of can happen in an event, it’s auto racing. However, to court disaster is foolish if you know you can prevent it.

Jim Fitzgerald. One of the kindest, nicest and inveterate competitors I've ever known.

Jim Fitzgerald. One of the kindest, nicest and most inveterate competitors I’ve ever known.

Denny Hamlin has suffered more than one injury. After spending 4 races sitting on the sidelines after a hard hit at Auto Club Speedway in 2013, Hamlin, no doubt, has a great appreciation for what broken bones, severely injured muscles or a potential cervical spine fracture might mean.

I know first hand from:

  • Crashing at the start of a motocross race in South Carolina, broken Coccyx. The lower tip of my spine. 45 years later and I still suffer from that pain.
  • Having had a mild concussion received from crashing at Lime Rock at the Uphill. I had headaches for 6 months. Macho man, didn’t let it get to me.
  • Training on a bicycle, very experienced, 200-300 miles per week, I was hit from behind by a car. Went through the windshield, was thrown back out and over 50 feet. Broken sternum, broken leg, fractured right arm, cracked vertebrae, crushed ankle and multiple lacerations. I was on crutches and rehab for over a year.

To this day I have pain unless I work out those areas religiously.

Had I been Denny Hamlin and my neck suddenly experienced severe shooting pains, Chase or no Chase, I would have gotten out of that car. It would have been the hardest thing I would have to have done, but necessary.

Injuries such as this are not to be trifled with.

A great friend of mine, Jim Fitzgerald was killed at St. Petersburg years ago. Basilar Skull Fracture, now we have the Hans device in NASCAR, long after the other forms of motorsport adopted it. It was only after Dale, Sr. was killed did that become mandatory.

Jeff Gordon hits the wall, next big thing: More Safer Barriers.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crashes and doesn’t realize he has a concussion for three races. His vision started to blur. He sat out four races.

NASCAR made the rules. But did they make it too easy for the drivers to opt out? What professional driver is going to climb out of his/her racing car just because they have a little neck pain. It had to have been severe and disconcerting considering Hamlin’s past injuries.

Apparently Denny Hamlin’s pain was great enough that he knew something was wrong and to continue would likely exacerbate the problem potentially keeping him from one or more races forthcoming.

Hamlin made the right decision. You can race another race, but you only get one go round in this life.


Brave In Life: Junior Johnson Cheats Death Again

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson is back home and recovering slowly from a staph infection contracted during back surgery several weeks ago. The infection has not gone away but it is contained. Photo courtesy of Tom Higgins.

Only when he lies flat on his back does Junior Johnson feel no pain.

He can walk for a little more than 10 minutes before he begins to feel winded.

Food does not taste good and he has trouble swallowing.

Nevertheless, Johnson, the 81-year-old former NASCAR driver and team owner, does not complain. He’ll tell you it is better than the alternative.

“Reckon the Lord thought it wasn’t my time yet,” said Johnson, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, “for which I am grateful.”

Johnson came to the brink of death after contracting a raging staph infection at a North Carolina hospital.

Johnson entered the hospital in the first week of March to undergo another back surgery.

He had a similar operation performed several months earlier – his second, incidentally. But just three months afterward he injured his back again.

Johnson said he was using a forklift on his farm in Yadkin County, N.C. While he attempted to remove a tree, the vehicle’s prongs got tangled.

The forklift titled over with Johnson in it.

“Because of that my back got injured again,” Johnson said, adding that the metal rods installed in his back last year had been displaced, or in his words,  “broken.”

It was during the third round of back surgery that Johnson contracted the infection.

“I don’t know if it happened because of a dirty scalpel, or other piece of equipment or maybe it was because of a dirty needle,” he said. “But I do know that for about 35 minutes there, I was dead.”

Johnson added he could pinpoint the amount of time he was gone because “it took them 35 minutes to get all the equipment I needed to live hooked into me.”

Once revived, Johnson was taken to the intensive care unit and put into isolation. He remained there for five weeks.

“Either the staph was going to get me or I was going to get the staph,” Johnson said. “I’m much better now, but I sill have the infection. It’s still inside me.”

Johnson takes a daily regimen of medication to keep the infection at bay.

Obviously, the surgery to repair his back has not been performed.

“Those rods are still broken,” Johnson said. He is still in pain. While sitting he moves around a lot to find temporary comfort.

But he admitted he’s most comfortable when he can stretch out on a couch. There is no pain.

Johnson won 50 races as a driver and 132 as a team owner, along with six Winston Cup championships earned by drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – both of who are also in the Hall of Fame.

Johnson said his plans for the immediate future remain unaltered. He and his family will move to Charlotte in June, where they have already bought a house and will become neighbors to such NASCAR notables as team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates.

“I can’t really keep up with the farm any longer and don’t really want to,” said Johnson, who also owns cattle. “Besides, (son) Robert is going to Duke in the fall and (daughter) Meredith is already enrolled in a Charlotte high school.

“Most of the time, it will be just the two of us, my wife Lisa and I. We’re looking forward to living in Charlotte. It will be just the two of us, but living there will mean we’ll be a lot closer to a lot of different things.”

Johnson said his farm is yet to be sold, despite rumors that it had been purchased by a local winery. He’s confident that an owner – or owners – will be found.

Johnson said he feels better each day, but, obviously, he will require more medical attention – none of which he can receive until it’s certain he no longer has the infection.

Johnson admits he needs, and wants, a pacemaker.

“It’s something I have to have because my heart has an irregular heartbeat,” he said.

Johnson expressed his gratitude for the concerns and prayers offered him from people around the world. He insisted he would maintain his activities as best he can.

“You know, if I stop and think about it,” he said, “I’m 81 years old now and I think I’ve had a pretty good outing.”



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