Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t looking to become an influential voice when he began opening up about his concussion.
But Earnhardt’s forwardness has resulted in other drivers following his ways. Something both Ryan Ellis and Sarah Cornett-Ching admit they wouldn’t have previously done.
“I don’t think I would have gotten checked out honestly,” Ellis told NBC Sports. “It’s not because I didn’t think I had (a concussion) or anything, it just kind of has that negative connotation when you take a hit. Like, ‘Oh that guy can’t take a hit.’ You don’t want to feel like a wuss out there.”
Ellis blew a right front tire in the Oct. 2 Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway and his car slammed the wall. He was checked and released from the infield care center but returned when he started to get a headache, felt dizzy, and become nauseous in the garage. Ellis then headed to a local hospital.
“When one of the leaders of the sport (Earnhardt) goes out there and takes the extra steps to get back and make sure he’s right when he comes back, that really gives you the feeling of comfort that you can go and get that checked out,” Ellis said. “No one is going to look at you differently the next week.”
Cornett-Ching had similar thoughts. She hit the outside and inside walls during the Sept. 23 ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway and suffered a headache. Cornett-Ching said it wasn’t until the next day “when everything started falling apart for me.” She said her brain couldn’t keep up with her surroundings and that night she became nauseous and had ringing in her ears.
Cornett-Ching spent the next few days laying in the dark before NASCAR called to check on her. They recommended she see Dr. Jerry Petty, one of the top neurologists in the Charlotte area.
“The decision to open up about what I was going through was influenced by Dale Jr. because initially, I thought it would make me feel weak,” Cornett-Ching told NBC Sports. “I didn’t really want people to know I had a concussion because if there was an opportunity to run a car or do something and advance my career, I didn’t want it to be hindered by the fact that I have a concussion right now.”
That Earnhardt has been a trendsetter in this area is something he didn’t anticipate nor takes the credit. Although he suspected a few individuals might be affected by watching his injury unfold, Earnhardt is glad to see drivers getting the necessary treatment.
“You’ve only got one brain,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “When that’s not working right you get scared into wanting to get fixed. When you get hurt, and you can’t see the way you want to see, or you can’t think straight, or your balance is off, that right there is enough to drive you to make the right decisions. So I can’t take much credit for it.
“I think that these folks when they hear somebody talking about it, and they hear about the symptoms, and then they experience it themselves, they realize this is serious, this is scaring me, this is what he did, and I know this path to take to get right. So, I’m glad they’re making good decisions.”
Earnhardt hopes more drivers continue to follow suit. As he’s learned, there are many educated doctors ready to help, in addition to exercises set to specific injuries. And it’s important, Earnhardt agrees, that drivers know it’s OK to come out and say they are hurt and need the help.
“That’s the smartest thing to do and especially when you’re dealing with your head,” Earnhardt said. “Trying to kind of soldier through it on your own is an easy choice to try to make but a lot of times you can get yourself in trouble if you happen to have another incident shortly after that. When you start to layer concussions and get two or three back-to-back is when you really get into the danger zone.”
Ellis had the chance to speak with Earnhardt last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway during an event for Earnhardt’s foundation. They discussed their symptoms and experiences.
“We had the same feelings of fogginess and stuff like that after the initial hit,” Ellis said. “He did help quite a bit. It’s really cool to have the leader of our sport there to kind of lean on.”
The most important thing Earnhardt told Ellis was to listen to his doctor.
“You can’t have any doubt in your mind about what you’re doing as far as whether it’s going to work or whether it’s not going to work,” Earnhardt said he told Ellis. “You’re going to get people coming from all over the place out of all kinds of corners saying, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do. Hey, this is what you need to do. You know, my buddy had that. I bet you have inner ear infection or your rocks are loose’ or what the hell ever.
“Everybody thinks that they know what is wrong with you and what to do. You just need to listen to one person, and that’s your doctor, and you gotta be completely transparent when you go to your doctor and you’re hurt.”