Tony Stewart may not play basketball and Kevin Ware may not drive a race car, but the three-time NASCAR champion and the University of Louisville guard have one thing in common -- both suffered the same kind of fracture in the bones of their lower right leg.
Stewart's injury in a sprint car crash Monday night may not have been as public or as grisly as Ware's compound fracture in an NCAA tournament basketball game in March, but from a medical perspective both were breaks of the tibia and fibula in the right leg. The primary difference is that Stewart should be able to return to action much sooner -- though not soon enough to maintain hopes of qualifying for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
An injury like Stewart's could keep him out of the car for four to six weeks at a minimum, according to Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, S.C. "This is very similar to the Kevin Ware injury," said Geier, who added that such fractures are typically repaired by surgically placing a metal rod down the center of the tibia, which acts as a brace while the bone heals. For an athlete like Ware in a sport that requires running and jumping, the recovery time can be up to a year.
"For a driver, that may not be as bad, because you're not having to jump. You're not having to run and that kind of thing. So there's the potential that it could be a lot faster," Geier said. "You could even argue that it doesn't have to be completely solid, because he's not putting that much weight on it. But I would at least say it's going to be a while, because they'll want to make sure he's out of the woods in terms of infection and little things like that. So I think it's going to be a while before we see him, but his return to sports is going to be very different than a football or basketball or soccer player."
Stewart will miss Sunday's event at Watkins Glen International, ending a streak of 521 straight Sprint Cup starts dating back to his rookie season. Stewart-Haas Racing has announced that Max Papis will drive the No. 14 car at the upstate New York road course, while Stewart will require a second surgery and remain hospitalized for observation.
SHR did not give a timetable for Stewart's return. "I can't imagine it would be any faster than about a month, quite honestly," said Geier, who has no direct involvement with Stewart's case. "The pain issues, the stiffness in the knee, there's a lot of knee discomfort that goes along with that early. ? Four to six weeks, I'd be really surprised if he's back sooner than that. Most athletes would be out a lot longer, but his I would think would more likely be four to six weeks."
NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, a one-time Sprint Cup champion now serving as an analyst on ESPN, can relate to Stewart's pain. In June 1996, Jarrett crashed hard during a qualifying attempt at Pocono Raceway, breaking a bone in his left leg. He raced two days later, completing just 37 of the 200 laps before his car's crankshaft failed.
In the case of an injured race car driver, the difference between right and left leg can be as striking as night and day, Jarrett said, placing a heavy emphasis on a driver's ability to feather the gas pedal through the turns.
"That's your whole key to racing and being able to drive a race car and drive it fast," Jarrett said. "You can almost get by without your left foot in these cars now, just simply because of the transmission and everything. Some drivers use that left foot to use on brakes, but you could get by and not have that. But the right one, it's such a 'feel' sport and hopefully there was no kind of nerve damage because you need all of that as a driver to feel what you're doing, modulate the throttle and get the most out of your race car."
Geier, a former orthopedic consultant to the U.S. women's soccer team, added that a return to even day-to-day driving can be tricky after undergoing a fracture of the tibia and fibula. With competitive driving, that issue is magnified.
"The problem with driving is that you've just got to be strong enough to slam on the brakes if you need to," he said. "People are really surprised how weak their leg is initially. That immobilization for a few days, and the pain of surgery, really shuts your quads down for a while, so to be able to slam on the brakes the way you normally do at full strength, that actually takes a while. For you and me that may not be a big deal. For a NASCAR driver, that's a huge problem."
Athletes with a similar injury, Geier added, will typically undergo physical therapy three times a week -- beginning with putting weight on the leg while on crutches, and eventually working on increasing knee movement and muscle strength. Through it all, Jarrett knows Stewart will be hungry to get back behind the wheel as soon as he is physically able, if not sooner.
"I know probably aside from the fact that he can't be in the car that, what I know about Tony Stewart as my friend that a rehab situation is not going to make him happy," Jarrett said. "I don't mean to laugh at the situation but just thinking about the poor physical therapist that's having to put Tony Stewart through something where he does not want to be. You can already prepare them for that.
"It's going to be a difficult road back but I would think that, knowing Tony, he will be someone who's will be ready to get back in the car well before they think that he is ready for that."
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