NASCAR’s concussion policy is slowly taking shape. This much we know: The auto racing circuit is going to make baseline testing for all its drivers mandatory for next season.
For now, according to The Associated Press, NASCAR will encourage its drivers to take the test. It already has buy-in from one of its biggest stars, Jeff Gordon.
Going into the Daytona 500 on Sunday — the circuit’s biggest race — Gordon said getting tested was an easy decision after his teammate, popular driver Dale Earnhardt, suffered the circuit’s most talked about head injury last season.
Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, listened and voluntarily took a baseline concussion test before the start of the season.
“I just think whether it’s voluntary or not, it’s a good idea to have,” Gordon said. “I don’t think that NASCAR necessarily has to make it mandatory, but if you’re a race car driver, and you feel you’re going to be here for a while, you need to make it mandatory to yourself.”
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, has encouraged other drivers to get tested now. And he had some interesting statistics.
O’Donnell said NASCAR had identified 32 concussions in their top three national series since 2004, including three last season. The one suffered by Earnhardt forced NASCAR concussions right into the spotlight.
He was injured in a crash during an August tire test at Kansas, but didn’t seek treatment for the mild concussion. His stubborn streak instead kept him behind the wheel. He was then part of a 25-car pileup in October at Talladega that triggered lingering headaches and other recognizable warning signs.
Earnhardt went to a doctor, and he was ultimately benched for two races. His drive for his first Cup title was dashed.
The interesting tie is that most major safety changes in NASCAR since the turn of the century can be attributed to an Eanhardt. Dale Sr.’s death caused major changes in head and neck restraints. Now Dale Jr. is making NASCAR face the concussion issues in racing.
However, not all drivers are buying into the testing, like veteran Mark Martin.
“Let’s say I tripped on a banana peel and broke my thumb,” he said. “If I want to drive my race car with a broke thumb, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to. I’d rather be the one making decisions. It would scare me to death if somebody told me, ‘You can’t do that.’ “
And other drivers, like Michael Waltrip, seem to show that football’s “concussion culture” exists in NASCAR.
But inside the head of every driver is the ability to mentally shake off the life-altering consequences ahead all because of one pileup or blown tire — even if that includes sliding into the cockpit with a concussion.
“If I’m a race car driver,” Waltrip said, “I’d still try to fake it.”
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor