This hour originally aired on Oct. 16, 2018.
With Meghna Chakrabarti
NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up about concussions, fears and why he put the brakes on his storied career.
Michael Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program. He’s treated Dale Earnhardt Jr. for concussions since 2012.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from "Racing to the Finish" by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In 1982, my father got into a wreck with Tim Richmond at Pocono Raceway, turned upside down, hit hard, and actually slid along the wall on his roof for what seemed like forever. He broke his leg, but he kept that to himself and never missed a race. Why? Because he remembered what happened in 1979, his rookie year in the Cup Series, when he wrecked at the same track and missed the next four races. The driver that subbed for him was NASCAR legend David Pearson, who won one of those four races. Dad was afraid he was going to lose the job he’d worked so hard to get. So, he made sure never to miss another race, even with that broken leg in ’82.
In 1994 he broke a bone in his neck at Michigan, told no one, and went on to win his record-tying seventh championship. At Talladega in ’96 he suffered a broken collarbone. The next week he had to get out of the car a handful of laps into the Brickyard 400 because the pain was just too bad. The man fans called “The Intimidator,” a nickname he’d earned by being the toughest racer in the garage, nearly broke down crying on national TV when he saw his car drive off without him. The following weekend he refused to do that again, and he nearly won on the road course at Watkins Glen.
That was the mentality. You didn’t get out of your racecar, no matter what. Broke a bone? Suck it up, man. Got your bell rung? Shake it off, take a headache powder, and get ready for the next race.
Racecar drivers are hardheaded. That’s especially true when they are like me, the son and grandson of hardheaded racecar drivers! How hardheaded was I growing up? I was so hardheaded it inspired my father to give me a nickname that was the perfect sequel to what people had called him and his father before him.
He called me “Hammerhead,” son of “Ironhead,” grandson of “Ironheart.”
When I started racing I earned that nickname pretty literally. People always ask me where I was when my father earned the greatest victory of his career, his slump-busting win in the 1998 Daytona 500. You know where I was? On the couch, at home in Mooresville, North Carolina, with a washcloth on my head. The day before I’d raced in the Daytona 300, the NASCAR Xfinity (then Busch) Series event. We were racing down Daytona International Speedway’s long, flat backstretch when Buckshot Jones got into Dick Trickle, who got into me and sent me into a spin. My Chevy turned backward, took off like an airplane wing, and did a complete barrel roll midair. The right side of my car landed squarely on Trickle’s hood, which tipped me over and slammed the left front corner of the car hard into the infield grass. It hit so violently the car bounced back up into the air and did a 360-degree turn through the grass before I finally bumped up against the big concrete wall in the infield and came to a stop.
After I got checked out in the infield care center, I walked out to chat with the media folks who had gathered outside, like they always do. I told CBS Sports that I was “just a little bit woozy.” Then I turned to talk to a group of sportswriters. As I began to describe the flip, I actually fell backward—like nearly fainted—and had to be caught before I flopped onto the ground. I laughed about it, and so did the reporters I was talking to. When I went to the race shop that week we were laughing again when the guys on the crew showed me the inside of the car. When my car had slammed down on the ground, it caused my head to hit the roll cage so hard that my helmet had put a big dent into the bar. A steel bar. There was a mark on the top left corner of my helmet that matched that dent perfectly.
That same day I was up inside the car, lying on my back on the floorboard doing some electrical work under the dash, and the strangest thing happened. Suddenly, I felt like the car was being rolled across the floor of the shop with me in it. I sat up and realized it hadn’t moved an inch. I shook my head, rubbed my eyes, thought, Whoa, that was weird, and went back to work.
So, after hitting my head so hard that it bent steel, had me sounding totally groggy on national television, dang near caused me to pass out in the middle of a conversation, and made a car I was working on feel like it had zipped across the room, what was my treatment of choice? To go home, lay on the couch, and put a washcloth on my head.
Ol’ Hammerhead, right?
Taken from Racing to the Finish: My Story by Dale Earnhardt Jr Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.
Washington Post: "Q&A: Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up about concussions, fear and walking away" — Q: Why do you think it’s so difficult for professional athletes to acknowledge head injuries and seek medical help during their careers?
A: I think the main reason is because they may lose their job and there is such competition behind them among guys clamoring to replace them. If you take a few days to get some help, somebody could come in and outperform or easily replace you. Then, when you come back, you’re afraid of skepticism over whether you are truly able to come back and perform at your peak. There is a stigma or a stereotype of head injuries because you can’t see them. People can’t diagnose them and can’t measure them.
Q: As an Earnhardt, as well as NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver, were you even more reluctant to seek help?
A: With me, all kinds of things depended on me racing. I’m going to list the things I felt depended on me racing; whether they’re real or they’re imagined, I don’t know. But I felt pressure from my fans to race. I didn’t have literal pressure; I don’t want my fans to feel like they are responsible for that. But I felt I had pressure to race for my fans. I felt like I had pressure from my family, from people that worked for me. My success, my job, my brand was important to their success. I felt responsibilities to my team owner, business partners and sponsors to be in the car. Everything that I had in my life — everything and every person connected to me — seemed to be dependent on me being a racecar driver.
So there were a lot of things pushing me to race. For me personally, it was easy to say, “I’ve got an issue. I need to fix it. I need to take all the time I need to get it right.” That was easy for me inside in my heart. In my mind, I never struggled with it. I never missed racing when I was out. I wanted to do what I needed to do to get my head right. But I didn’t feel that same sense of comfort and reassurance from everything around me.
Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.
This program aired on December 26, 2018.