Caraviello: Earnhardt case shows high price of staying silent
CONCORD, N.C. -- As impacts go, it wasn't that big of a wreck -- at least not compared to the hit Dale Earnhardt Jr. had taken six weeks earlier, when a blown tire sent him into the wall during a test. He took a shot in the left-rear quarterpanel in the big melee that ended last Sunday's event at Talladega Superspeedway, and felt disoriented when the car spun around. Over the next few days, he started having headaches. For NASCAR's most popular driver, the next step quickly became obvious.
He spoke to his sister Kelley, and that led to a consultation with a neurosurgeon. From there, a chain of events unfolded that led to Earnhardt seated at a table Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, explaining why he wouldn't be competing in at least the next two Sprint Cup events. The aftereffects of two recent concussions will keep Earnhardt out of Charlotte and Kansas, effectively ending what's become a long-shot championship bid. But the reason he walked into a doctor's office goes beyond that.
"I needed to go see somebody regardless of whether I wanted to get out of the car or not," Earnhardt said. "Just for my own well-being. If I didn't need to go get in a race car and get hit again, I needed somebody to tell me that, because I was going to have a hard time making that decision for myself. I feel perfectly fine, but I don't want to keep getting hit in the head."
*Video: Earnhardt Jr.'s press conference
There's no getting around the fact that Earnhardt kept the first concussion to himself; that he didn't feel quite right after slamming the wall at Kansas in that tire test Aug. 29; that he knew the all-too-familiar symptoms and decided to push through on his own. By the time the Chase began, he estimated that he was 80 to 90 percent. Last week, he said he was 100. But concussions have a cumulative effect and, after one, an athlete is more susceptible to another. The wreck at Talladega started the whole cycle all over again. Whether he was coaxed to do so by a family member or loved one, the fact is that Earnhardt walked into Dr. Jerry Petty's office of his own volition -- an action he had to know would be tantamount to tossing the keys to his No. 88 car to someone else.
*Video: Junior caught in Big One in 'Dega
"I think a lot of guys would try to play hurt," said Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's car owner, "But when the doctor tells you if you get hit again, like right away, it could be catastrophic I think this deal has worked out [as] well as it could. ... We've got a lot of years left to race. I always want to be on the side of safety, and I applaud Dale for raising his hand and going in there and getting checked out."
Concussions are murky beasts, difficult to diagnose because of their relative lack of outward symptoms, sometimes terrifying to those affected because of how debilitating the effects can be. In recent years, hockey and football have been particularly plagued by what in essence is a mild form of traumatic brain injury. Athletes in those sports have at times hidden their symptoms, fearful of losing positions or even jobs. The consequence, though, is much worse.
"A concussion, especially one that occurs in a short period of time to the previous concussion, can be severely disabling, and can occasionally be deadly," said Dr. Vinay Deshmukh, a partner to Petty at the neurosurgery clinic that is treating Earnhardt.
And therein lies the crux -- a potentially serious condition that can be difficult to diagnose just by looking at the patient, and hinges on the affected individual being honest about what he's feeling. "Ninety percent of a concussion probably depends on individual information," said Petty, who works with the NFL's Carolina Panthers in addition to NASCAR teams.
In the aftermath of Earnhardt's incident, much will be made of what else NASCAR should have done to ensure he was OK, or keep him off the track if he wasn't. In retrospect, perhaps Earnhardt should have been tested more thoroughly after an accident in the Kansas tire test that the car's data recorder measured as 40 Gs.
But those ideal scenarios overlook a fundamental point -- for a concussion to be successfully treated, the individual affected has to be a willing participant. That was particularly important in Earnhardt's case given that, even after his admission, an MRI and neurological exam were both normal, Petty said. He never lost consciousness; never suffered any amnesia. But the headaches, the not feeling right -- it all added up to one thing.
"I knew having [those] two concussions back to back was not a good thing," Earnhardt said.
Now, that's not to say some things couldn't be done better. It can't sit well with anyone that Earnhardt drove for weeks with a concussion he kept to himself, that he admittedly wasn't 100 percent when the Chase began. Hits like the one he took at Kansas might garner more attention going forward.
"Looking back, there are always things you can second-guess and look at," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president for racing operations. "I think that's one of the things we'll evaluate as we go forward. But I think, again, I'd put it back on [the fact that] everybody's got a responsibility as part of this. That's something we can learn from, as well. I'm sure in talking to Dale Jr. as we have, knowing where we stand now, that will absolutely be part of the procedures that we look at moving forward."
But this situation crystallizes the entire concussion issue, one which other contact sports have been battling to get their arms around for years, with varying degrees of success. There are zero easy answers and zero guarantees. Earnhardt is being held out for two weeks, and will have to undergo tests before he's allowed back in the car. Doctors will get his heart rate up, and see if the headaches return. If they don't, he'll be cleared to race again. But, as everyone learned earlier this season with Eric McClure who missed six weeks with a concussion suffered in a Nationwide race at Talladega in the spring, no one can say with true exactitude when that will be.
The entire condition is opaque. Cup points leader Brad Keselowski said he's never had a concussion that's been proven medically, which further emphasizes how much responsibility the affected individual carries. That can be a tricky thing in NASCAR, where one missed race can jeopardize championship chances or even career status. Not every driver has the security that Dale Earnhardt Jr. does at Hendrick Motorsports. But, in a sport that considers itself a community, every driver plays a role in helping to maintain the safety of others on the race track.
"Everyone's got their own code," Keselowski said. "That's the tricky thing about concussions -- you can't just look at somebody like a broken arm. You can see a broken arm. You can't just look at someone and say, he's got one, he doesn't. So it's very much self-policed. There's no answer to it for the racing community, as there's no answer to it for the rest of the sports community, whether it's high school football or college or pro football or hockey or whatnot. The difference in out sports versus those is, when you're unable to make great decisions when you lose your focus, the potential is there for others to get hurt."
Which is why in NASCAR, admissions like the one Earnhardt made Thursday are so notable. No question, he probably should have done this six weeks ago, but it's easy to understand the pressures of the Chase and wanting to maintain one of the best seasons of his career. Barring some major change in NASCAR policy, those realities will always be there. But some hope Earnhardt's revelation will prompt other affected athletes to come forward -- just as the driver himself did this week, when he realized staying silent did more harm than good.
"I think what happened today will probably go a long way," Deshmukh said. "There will probably be more awareness. And I'm not talking just on the pro level or the mega-superstar level. We're talking day-to-day weekend athletes, high school sports, even younger than that will hopefully see the example of what we've been showing today and understand just how important brain health is. It really should take precedence over everything else."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.