|ESPN's Ricky Craven|
Today, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner-turned ESPN analyst says he understands what Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is feeling, and what went into his decision to remove himself from the driver’s seat for at least the next two weeks.
“Back then, we didn’t really know that head injuries are cumulative,” said Craven. “We’ve made a lot of progress in diagnosing concussions since then, but we still have work to do in knowing how to handle them. Fifteen years ago, the doctors readily admitted it was an area they didn’t quite know how to deal with. It’s not like breaking your arm and putting it in a cast, or tearing an ACL and having a total reconstruction of your knee. It’s not like cutting your finger, where you can watch it heal, day by day.”
The former Hendrick Motorsports driver initially downplayed the effects of those repeated concussions, keeping his condition secret from his wife, his family and his race team until finally being forced to admit the true extent of his injury.
|Earnhardt sidelined by concussions|
“I was flying in an small airplane and we went into the clouds,” he recalled. “I lost my visual frame of reference, and suddenly, I thought we were upside down. I panicked. I thought we were going to die, but fortunately, the pilot grabbed ahold of me and said, `Look at those instruments. We’re fine. Always trust your instruments.’ That’s when I knew I was in trouble.
“The same thing happened to me a few weeks later in the Atlanta race, when my windshield got covered (with oil and debris in a crash),” he said. “I was ultimately diagnosed with vestibular weakness, but every head injury is different. Every injury requires different elements and a different amount of time to resolve itself.
Craven stepped away from racing in order to heal, a decision that ultimately cost him his ride with Hendrick Motorsports. And while he returned to win a pair of Sprint Cup Series races -- including a dramatic, side-by-side duel with Kurt Busch at the Darlington Raceway in 2003 – he said there were many days when he wondered whether he would ever be allowed to drive a race car again.
“There was an element of the unknown at work there, and by nature, athletes are very insecure about what they can’t control,” he said. “It’s a very, very difficult injury, and the most difficult part is watching another driver in your race car. That’s the part that really tears at you.
“It’s hard to get out of that car, and the pressure compounds the longer you’re away,” he said. “You feel like you own that race car. You’ve got equity in it, and if it’s running well (without you), it’s very difficult to remain on the sidelines. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in.”
In the movie Days Of Thunder, driver Cole Trickle deals with a race-related head injury by saying, “I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt.” Craven said that attitude is not confined to the silver screen.
|Earnhardt (88) crashes at Talladega|
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a 40th place driver, or racing for a championship, nobody is immune to this kind of injury,” he said. “I’m speaking first-hand when I say that when you’re in a situation like this, you become extremely insecure. You come to the (realization) that it could all be over. If you’re having symptoms like I had in 1998, you realize that you’re not in control anymore.
“That’s the frightening part. That’s what scares you to death.”
Head injuries are nothing new in NASCAR. Lee Roy Yarbrough was a top NASCAR driver in the 1960s and early `70s, winning the Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500 in 1969. Head injuries suffered in stock car and Indy Car crashes eventually ended his driving career, however, and by the mid-1970s, family members said he was incapable of distinguishing his left hand from his right. Eventually confined to a state mental hospital after attempting to kill his mother, he died in 1984 from the effects of a head injury suffered in a fall.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison still cannot remember the greatest day of his racing life; the day he led son Davey to a one-two finish in the 1988 Daytona 500. A crash at Pocono Raceway four months later erased the memories of that day – and many others – in addition to ending Allison’s career.
“I keep thinking, ‘Maybe somebody will say something and the memory of that will come flooding back,” said Allison, who still carries a stent in his brain to drain fluid. “But as the years have passed, I’ve been forced to accept the fact that it will probably never happen.”
|Craven: "It's hard to get out of that car."|
In April of this year, NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure crashed into the inside retaining wall at Talladega Superspeedway, suffering a major concussion and bruised internal organs. It was the third concussion of McClure’s career, and doctors kept him on the sidelines until June 22 to ensure that his brain was fully healed.
It was a decision, he admitted, that “will probably not pay dividends now, but it will 10 years from now.”
Craven said he is unsure if he did permanent damage by continuing to race for as long as he did. He is certain, however, about how he would handle the situation today.
“I’m 46 years old now, and my wife and I were discussing (Earnhardt Jr’s decision) over coffee this morning,” he said. “She told me, `you have a much different perspective on this today than you did when you were still in the game.’
“If I had known then what I know now, I would absolutely not have gotten back in the car after Texas,” he said. ““I’ve never said this before, but insecurity drove me back into that car. I hadn’t won a Cup race yet, but I was on the verge of winning one. I wanted to get back in that car as quickly as I could. It took me nine months to feel 100% again, and I paid for those nine months the hard way.”
While he hasn’t been asked, Craven said he would offer Earnhardt Jr. advice from the perspective of someone who has been there.
“I’d say take the rest of the year off, or whatever amount of time is necessary,” he said. “If you’re 98% percent, don’t risk it. You’ve got to be 100% to compete against these drivers, and you jeopardize yourself by being anything less. The results of compound concussions are still relatively unknown. Doctors still do not know what the long-term effects of those injuries are.
“That’s something Dale Earnhardt, Jr. cannot afford to risk. That’s something no one can afford to risk.”
Photos: ESPN, Autostock, Associated Press