Late afternoon sun melts through the wall-sized windows of the Manhattan Car Club, a members-only establishment that gives you access to any beautiful classic and exotic cars—for a fee of $180 a month. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is here in New York City promoting his new partnership with Nicorette, sharing his own story of being a former smoker and using his experience to encourage others to put down their cigarettes. But although I have questions about his health, I’m more focused on one of the biggest concealed issues in racing: head injuries.
“I felt like if people saw me smoking or knew that I smoked, they would think I didn’t take my job seriously and didn’t care about my health,” Earnhardt told Jalopnik. “Knowing how things went with telling my concussion story, this felt very similar. Saying, I made these mistakes and made these choices and here’s how I fixed it and I want to help you. It’s a similar story line.”
So pressing was the need to discuss what happened with his head injuries that Earnhardt wrote an entire memoir dedicated to the subject, Racing to the Finish, and a New York Times article about shedding light on what it means to suffer a head injury while competing in racing—in the minutest or most severe ways. From the NYT article:
In 1998, at the Daytona 300, my Chevy was tossed into the air and slammed down so hard on its nose that my helmet dented the steel roll cage. Later that week when I was working inside a car at the shop, I suddenly felt the car rolling. I sat up and realized it hadn’t moved an inch. I’d eventually find out my vestibular system — the communication lines between the brain, inner ear and body — had been damaged.
NASCAR fans know that Earnhardt missed half of the 2016 season due to severe concussion-related symptoms before finally retiring the following year. But hidden beneath the surface was a history that spanned much longer.
He was first sidelined by a concussion after a crash at the last lap of the October Talladega race in 2012—which had worsened symptoms from a crash during a late-August test session. In his autobiography, Junior recounts that he couldn’t keep his emotions under control, that it felt like he was stumbling through life perpetually drunk. Getting behind the wheel wasn’t an option.
Earnhardt estimates that he had at least 20 concussions during his career, the full extent of which were kept quiet in order to keep racing without the shadow that a head injury often casts over a driver.
“It’s kind of like if you ever get caught cheating or with an illegal part, you’re labelled a cheater even when you win legally,” Junior told Jalopnik. “That’s the way it is with head injuries. It’s, “he’s just not the same, never was the same.” We’ve had guys have that experience. We’ve had drivers with great careers get hurt, are forced to take the time off, come back, and don’t get treated as good as they used to.
“That’s why, a lot of times, guys won’t speak up. They don’t want anyone to know.”
Because head and brain injuries are often invisible to the naked eye, they’re generally not taken as seriously as, say, a driver who loses use of his legs or who breaks an arm. This is a stigma that transcends motorsport—87 percent of football players are found to have degenerative brain diseases, Time reports. But that’s only resulted in college football programs using vague language to avoid openly discussing those head injuries, says the Chronicle of Higher Education. If you want to keep playing, you need to stay silent.
But in the modern era, brain injuries are the most dangerous forms of injury a driver can have. A broken leg can be set. A burn can heal. But a bad concussion can impact the quality of your life for years down the road. The leading cause of sports-related deaths in any discipline are traumatic brain injuries, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons has found. Those injuries may take decades to cause full degeneration—but that one hard hit all those years ago can become the direct cause of death later in life.
And that’s not even considering the symptoms of concussions: dizziness, confusion, headaches, nausea and vomiting, delayed responses. Long-term effects can include loss of concentration or memory, personality changes, depression, and sensitivity to light. In short: all things that make it incredibly difficult to race a car without putting yourself or others in danger.
Because of that, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed quiet. It was a calculated move to keep quiet about his life-altering concussions—like in any sport, he feared being viewed as “damaged goods.” On Fox Sports’ list of ten NASCAR “tough guys” who raced post-injury, at least four drivers were praised for bravely returning to the sport to race while concussed. If Brad Keselowski can race with a visibly broken ankle, the view is that you should be driving with your invisible concussion.
Dale Jr. didn’t worry about being viewed as one of those tough guys as his symptoms progressed:
I was so scared for myself and for my future and for my health and whether I was going to be like this forever, that didn’t even matter,” he told me. “I couldn’t even think or care about anybody else’s opinion or reaction to it. It did not bother me. Usually, I’m really insecure about stuff, I always worry about what everybody else thinks and keeping everybody else happy and I’m worried about fan reaction to this, that, and the other thing.
When you’re sick, you’re so scared for yourself. And all I worried about was, like, doctor, fix me! I can’t live like this! I can’t have this every day! I’m freaking out! And you go months with no progress. You’re thinking, dammit, are you telling me the truth? Because they’re all positive, like, “oh, we’re gonna fix it.” You gotta tell everybody that, stop that. Tell me what’s really going on.
I couldn’t even hear any of the outside noise. It was me and my wife huddled in our house and doing the exercises and the rehab and working our guts out to figure out how to fix this.
He’s one of the drivers of a newer era, though, who can recognize the danger that’s present after even a mild concussion. For most of its history, the culturally-reinforced notion that a driver must push on despite brain injuries is a dark mark on NASCAR, one that has only become all the more apparent as we become more educated about the nature of concussions and their long-term impact.
When Dick Trickle committed suicide in May, 2013, the driver’s family released a statement saying that Trickle had been suffering from chronic pain for years. It has been hypothesized that undiagnosed head injuries contributed to the decision to take his own life, but as the family has elected not to disclose postmortem details, we can’t know for sure.
More recently, J. D. Gibbs, the co-chairman of Joe Gibbs Racing, died in January of 2019 at the age of 49 after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. A statement from the family revealed that doctors believed his complications “were triggered by head injuries likely suffered earlier in life” but were unable to link that hypothesis to any specific event in Gibbs’ life, be it from his football career at College of William & Mary or from racing.
Former driver Jerry Nadeau’s crash in 2013 recorded 120 Gs and put him in a coma for three weeks. The brain injuries from the crash have permanently altered Nadeau’s speech, movement, and emotional composition. Rick Baldwin slipped into a coma for eleven years after suffering severe injuries as a result of a qualifying crash in 1986. He died in 1997. And then there was Ernie Irvan, who managed to make a racing comeback after suffering a severe head injury that had left him with a mere ten percent chance of survival.
The stats on brain injuries haven’t always been readily available to drivers—nor has it seemed like a good idea to seek out potentially career-damning information. With that knowledge under their belts, long or even permanent breaks from the sport become more and more attractive.
“It was easy for me,” Earnhardt said of his decision to retire. “That last episode in 2016 was a real wake-up call and very scary experience. I thought, man, I want a good quality of life. I gotta take care of myself.
“I was near the end of my career. I had so much to lose. Racing’s not that important anymore. When I was in my 20s, I might have made a totally different decision, of being quiet and not as forthcoming with that information.
“I got married. I became a father. I might not have told that story if I was still looking for the love of my life. I might have kept that to myself. I wouldn’t want to be out there looking for that one person with any kind of stigma over my head of having a head injury.
“But if I hadn’t gotten those injuries, I would be racing today. Absolutely. I wasn’t ready to quit.”
There are likely scores of other drivers out there who, like Earnhardt, kept their injuries under wraps, assuming a willful ignorance for as long as they possibly could. What you don’t know can still hurt you—but at least no one will be putting your race performance into question.
Now, though, that conversation is changing. The main concern is no longer quite so much on racing no matter what, but racing while educated and making decisions—like Earnhardt’s choice to retire—that prioritize one’s own health, not one’s racing legacy.
“Some drivers aren’t willing to hear or open themselves up to learning about [head injuries]. Some drivers aren’t going to read that book I wrote—many of them probably won’t,” Earnhardt told me. “But the few that do and the few that are open to learning and being proactive about it so that when that does happen to them, they know what they should do. Those guys are speaking to me and those guys are making the better choices and putting themselves in a good position so that if they get hurt or start seeing some symptoms of things that aren’t quite right…
“I think as far as drivers go, the culture is changing slowly. Certainly the younger guys coming in are getting a lot more education about it.”
Whether drivers are ready or not, the governing body of NASCAR has been taking proactive steps forward when it comes to revamping post-crash check-ups. Earnhardt told Jalopnik, “We have a neurosurgeon that goes to every race now. That used to not be the case. If a driver is involved in any kind of accident—they don’t even have to hit anything or have any kind of contact—they have to go in front of the neurosurgeon. They’re much more thorough, much more so than they were three, four years ago.”
It’s impossible to know how many NASCAR drivers—or how many drivers in any form of motorsport, for that matter—have concussions. And if they do, it’s impossible to know how many concussions they’ve had or the severity of them. It’s likely, though, that many drivers have suffered head injuries.
That means there’s still more work to be done in terms of educating drivers about, preventing, and treating head injuries. There’s work to be done, culturally, to remove the “damaged goods” stigma, the idea that you just need to man up and stop complaining about a headache. There’s work to be done regarding safety standards, to be ready to change alongside new information in science.
The implementation of HANS devices changed the racing world for the better by providing stability to the head and neck area, reducing brain and spine injuries. SAFER barriers absorb the energy of a crash to reduce the severity of impact and thus the amount the head and neck can move in a crash.
As with many things in racing, though, changes in culture are often slow to follow big safety innovations—as the comments section on any blog about Formula One’s halo can attest. Drivers who retire early to preserve their health aren’t always fully accepted by fans. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans wondered why he’d retire with several more theoretical years of competition under his belt. F1's Nico Rosberg was criticized for not returning to defend his title after opting to retire for his family after achieving his greatest success.
What we need are more conversations, more drivers speaking up about their health and the experiences that might have encouraged them to take an early retirement. New generations of drivers need to know that it’s okay to step back. Earnhardt Jr. understands the importance of sharing his ordeal, and he’s used his platform well. Without a racing career to impact, he can more openly discuss the implications of his illnesses.
“At this point, if this does put a stigma on me or bring focus on me, that’s okay,” Earnhardt Jr. told me. “I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. I just want people to know.”