Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals he has had more than 20 concussions in his NASCAR career
NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired last year after a prolonged struggle with symptoms from a concussion. At the time, it was obvious it was not Earnhardt’s first concussion, and there was evidence he had sustained significant trauma from repeated head injuries, but no one knew exactly how many concussions the driver had sustained throughout his career.
No one, that is, except Earnhardt himself, who says he kept his experiences with concussions secret out of fear of losing his career.
While promoting a new book on the sports show In Depth with Graham Bensinger, Earnhardt finally revealed the number of concussions he experienced throughout his career, saying he had experienced between 20 and 25 concussions while racing.
Even more shocking, he says he kept the majority of these injuries secret because he felt there was a chance it would negatively affect his career.
“Your brain is your computer, you know, and people don’t have the faith in it healing like a broken bone,” Earnhardt told Bensinger. “There’s instances in the past where guys have had head injuries and visually, you can see it’s affected them permanently.”
“So, if you go to somebody and go, ‘Man, you know I rung my bell and I’m real messed up and I’m gonna take a break and I’m gonna come back 100 percent,’ you know that person’s always gonna have that in the back of their mind. And when you don’t run a good race, are they gonna go, ‘Hmm, I wonder if he’s just not the same anymore?’ You know, I’ve heard that talk about other drivers. Even guys that don’t have any history of concussions, I’ve heard people say, ‘You know he did have a lot of hard wrecks.’”
You might expect this sort of rationalizing from a rookie driver afraid of losing their shot at becoming a household name, but Earnhardt Jr. is as close as one can come to royalty in NASCAR. Not only is he the son of a beloved driver, he has earned his own reputation as a driver with countless major wins, including being a two-time Daytona 500 winner. On top of all this, he was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for a record 14 years.
If a driver in his place felt a concussion could torpedo his entire career, it is hard to imagine the pressure that younger, less established drivers must feel to minimize or hide brain injuries.
Still, Earnhardt stands behind NASCAR and the organization’s handling of concussions, citing the mandatory concussion testing and traveling neurosurgeon provided by NASCAR. Instead, he says it is the culture drivers find themselves in which prioritize winning over anything else which puts NASCAR drivers most at risk.
“I am aware that a driver is their own worst enemy in that scenario. They’re going to do everything they can in that scenario to keep racing, keep their job, [and] not let anyone in on this information and this secret. I would do everything I could to protect the drivers from themselves. That would be my main goal, and it would be annoying at times to the drivers, you know, but my intentions would be to take care of them.”
Earnhardt was able to finish his career on his terms and believes he retired at the right time, but he still worries about the long-term effects of his concussions or a relapse of symptoms.
“The symptoms in 2016 came on like a cold or a flu,” said Earnhardt. “It wasn’t like, “Oh, I hit a wall and now I’m messed up.” It was like a slow progression that wasn’t even tied to an impact. Ever since then, I’ve got this fear in me that this could all come back. It came on its own then [at Martinsville], it could come back again at some point in my life.”