• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

HEAD CASE

I'd like to say that Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out of some Sprint Cup races due to concussion symptoms marks the start of a new and improved era of pro-active driver safety rules in NASCAR.

I'd like to -- but I can't.

As NASCAR racing operations senior VP Steve O'Donnell said after Junior's announcement, tracking concussions is a "subjective call."

As I know from personal experience, that is true. Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammel, the 1-2 Dynamic Duo of the original and gold standard CART traveling medical team, once explained to me that they could look at an X-ray of a broken bone and say how long it would take to heal. As for head injuries, though, they said that's impossible, even looking at an MRI or using other modern diagnosic techniques.

In short, there's no way to know. And that is why head injuries require a higher standard of care and caution than other injuries, because they are more difficult to assess. That means the sanctioning bodies must step-up and take on a greater role. That should begin with a mandatory check for concussion symptoms the day immediately following a suspicious wreck. No checkup, no OK from a qualified doctor, no racing the next weekend. Period.

The hard truth is Junior turned himself in, NASCAR didn't. Dale could have been wheeling his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevy last Saturday night at Charlotte because there's no evidence NASCAR was set to say otherwise. I'm glad Junior did what he did. I wish that would provide an example for other drivers, but . . .

Junior's position within the sport and industry is unique. He knows he can get out of the car and not have to worry if he'll still have a job. Precious few other drivers are in that position. Most wouldn't take themselves out of the game for fear they'd never get back in. And, as Jeff Gordon himself admitted, if he was leading the Sprint Cup championship with only a couple of races to go, he would play hurt.

Again, I speak from personal experience and direct observation. Head injuries and neuro diseases can't be handled like a broken bone. The gray area is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. That means the sanctioning organizations have to assume a greater burden of the responsibility. Yes, it's a judgment call -- but NASCAR quickly explains away other competition decisions with that same reasoning.

Meanwhile, don't rush back, Junior. Ticket sales and TV ratings aside, there is no need to do so. Your championship possibilities are gone and another win this year isn't worth your hurry. Take the rest of the season off if all available evidence indicates that's the wisest course of action.


Here's my notebook in last Friday's Arizona Republic with news of a new NASCAR Truck series driver and the future of NHRA at Firebird Raceway:
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/sports/articles/2012/10/11/20121011mexicos-quiroga-driven-realize-nascar-dream.html

[ more next Monday . . . ]