Race Weekend Central

Using Your Head

Talk about putting your mind to something…. Literally.

The recent news regarding Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his intention to donate his brain to concussion research may have struck some in NASCAR Nation as rather oddly timed, but plan seemed (to me, at least) to be well-founded.

Call it a no-brainer.

It’s no coincidence that Junior decided to donate his brain to upon his death. The spectre of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been looming over the professional sports world for at least the past decade, even though the injuries that cause such a condition have been occurring since the first athlete suffered the first blow to his or her head.

As a serious medical concern, CTE first made headlines back in 2002 with the death of former Pittsburgh Steeler player Mike Webster. From that point on, CTE-related suicides and deaths seemed to flood the sports pages.

It took the suicides of NFL players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau and the deaths of more-recognized NFL names like Alex Karras, Frank Gifford, and Ken Stabler to shine the media spotlight on the dangers of concussions gone unchecked or ignored.

Just this past January, Tyler Sash, a 27-year old from Iowa who played for the New York Giants during 2011 and 2012 and was on the team when the Giants won Super Bowl 46, was found to have been suffering from CTE when he took his life in a drug overdose in September of 2015.

Such – all too often – is the fate of athletes who suffer from the ravages of CTE.

Which leads me to NASCAR.

Regular readers of my column will know that I’ve covered this topic before. It’s only a theory, and it’s far too late to know with any certainty, but I’ve suggested that Lee Roy Yarbrough – a 14-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series – likely suffered from CTE. It was no secret that Lee Roy liked to drink, but it was also no secret that he experienced two serious wrecks: one during a tire test at Texas World Speedway in 1970 and one during practice for the Indianapolis 500 in 1971.

The brain injuries from these crashes likely led to Yarbrough’s later years of memory lapses and irrational behavior, which resulted in Lee Roy trying to strangle his mother and being sentenced to the Florida State Hospital, where he died from head trauma in 1984.

And Lee Roy Yarbrough was not the only NASCAR great to show evidence of CTE.

When Dick Trickle committed suicide in May of 2013, I immediately tweeted upon hearing the news that his family should – if possible – have his brain autopsied for CTE. Trickle suffered from chronic physical pain after decades of racing, and chronic emotional pain after the death of his granddaughter in an automobile accident. Such a combination of factors made CTE a logical diagnosis, albeit too late.

The stories, sadly enough, are plentiful. NASCAR Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen sits in an assisted-care facility outside Chicago where dementia has erased so many of his memories of racing stardom. Old friends and competitors go unrecognized, even if the causes of Lorenzen’s woes are too glaringly obvious.

We assume NFL players are in danger of brain trauma because they earn their salaries banging helmets with other powerful athletes in a game rooted in contact. Only lately are we discovering the dangers of sports like soccer, where heading a ball adds injury to matches where players kick, fall, and make contact without the benefit of headgear.

Now put yourself behind the wheel of a race car. Not the regulated safety cocoon of a NASCAR machine, but the patched-together cockpit of a low-budget late model at a Saturday night short track. It’s been said that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. liked to sit low and to the left, with his helmet close to the B-pillar for an extra sightline out the driver’s side window when taking corners. Imagine a local racer emulating The Intimidator’s style and trying the same thing, his (or her) helmet banging against the roll cage in every corner on every lap.

Multiply that banging by every race run every week in an attempt to make the big time. By the time a driver takes the wheel of a NCWTS opportunity, they’ve already likely experienced hundreds (if not thousands) of tiny brain injuries.

As with other ailments, the years are not always kind.

So I think it’s smart that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Sure, he’s following in the footsteps of other athletes like soccer star Brandi Chastain, but Junior’s also suffered at least three concussions since 2002, including two in 2012 that forced him to miss two races that season.

Dale tweeted that he won’t be needing his brain once he’s dead. That’s true, but such a donation will increase the base of knowledge available to scientists. Maybe someday CTE, like other chronic and destructive conditions, will be little more than a memory.

And athletes will be able to recall such memorable occurrences, thanks to the efforts of researchers and people like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

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