Friday 5: Matt Tifft reveals cause of his seizures

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Matt Tifft’s Lyft ride takes him to his Cup team’s race shop as he discusses a subject he couldn’t bring himself to publicly talk about for months.

Tifft, whose NASCAR driving career was sidelined after an Oct. 2019 seizure at Martinsville Speedway, needs a ride to work because he’s not allowed to drive.

The co-owner of Live Fast Motorsports must go six months without a seizure before he can seek to drive again in North Carolina. It’s only been about 10 weeks since his last seizure — the seventh he’s had since that morning in Martinsville.

Doctors diagnosed the 24-year-old with epilepsy last January, but it has taken Tifft since then to overcome his anxiety about the brain disorder and talk publicly about the diagnosis.

His driving career on hold because of epilepsy, Matt Tifft became co-owner of the Live Fast Motorsports Cup team with B.J. McLeod. The team will makes its debut in the Feb. 14 Daytona 500. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“It can be very depressing,” Tifft told NBC Sports in his first public comments about his epilepsy and how it has impacted his life. “It can be very anxiety-inducing because it really changes almost everything you do in your regular life.”

His driving career in NASCAR may be over. He’s not wheeled a passenger car since going to Martinsville 15 months ago. Tests could not determine what caused his epilepsy. Doctors can’t say with certainty that it will go away.

Tifft admits he had to go through “a lot of therapy just to get out of my house” after the seizures, worried about what could happen to him if he had another one.

He knows he’s not alone, though.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 3.4 million people nationwide are affected by epilepsy. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy.

The more Tifft talked with friends and family about epilepsy, the more he heard about others who had it.

“OK, I’m no longer alone with this,” he said. “That made me feel a whole lot better.”

And willing to be open about what he’s going through.

“People with epilepsy, we still are normal functioning people,” Tifft said. “It’s literally an electrical firestorm in your brain. When you have a seizure, it’s like a surge protector shutting it down to keep your body from harming itself.”

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder where abnormal brain activity can lead to seizures that range from people blankly staring for a few seconds to others having convulsions. The World Health Organization notes that the cause of the disorder is unknown in about 50% of cases globally.

Concussions can lead to epilepsy — Tifft said he’s had about half a dozen concussions in his life — but there is nothing conclusive to show that is the case for his epilepsy.

He also said doctors don’t believe that the brain tumor he had removed July 1, 2016 directly led to his condition.

“They say it could just be a cocktail of different things that happened,” Tifft said of what doctors have told him.

That unknown has made it more difficult for him to deal with compared to the brain tumor he had.

“When I had the brain tumor … I was able to see it,” he said. “I see it gone (after the surgery via scans). There was a plan. There was a timeline.

“With this, it’s a little bit harder, because you don’t know when it’s going to happen. As we’ve gone along, I’ve had to change medications. … I think a big part of (not revealing the epilepsy diagnosis earlier) and a big reason why I wanted to do it before the season came, I wasn’t trying to hide it, I think it took that long to accept it.

Tifft said his most recent seizure was Nov. 10. He said his first seizures lasted between three to five minutes. His most recent seizure went for less than a minute. That seizure also was the first time he remained conscious the entire time.

One constant is that he has a warning before a seizure occurs.

“I have a 10- or 15-second warning and most people don’t have that,” Tifft said. “They just normally go, boom, they’re out. That warning or aura I have is a little bit bizarre. … The best that I could put it is that you know when you’re a little kid and you put a tip of a D battery up to your tongue to feel the shock. It feels like that through your brain.

“I would still be conscious before I started having muscle movements. For me, my tongue rolls back. Then my eyes go backward in my head. At the same time, I can feel my arms go up. I can feel all that before I pass out and it hits the off button somewhere in there.”

The Epilepsy Foundation states that six out of 10 people diagnosed with the disorder can become seizure-free within a few years with proper treatment.

“It’s possible that I never have another one and that’s kind of what I go with,” Tifft said. “But, at the same time now, I’m not convinced of that. I go, ‘OK, there’s a high chance I can have another one, so what can I do to make sure to help extend that timeline (between seizures)?’ … Then maybe there’s a day I don’t worry about it.”

Just as Tifft became an advocate for those with brain tumors after his tumor — he had sponsorship with the National Brain Tumor Society and traveled to Washington, D.C., in May 2017 to petition members of Congress for more funding for brain tumor research — he’ll be an advocate for those with epilepsy.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it full bore,” Tifft said.

That’s why he’s speaking now. He also wants people to understand what they should do if they are around someone who is suffering a seizure, such as easing a person to the floor and gently turning them on to their side. The co-owner of the No. 78 Cup team plans to make a $7,800 donation at the beginning of the race season to the epilepsy foundation toward research and awareness.

He also says this ordeal has taught him a key lesson.

“At the beginning, I looked at it wrong,” he said. “‘OK, I’m going to have a seizure, when is it going to be?’ Now, it’s like, ‘OK, that’s not the right mindset. Let me enjoy today because it may happen again.’ I think that’s the mindset change and that’s a big deal, because I feel I’m getting to appreciate things I couldn’t do before.”

2. Side trip to IndyCar test

Ross Chastain, who is entering his first Cup season with Chip Ganassi Racing, made a trip to Sebring International Raceway earlier this week to meet some of his teammates on Ganassi’s IndyCar side at the NTT IndyCar Series preseason test session.

AUTO: FEB 21 NASCAR Cup Series - Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
Ross Chastain will drive the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup this season. (Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I’ve got an arsenal of teammates here under the CGR banner that Chip has amassed from all walks of motorsports,” Chastain told NBC Sports.  I’ve got people that I can ask questions, like Dario Franchitti, Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon. Those are the big-name guys, but then getting to meet Alex Palou, another rookie coming into Chip’s team.

“He just moved to Indianapolis (where Ganassi’s IndyCar team is based), trying to get his bearings up there, same thing for me. We shared notes and have a lot of the struggles and fears and anxiousness. He’s from a totally different part of the world, but here we both are trying to tackle our first full season in our dream car in our dream series for a dream owner.

“Comparing notes and just getting to meet them and just ask questions. I have a lot of questions to ask and I want to ask different people and get all of their opinions and all of their feedback and then I form my own thoughts.”

Chastain will be teammates with Kurt Busch on Ganassi’s Cup program this season.

3. Playing in the dirt

Matt DiBenedetto says he will probably run a midget car “a couple of times” this year.

“I have a big, big passion for dirt racing,” the Wood Brothers Racing driver told NBC Sports. “I think it will fit my style very well.”

DiBenedetto said he hopes to be in a midget car on dirt before the Bristol Dirt Cup race March 28.

Wood Brothers
Matt DiBenedetto enters his second Cup season with Wood Brothers Racing. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Probably more for fun,” he said of why he wants to run a midget car, “because it’s a completely different driving style for a midget vs. a Cup car on dirt. As far as honing your skills to be a great driver, the more things you can drive, it only makes you better.”

“Dirt racing teaches you a lot of characteristics that carry over to asphalt. I think that’s why you’ve seen Christopher Bell, guys like that, make incredible saves because they have throttle control. I’m just looking to do that to continue to hone my skills and make me an even better race car driver. And I miss dirt racing. I grew up doing. I loved it.”

DiBenedetto said he’s been wanting to run a midget in the past, but the Bristol Dirt race provided extra motivation to do so this year.

“The older I get,” the 29-year-old said, “the more I’m just completely focused on self development and being the best I can be in everything, whether it’s life or … driving a race car.”

4. Respect

One of the key things Christopher Bell said he learned from his rookie season was respect. For the car.

Among the adjustments Bell had to make going from the Xfinity to Cup was the change in cars. Xfinity cars have composite bodies, which can withstand much more contact than the steel bodies of Cup cars. The steel bodies are more prone to crinkle on contact.

“I knew that was going to be a big change,” Bell told NBC Sports of the switch between cars. “It was still eye-opening how fragile steel bodies are. You’ve got to really take care of them and take care of your equipment.”

Bell finished 20th in points last season for Leavine Family Racing, scoring seven top 10s. He failed to finish four races. He moves to Joe Gibbs Racing this season to be a teammate to Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin.

Cole Custer, who was last year’s Cup rookie of the year and scored a win to earn a playoff spot, said he learned to treat the Cup cars better.

“It was definitely something you had to think about,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver told NBC Sports. “If you touched the wall, you were probably going to get a flat (because of the fender rubbing the tire). At the same time, I don’t think it was something I focused on. It was just something that was part of (adjusting to Cup).”

5. Extra laps of racing

The tentative weekend schedule for the Daytona road course lists the Feb. 21 Cup race as 70 laps. That event was 65 laps a year ago.

Last year’s race lasted 2 hours, 37 minutes, 30 seconds.

The Xfinity race is again listed as 52 laps for the scheduled distance. The Truck race is again listed as 44 laps for the scheduled distance.

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