Photo: Jared C. Tilton (Getty Images)

NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired last year after struggling to return from a concussion in 2016. Now he has an upcoming book about the experience, and he’s finally opening up about his experiences with concussions over the year, highlighting the heartbreaking worries and lack of support drivers encounter when they have a brain injury on the job.

Earnhardt was this week’s guest on the syndicated sports show In Depth with Graham Bensinger, where he admitted to having somewhere between 20 and 25 concussions during his NASCAR career—most of which went unreported to anyone, much less NASCAR. Of a 2014 concussion, Earnhardt said that he was too scared to even tell his wife Amy about it.

“I was scared to death,” Earnhardt told host Graham Bensinger.

Earnhardt explained to Bensinger that he felt as if admitting that he was concussed would have negative repercussions on his career:

Every time. Every time. You know, any time you have a head injury. Your brain is your computer, you know, and people don’t have the faith in it healing like a broken bone. There’s instances in the past where guys have had head injuries and visually, you can see it’s affected them permanently.

So, if you go to somebody and go, “Man, you know I rung my bell and I’m real messed up and I’m gonna take a break and I’m gonna come back 100 percent,” you know that person’s always gonna have that in the back of their mind. And when you don’t run a good race, are they gonna go, “Hmm, I wonder if he’s just not the same anymore?” You know, I’ve heard that talk about other drivers. Even guys that don’t have any history of concussions, I’ve heard people say, “You know he did have a lot of hard wrecks.”

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When even the guy who was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for a record 14 times is saying that there isn’t enough support and basic job security for him to voluntarily fess up to brain injuries, there is a massive problem with the way motorsports handles concussions.

Earnhardt’s own descriptions of what he went through with some of his concussions should be enough to convince anyone that we have to do a better job of keeping concussed drivers out of the race car. He told Bensinger of a 2014 concussion:

It felt like I was not able to do the simplest tasks around the house at home because I was drunk. Buckling a belt, tying a knot in a shoelace was a challenge, like you couldn’t put a sentence together because you couldn’t remember a word. If you had a word with two consonants together, or even three, like “match,” or something simple, you would struggle sometimes saying those words like your tongue would feel like it’s a big balloon in your mouth.

My eyesight problems would be, um, if I looked at something very close to me, like your shoe, and then looked at something outside out in the yard, it would take my eyes a few seconds to focus on that item. And then to come back to your shoe real close to me, it would take my eyes a sec—you know, it was too slow.

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These issues make everything else that you have to deal with exponentially worse when you try to explain what’s going on to someone else. When I had a concussion a couple years ago, I remember feeling stranded in an airport when I—a person who writes for a living—couldn’t figure out how to say that I was in a lot of pain from various injuries and needed help finding my gate to go home. The simplest descriptions are too hard to figure out, and basic tasks become bafflingly difficult. It’s terrifying!

Earnhardt explained that he even had issues telling his own wife what was happening to him:

Trying to explain this problem to someone who’s never had a concussion or never experienced these problems is really frustrating. Trying to tell even my wife that my eyes aren’t working and this is what they’re doing—it just really builds a ton of frustration inside.

You’re frustrated having the issues, right? You’re frustrated that they’re happening. You’re mad inside yourself about it, and now [you’re] trying to explain to someone who’s not a doctor and is not really someone who can do anything about it. Even though she’s my wife and I love her to death, it just does me no good to share it with someone—anyone—who can’t help me.

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When you’re not sure that opening up to someone is going to help or hinder you, telling them what you’re going through feels especially precarious.

Dale said that he is impressed by the lengths NASCAR now goes to treat what they know about and can see happen, with mandatory concussion testing and a traveling neurosurgeon on staff. However, he believes that it’s everything that drivers aren’t willing to share with the series that’s still the most harmful. When Bensinger asked what Earnhardt would do differently, Earnhardt explained:

I am aware that a driver is their own worst enemy in that scenario. They’re going to do everything they can in that scenario to keep racing, keep their job, [and] not let anyone in on this information and this secret. I would do everything I could to protect the drivers from themselves. That would be my main goal, and it would be annoying at times to the drivers, you know, but my intentions would be to take care of them.

‘Cause, man, when I wrecked in my twenties, I didn’t know I was hurt. I didn’t know that this was a problem. I’d get out of the car and go, “Yeah, I feel funky. I did have a hard crash. I’m going home. See you later.”

If I was a neurosurgeon and I’m at the racetrack and a guy hits really, really hard or it’s an interesting, unique kind of impact, I would be like, “Hey man, [...] let’s hold this guy here. I want to keep you here for an hour and make sure you’re fine. Run you through a few tests and maybe even get you to do an ImPACT test, compare that to your baseline, things like that.”

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NASCAR does this to some extent already with drivers who wreck hard enough to retire from the race after an impact. But it’s still all too easy for drivers who take a big hit but can keep driving to brush it off and never admit to their symptoms later, out of the exact same fear of losing their ride that Dale had.

Earnhardt may have picked the right time to bow out of driving, however, as he told Bensinger that he had symptoms watching NASCAR practice from the pits at Martinsville earlier this year. It wasn’t until they went to watch from a little further away that his anxiety calmed down. Earnhardt explained that the way concussion symptoms appear has him terrified that they’re going to come back:

The symptoms in 2016 came on like a cold or a flu. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I hit a wall and now I’m messed up.” It was like a slow progression that wasn’t even tied to an impact. Ever since then, I’ve got this fear in me that this could all come back. It came on its own then [at Martinsville], it could come back again at some point in my life.

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He also voiced the all-too-frequent concern that the number of concussions he’s had will affect his memory or personality later in life. Earnhardt announced in 2016 that he would be donating his brain to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research after he died to further advance the medical world’s understanding of how repeated hard hits affect the brain over time. CTE, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain which can lead to personality changes and dementia, is a common fear among athletes in sports where brain injuries are common.

Earnhardt said that he even started taking notes on his iPhone in case something else happened to him:

I felt compromised in my head. I felt delicate, and if I was to have another random, rare, high-impact crash that could injure me severely—so severely that I wouldn’t be able to communicate properly, [...] I wanted there to be some sort of documentation of what had been happening to me and what I’d been going through. [...]

I was writing that down just out of fear [...] of what was happening to me. I was scared. I was having these simple little crashes that were giving me problems. Why? And why am I not able to deal with these crashes that everyone else around me can deal with, and I used to be able to deal with? So, let me write this down.

That way, it was there on paper. [...] That was a way for me to draw a timeline of my improvement or progression through each incident. That way, if it was helpful to my doctor, [...] if he ever needed this information, because I wasn’t going to be able to remember it precisely.

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You can view In Depth’s full playlist of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s interview, which also talks about Dale’s home, married life, his relationship with his father and his current role as a broadcast commentator, here.