Concussions are a big story in modern sports. The NFL in particular has come under extreme scrutiny regarding their links to head injuries. What’s more, the severity of concussions has been coming to the forefront of the public consciousness. Typically, the NFL and the NHL take the brunt of this issue. With high profile cases of football and hockey players developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it is clear why these organizations have been the focus. However, head injuries in motorsports are slowly creeping in to this picture.
The most recent event concerning this topic is the current situation of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. No stranger to concussions, having suffered multiple throughout his career. Earnhardt has recently had to take an extended break from racing due to concussion symptoms. This comes mere months after Earnhardt pledged to donate his brain to be studied along with several former NFL players. The studies are for a better understanding of CTE and the danger of concussions. Although it was a sport that was previously left out of this discussion, it is time to get serious about head injuries in motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the newest and possibly the most high profile case in motorsports regarding head injuries. NASCAR’s most popular driver has not been shy about the severity of his condition. On his podcast “The Dale Jr. Download”, Earnhardt has shared his symptoms. “The symptoms I have are balance and nausea. I struggled with my balance over the last four, five days and I definitely wouldn’t be able to drive a race car this weekend”. This was in regards to the possibility of his sooner return, which Earnhardt insisted he cannot rush. Jeff Gordon has been standing in as Earnhardt’s replacement for the time being. Recently, that stint has been increased from two races to four.
CTE develops not only with severe blows to the head, but consistent smaller movements allowing the brain to rattle inside the skull and become bruised. Eventually, these smaller blows develop into serious damage consistent with more severe concussions. NASCAR drivers, although held very securely inside the cars, take hard blows in an accident. Although their heads are restrained by a Head and Neck Support or HANS device, there is nothing to keep their brains from colliding with the inside wall of the skull during an accident.
CTE has not been a focus in NASCAR due to lack of diagnosis in deceased drivers. Regardless, it is still a subject of great concern. The suicide of former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle has often been seen as a possible result of CTE, but is unproven. The fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has pledged to donate his brain for CTE research makes it clear that this possibility among racers is being considered.
Formula 1 and IndyCar
Formula 1 and IndyCar can be considered together in the case of head injuries. In NASCAR, the issue can largely be attributed to the violent movement of the brain within the skull in an accident. In these sports, with their open cockpits, injuries are the result of direct blows to the head. Unlike NASCAR, this has been in the forefront of open cockpit racing for a considerable amount of time. WEC made moves to eliminate the open cockpit within its top racing series, with some suggesting Formula 1 follow suit. After the death of Jules Bianci, Formula 1 began to experiment with a “HALO” to protect drivers’ heads. Reactions have been mixed, and the future of the project is still up in the air.
With the deaths of Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson, IndyCar has also come under scrutiny for the protection of drivers’ heads. Ultimately, it is becoming more and more obvious that helmets alone are not sufficient head protection. In these open cockpit sports, any overturned car or piece of debris becomes a possibly serious injury.
NASCAR proves that having a closed cockpit does not guarantee that a driver is safe from head injury. However, open cockpits appear to put drivers in immediate danger. Many fans argue that the danger of the sports is what makes them exciting, but the stakes are very high. As head injuries become a more central concern in all sports, head injuries in motorsports should become an integral part of this conversation.
Head Injuries in Sports
Motorsports have always been something of an outsider when regarding major sports. Even now, arguments abound regarding the classification of racing drivers as athletes. However, with the severity of health concerns regarding concussions becoming a focus in major sports, motorsports must be included. The unfortunate reality of CTE is that its effects are devastating and undiagnosable when the sufferer is alive. Organizations such as NASCAR, Formula 1, and IndyCar must begin to look more closely into how these issues come about and are handled.
In hockey and football in particular, the conversation has been long and tortuous. Players of each sport were misdiagnosed and mistreated before the link between concussions and severe brain deterioration was accepted. In multiple cases, athletes died as a result of mistreatment and misunderstanding regarding the damage that was done to their brains as a result of their professional sports careers.
Motorsports are in an opportune place regarding this. They have seen what other sports have done wrong, and have a chance to not make those same mistakes. With the seriousness of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s injuries and how the case is being handled, motorsports can take the correct steps towards protecting their athletes from the tragedies faced by professional football and hockey.