Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t want to be the face of concussions in NASCAR or sports at large.
But a seemingly innocuous crash at Michigan International Speedway on June 12 followed by the delayed emergence of concussion symptoms four weeks later led to Earnhardt slipping into that role.
“It is not something that I intentionally wanted to spearhead,” Earnhardt said in a Friday teleconference with reporters. “But I have seen a culture change tremendously.”
While sports like football have received intense scrutiny in recent years due to concussions and the danger of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in players in years later, increased concerns have come to NASCAR after the 14-time most popular driver missed the final 18 races of 2016.
MORE: Earnhardt defends return to racing despite danger of concussions
MORE: Darlington test “recharged” Dale Jr.
Earnhardt, who has had at least five concussion in his career, was treated for his most recent case by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. It was there that Earnhardt saw the many forms that concussions can come in and the different ways they impact people.
“Mickey sees two dozen patients a day with various types of injuries,” Earnhardt said. “And every day he learns something new; obviously he has seen a million people with the same thing that I had, but every day they learn something new. Every day as a patient I think you learn something new. It’s incredible the progress that is being made, but it is happening right now. It is happening right in front of us. It is being taken more seriously, and I think that is great.”
Earnhardt wasn’t the only NASCAR driver to fall victim to a concussion this season.
John Wes Townley, a driver in the Camping World Truck Series, missed two races this season after incurring concussion symptoms in a race where he crashed multiple times.
In November at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto was forced to sit out the Sprint Cup race for what was believed to be a concussion received in the Xfinity Series race a day earlier. DiBenedetto believes he was completely fine and that NASCAR was being cautious in its decision.
DiBenedetto’s case led to 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski once again raising questions about the relationship of doctors to the sport.
But it was the absence of Earnhardt from the track that drove the conversation about concussions while he traveled back and forth between North Carolina and Pennsylvania, working his way back to the cockpit.
“I obviously don’t want anyone to go through the injury, much less the rehabilitation,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been great to have the opportunity to go to Pittsburgh; to meet Mickey and his whole staff and have exposure to everything that they are doing and get to understand how much they have learned and what they are capable of doing.
“It’s given me so much confidence to be able to come back and race again knowing that those guys are there, and they are able to patch you up and get you stronger. What they have been able to do is incredible for people like me. They are doing that every day with dozens and dozens of folks.”