BRISTOL, Tenn. -- It seemed like he was battling a stomach bug that wouldn't go away. Every few weeks Eric McClure would feel sick and weak, wind up at the doctor's office or the infield care center to receive fluids, and then feel better again. The cycle kept repeating itself, to the point where the NASCAR Nationwide Series driver wondered if his condition might be a carryover from the Epstein-Barr virus he dealt with in 2011.
That was until he returned home from the Aug. 10 event at Watkins Glen International. "I walk in the door, I'm nauseous, and all of the sudden I fall apart," McClure said. He went to the hospital, came home, and felt worse. It took a second hospital visit to finally diagnose what was ailing him -- acute renal failure, a kidney condition that could have been fatal if left untreated.
"Looking back, you could see the signs for six months," McClure said. "But I didn't know. Nobody knew. It just looked for some reason like I just couldn't stay healthy."
Which is why it was a relief to so many to see McClure at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Friday, smiling and chatting with members of his TriStar Motorsports team as Jeff Green qualified his No. 14 car in preparation for that evening's event. McClure isn't certain when he'll be able to race again -- he's hoping for the Sept. 14 event at Chicagoland Speedway -- but at this point nothing seems certain. This latest health scare has the father of five daughters re-evaluating how much longer he wants to be a full-time NASCAR driver, or even be in the car at all.
"I've always said, I've got more important things than this," said McClure, 34. "I'm not the greatest race car driver in the world. I love to do it. Daytona, Talladega, I can run in the top 10. Anywhere else, my car is going to be 18th to 24th. I wish I was better. I know how important that top-20 is to TriStar. They're not pushing me for it, but it is tied to me. I want to do it for my family. I want to come back to race because I like it. But the way the last couple of years have gone, I'm going to have to get healthy. And unfortunately, there's just the realization lately that I'm not getting younger."
From a health perspective, the past few years have been trying to say the least. McClure missed five races last season dealing with the effects of a concussion suffered in a crash at Talladega. The previous season he battled Epstein-Barr, a virus that can cause fatigue and a painfully sore throat, and on top of that saw his family's western Virginia home destroyed by a tornado. McClure was hospitalized Aug. 12 for what was diagnosed as renal failure, which at one point seemed serious enough that doctors were considering dialysis.
The condition responded to treatment, though, which McClure said made doctors wonder if the illness was a product of the anti-inflammatory drugs he took for pain and arthritis in the wake of his Talladega crash last year. Biopsies were normal, and he's been told no more ibuprofen for life. "We were just thankful it wasn't worse," McClure said. "They say another couple of days, and some other things might had to have happened."
As far as being in the race car, short-term concerns involve potential crash injury to the areas where he had tests and the biopsy. Longer term, there are worries about dehydration. McClure said he tried to talk doctors into giving him the green light to start races, given that he wants to stay in the top 20 in Nationwide drivers' points. "It doesn't sound like that's going to fly," he admitted. In the meantime, Green will continue to pilot the No. 14 car, and McClure will hope for a return around Chicagoland.
"We're saying week to week, but I would say Chicago would be optimistic," McClure said. "And that's kind of the target. If anything happens before then, it's a blessing."
Even that, though, is an estimation. In truth, McClure isn't exactly sure when he'll be back. Or if he'll even return to full-time NASCAR competition at all.
"I'm not going to be a Cup driver. I love this, but there's going to have to be some decisions made, and we're probably at that point where we make those decisions," he said. "I do want to come back, and I do want to have fun. Whenever that time is, whether it's this year, next year, whenever, I want to go out good and be proud to say I did it. I can't ask for anything more, but in truth, at the same time, five years from now I've got to be able to provide for my kids and be a father and play with them. These guys who have a lot more at stake than me, it's easy to be a hero and suck it up. But if something had happened, and if this had hit the wrong day, and I had pulled myself out -- which I would have -- who knows what happens. This time, I've got to listen to the doctors."
McClure has competed in NASCAR since 2003, and is in his seventh full-time campaign on the Nationwide tour. His best career finish came in this year's season-opener at Daytona, where he placed eighth. His best season was last year, where despite missing the five races with concussion symptoms McClure still placed 16th in driver points. He's also started three Sprint Cup Series events, with a best finish of 26th at Talladega in 2004 with car owner and fellow Virginian Larry McClure.
Now, he's pondering how much longer he'll be willing or able to do something to which he's devoted the last decade of his life. McClure and his wife Miranda welcomed their youngest daughter earlier this month, and he knows the time is coming when he'll be known less as a driver and more as a father and a husband. But still, contemplating the end of a career is not an easy thing. McClure has always had a testy relationship with Bristol, even though it's his home track. Being there Friday solely as a spectator, though, left him heartbroken.
"It's like, you make the decision -- are you really ready to let it go?" he said. "There's more than just me involved. There's sponsorship, there's my family. I want to do more for Jeff, because he's made me a better race car driver in three years to where I'm respectable. So there's a lot to consider. I don't know if I'm fully prepared to give it all up. But at the same time, I'll be 35, and I want to be a dad and a husband again, too. My girls are growing up, and this is all they know from me being gone every week. It will be OK. I'll be around, I hope. But I've got to start thinking of myself when I'm -- Lord willing -- 50 and not just 35."
As affable a driver as there is, McClure jokes that with his statistics, he's lucky to have been in NASCAR as long as he has. There are other ways, he said, he believes he can be involved in the sport. For now, the immediate focus is on getting healthy again, and getting back in the No. 14 car sometime this season.
Beyond that? That's up to McClure, his family, his doctors and the Almighty to decide.
"I want to finish the year out. Feel like I owe it to our partners and our race team," he said. "I'll do that. I can't say I'll be back full-time next year. I won't say I won't. But I promise you, we're going to pray a lot, and there will be a lot of conversations about it. But I'm not getting any younger, and I appreciate the opportunities I do have now. This week makes me appreciate it more."
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