Race Weekend Central

Dale Jr.’s Concussion Quandry

As the health woes of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. continue, I cannot help but imagine what seems to be nothing short of the impossible. I find myself, like so many others, although they’d be unlikely to admit it, considering the unthinkable.

It’s an extreme version of “What if?”

What if Junior’s concussion problems linger to the point where he needs to retire from racing?

Not that Earnhardt would remove himself completely from the sport. He has far too many irons in the proverbial business fire to make such a drastic choice. The success of JR Motorsports alone is enough to keep Dale active within NASCAR for many years to come. Creating such a race team always struck me as his not-so-much-golden-as-checkered parachute: a company broad enough to cover multiple cars in multiple divisions.

Think of JR Motorsports as Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, minus the influence of a controlling stepmother.

Junior, like his late father, seeks to build a lasting legacy in motorsports, one that far outlives his competitive driving career: a competitive driving career that, from where I sit, seems threatened by this recent wave of concussion-based nausea and imbalance.

Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was interested in motorsports diversity and branching out from NASCAR. In the years just prior to his tragic death at Daytona, Earnhardt apparently toyed with the possibility of retiring from the Cup Series and racing in the 24 Hours of LeMans, among various other, non-traditional options.

Finishing fourth overall (and second in the GTO Class) in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2001 proved that Earnhardt could make a fairly successful transition from stock cars to sports cars in short order.  And one of “The Intimidator’s” co-drivers at Daytona that year was his son.

Junior understands the importance of diversity within the business of automobile racing. Hedging your bets against sponsorship woes within a struggling economy, or a downturn in your sport’s popularity that leaves both grandstands and cash registers empty, is always a good strategy. Better to plan ahead for an uncertain future than to sit on your hands and hope that conditions will improve.

Which returns me to the topic at hand: Earnhardt’s recurring health problems from past concussions. While rest and medical attention are both essential, there are also longer-lasting effects to consider. In yet another, and somewhat bleak, round of “What if?”: what if Junior suffers yet another serious accident? To assume that NASCAR drivers are safe in today’s generation of Sprint Cup car is to ignore the harsh realities of racing. When cars go fast in close competition, there is always the chance that someone will get hurt (or worse). The wrecks we see at Daytona and Talladega are often massive, multi-car accidents where 3400-pound machines can get upside down in a hurry, regardless of roof flaps or other aerodynamic developments.

And it’s foolhardy to think that restrictor plate events are the only threats to a driver’s overall health. Melting a bead or cutting a right front tire at a track like Dover, or Michigan, or Pocono, or Indianapolis, or any place where the car can make a quick trip into the outside wall poses perhaps even greater potential for brain injury.

Go back and watch Brad Keselowski’s test crash in Turn One at Watkins Glen last week. Brad may have walked away from that particular impact, but the laws of physics suggest there’s a lot of serious movement going on inside a driver’s skull. SAFER barriers and HANS devices aside, a driver’s brain will keep moving, no matter if the rest of the driver’s head stays securely in place.
As much as I dislike having such thoughts, there’s part of me hoping that Junior stays away from the No. 88 Chevrolet for a long time. I’m guessing his doctors feel that way, too. Rushing Dale Jr. back into competition without a suitable period of quality rest and rehabilitation is a threat to his overall future. The official Sprint Cup entry for the No. 88 at Watkins Glen this weekend (at least as I write this) shows “TBA” under the listing for driver (Editor’s Note: Since Dr. Howell submitted this piece, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Earnhardt Jr. will miss Watkins Glen and Bristol with Jeff Gordon once again taking his place).

I, for one, hope to see this on entry forms for weeks, and maybe even months, to come. Even if Dale Jr. take the biggest leap of all and retires someday soon from driving, it’s good to know that he’ll remain a fixture in motorsports.

His father taught him well….

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