When NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire, crashed into the wall and suffered a concussion during a 2012 tire test at Kansas Speedway, conclusive evidence of long-term effects from head trauma in sports was still under debate.
Not anymore. The NFL earlier this year acknowledged a link between concussions and the debilitating disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. That concession came three years after the league reached a $765 million settlement with former players who had sued the NFL because of concussion-related brain injuries.
In 2014, NASCAR began requiring its drivers to undergo baseline neurological testing — the widely used ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) — in an attempt to diagnose whether a driver has suffered a concussion following a crash, and to determine whether he or she is healed sufficiently to compete.
And, a few weeks ago, Earnhardt announced plans to donate his brain to science after his death for concussion research.
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“Hopefully, they don’t have to look at my brain whenever I pass away because they have learned enough science to study the brains of living adults,” said Earnhardt, 41. “Hopefully, the science has advanced enough to where they no longer need to be poking around inside my brain.
“I was a donor already for many years, as my driver’s license would attest. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do for me.”
Earnhardt, who will be competing in Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway, said his decision was inspired by the announcements by soccer player Brandi Chastain and three former Oakland Raiders, in honor of the late Ken Stabler, who were donating their brains for research. Earnhardt said he will be donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is in partnership with Boston University’s center for studying the effects of brain trauma.
“I have so much respect for the work that those doctors are doing and really was inspired by some of the athletes that have pledged their brains before me,” Earnhardt said. “I went through my experience in 2012 and met some amazing doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. They gave me the confidence going through that process that I could be successful and get through it. I have. I have been healthy and successful and I learned a ton. “
Earnhardt began feeling symptoms of a concussion after he crashed in turn one during a testing session at Kansas Speedway’s newly reconfigured and repaved track on Aug. 29, 2012. He was diagnosed with a concussion six weeks later at Talladega after he was part of a last-lap collision that included more than 20 cars.
That’s when he decided to seek medical attention for his concussion.
“You know your body, and how your mind works, and I knew something was not quite right,” Earnhardt said then, adding that the data from the accident at Kansas Speedway measured at a 40 G force, compared to 20 Gs at Talladega.
Earnhardt’s suspicions were confirmed, and he sat out the next two races, including the fall race at Kansas Speedway. In 2002, he suffered what he suspected was a concussion at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., but like many drivers he continued to compete so as not to lose ground in the points standings.
Earnhardt’s announcement that he plans to donate his brain occurred a few weeks after Indy Car driver Will Power’s nausea was misdiagnosed as a concussion, and he was held out of the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Fla. That’s led some NASCAR drivers, such as former Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski to question the effectiveness of on-track testing for concussions.
“I see the argument in reverse,” Earnhardt said. “Most concussions are self-diagnosed, and as a driver I think the real purpose of the conversation should be to help drivers, football players, whoever it is, to understand that it’s okay to self-diagnosis and go get help.
“I feel very good about the protocols that are in place. They have stepped up, and they have gotten more, like using the impact test. It’s a great tool to treat the concussion once you have been diagnosed. Concussions are like snowflakes. There are no two concussions that are the same. Each one deals with certain parts of the body and to be able to use that impact test helps you understand how to treat that particular concussion.”
Certainly, NASCAR has improved safety practices after a series of deaths that started in 2000 and culminated in the fatal accident that claimed the life of Earnhardt’s father, Dale, on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Energy-absorbing cushioned walls and improvements in race cars, seats, belts and head-and-neck restraints have protected drivers and prevented head injuries, though the actual number of drivers who have sustained concussions is unknown. The last documented case of a driver missing a Sprint Cup race because of a concussion was Ryan Truex, who missed a race at Michigan in 2014 after he was injured in a crash during practice.
“It will just get better the same way everything else in the sport progresses,” Earnhardt said. “Look at the interior of the car for example and how it’s changed. The more information we get from the doctors, the better equipped we are to protect ourselves. I feel good about it. I understand some of the drivers concerns, but going through the process myself really helped me understand exactly what everything is there for and how to use it.”
Earnhardt, who has been voted the Sprint Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver for the past 13 years, hopes his celebrity status inspires others to donate their brains for research.
“That would be awesome if it inspires other people to do it,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve talked to people within my own family and they have been inspired to learn more. They don’t need just athletes. They don’t need people that just play sports. They need brains from all over.
“It was,” Earnhardt said innocently, “a no-brainer for me.”