Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: The Twists & Turns of Brain Trauma – Why NASCAR Should Pay Attention

Once again, the National Football League is taking competitor safety to a new level of national attention, and it seems like a suitable issue for NASCAR to consider, as well. Safety is a serious matter, and ignoring it possesses far greater – and more negative – connotations.

The issue involves new research into more easily combating, diagnosing and possibly treating brain injuries and/or head trauma. Concussions have been front page news for the past few years, and only recently has NASCAR paid relevant attention to this medical concern. The NFL’s recent announcement regarding a diagnostic tool to be used in football helmets seems tailor-made for use by NASCAR. Given the nature of the injuries studied by this emerging technology, Brian France should be both very interested and very involved.

Allow me to explain.

This newer research into brain trauma is focused on what scientists refer to as rotational acceleration. When an athlete suffers a head impact, he/she not only experiences a linear acceleration (front-and/or-rear), but also a rotational form of the movement (side-to-side). The brain, encased within the skull and tethered by nerves to the spinal column, will both rock and twist when affected by violent forces during a tackle or a collision. Such impacts are commonplace in sports like football and ice hockey, but they also pose threats to the safety of racecar drivers as well.

Think about the consequences of a wild spin. Consider the damage possible when a stock car slaps against the outside retaining wall. Observe whenever a car hits a tire barrier or flies side-over-side when barrel-rolling down a straightaway; each of these events puts massive strain on the driver’s head and brain.

Wearing a HANS (Head and Neck Support) device might be considered a good way to protect against bad injuries, but these pieces of equipment only restrain the driver’s head from moving – they do nothing to keep the driver’s brain from moving inside the skull. It is the sudden strain of brain movement that damages nerve connections and creates neurological injury.

And think about how often we see cars slide, spin and experience side impacts during NASCAR events. Even the slightest stress against the driver’s brain can, over time and repeated occurrences, cause trauma leading to neurological damage. Violent rolling wrecks like the one Ryan Newman experienced during the 2003 Daytona 500 are excellent examples of just how rotational acceleration can pose a threat to a driver’s head and brain safety.

Sure, Newman walked away from such an accident and managed to race the following weekend, but just how much trauma did his brain suffer from its twisting and turning inside a 3,400-pound whirling dervish?

Unfortunately this kind of brain injury is overshadowed by its more insidious counterpart, better recognized as linear acceleration. Linear acceleration is the kind of brain trauma that kills quickly – it’s what ended the lives of NASCAR drivers like Neil Bonnett, Rodney Orr, Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty and Tony Roper. Linear acceleration also prompted NASCAR to require use of the aforementioned HANS device following Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001.

The problem is that a racing accident almost always involves two forms of head trauma: the linear kind AND the rotational variety. While linear acceleration makes for tragic headlines and mass mourning, it is rotational acceleration that stealthily results in neurological impairment after many seasons behind the wheel.

According to medical research, even mere millimeters of brain movement from highly-common occurrences of rotational acceleration can lead to nerve damage. As explained by Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon at Boston University’s School of Medicine: “’Because most hits are off-center and because our heads are not square, most of the accelerations in the head are going to be rotational.’” (quoted in Popular Science, Aug. 2013)

Simply put: even the slightest of impacts can cause significant injury.

While much of this data has been known for years, taking measures to protect against such injuries has been slow going. As I have written here before, it took NASCAR until 2014 to begin monitoring for possible brain trauma (and if it was not for multiple concussions suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr., it is quite likely that NASCAR would continue to ignore the problem). Such actions may look proactive on the sanctioning body’s part, but that is not the case.

Ask drivers like Bobby Allison, Steve Park, Ernie Irvan and Jerry Nadeau about monitoring for brain trauma cause by rotational acceleration, and you will likely hear a much different story. That’s all the more reason for NASCAR to get in line with the NFL and its emerging research methods.

What’s there to lose by not getting involved? A lot, I’d say.

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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