Monday, April 20, 2015

COMMENTARY: NASCAR’s Macho Mentality Has Changed… For The Better

Hamlin opted out Sunday
Since its founding in 1948, NASCAR has been a tough sport, populated by tough guys.

In the early days, drivers ran more than 100 races each season, traveling from track to track with little more than the previous night’s winnings to support them and their families, while still keeping the race car rolling. Safety was little more than an afterthought, with injuries and on-track deaths not uncommon. Through it all, though, drivers were forced to persevere, blocking out the pain in an attempt to keep moving money across the table.

With no time to heal, drivers were forced to bind their wounds, patch their cars together and get down the road to the next race, creating a warrior mentality that produced some amazing stories of human perseverance.

The most recognized name in NASCAR, Richard Petty, famously ran a number of races with a broken neck in 1980, keeping his injury hidden from NASCAR officials despite knowing that another wreck would almost certainly kill him.

“Of all the races we ran,” admitted Petty following his retirement, “there were probably 100 of them that I shouldn’t have been in the race car. At least 100 of them.

“You did it because that was your job,” he said. “It’s the competitive spirit. No matter how bad you were hurt, you didn’t want to get out of the car. We were so cocky, we weren’t going to admit that we couldn’t do the job.”
Petty was far from alone.

Tough guy Ricky Rudd
Ricky Rudd walked away from a gyrating, eggbeater of a crash during the 1994 Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway that saw his car flip six times through the infield grass. Two days later, with Daytona 500 qualifying on the agenda, Rudd’s eyes were swollen nearly shut.

“I could hardly open my eyes,” recalled Rudd. “They were like little slits (and) I knew I had to fix it. While the guys were changing the spark plugs, I went and got a roll of duct tape. I didn't have Band-Aids. I would have used Band-Aids, but I didn't have any. I duct taped it; took all the extra skin, taped it to my eyelid, taped that up to my forehead, put my helmet on and went on."

Amazing as it sounds, Rudd’s swollen eyes were not the worst of his predicament. 

"I don't know if it was an inner-ear distortion problem, trauma to my inner ear or whatever, but my balance mechanism went kind of haywire. Everything would go dark when I went into the corner. I never told anyone I was uncomfortable. I went around there wide-open but I never told them I was really uncomfortable in the car. I just focused on the back bumper of the guy in front of me, and followed that.”

The Daytona incident is not the only example of Rudd’s tough-guy status. In 1998 at Martinsville Speedway, the Virginia native dominated the NAPA Auto Care 500, despite running without power steering while battling an exhaust leak that allowed fumes to enter his car on a 100-degree day. Rudd persevered to claim the checkered flag then passed out cold in Victory Lane.

Stewart has also raced hurt
Tony Stewart has also done his share of sheet time in the aftermath of crashes. A pair of wrecks on consecutive days at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006 left the former series champion with a broken right shoulder blade. With the circuit set to compete at the high-banked Dover International Speedway the following week, there was little doubt that Stewart would need relief. Ironically, he turned to Rudd, who kept the team’s championship hopes alive with a 25th-place finish.

More recently, Stewart missed the final 15 races of the 2013 campaign after suffering a compound fracture of his lower-right leg in an Iowa Sprint Car crash.

“From a driver’s standpoint, from a selfish standpoint, you don’t want to get out of the car,” said Stewart. “You want to be selfish because you WANT to be in the car.”

In 1990, Darrell Waltrip broke his left femur in a grinding, seven-car practice crash prior to the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. He underwent more than 10 hours of surgery to repair and stabilize the break, with surgeons attaching an 18-inch long steel plate to piece together his shattered-in-three-places femur. Waltrip also suffered a concussion, fractured left elbow and broken ribs in the crash; raising the total of injuries sufficient to remove him from competition to four.

DW headed  for the Crash House
Despite that laundry list of trauma, however, Waltrip started the next week’s event at Pocono Raceway.

“Three days after the surgery, I’m telling the doctor, `I’ve got to get out of here,’” recalled Waltrip. “`I’ve got to go to Pocono! I’m 10th in points.’ He looked at me like I had lost my mind.”

Waltrip was fitted with a special brace to stabilize his surgically repaired femur, allowing him to be lifted – with great pain -- into and out of his car by crewmembers. He started the next Pocono race, immediately giving way to relief driver Jimmy Horton before finally admitting defeat and skipping a number of events in order to allow himself to heal.

Doctors said the former NASCAR Cup Series champion would be sidelined for a year. He was back in the car in 90 days.

Terry Labonte sustained a comparatively minor neck injury in the same Daytona crash, but drove the next day, finished fourth. Veteran Dave Marcis suffered a hairline fracture of the left leg, but like Waltrip, started the race before turning his car over to J.D. McDuffie en route to a 20th-place finish.
"Stupidest thing I ever did."
“(Starting the Pocono race) was a setback, both mentally and physically,” said Waltrip. “Getting in and out of the car was tough. I went to the shop so (crew chief) Jeff Hammond and the boys could practice stuffing me down in there and getting me back out. It was just a dumb thing to do. It was the stupidest thing I ever did.

“People say, `Why did you do it?’ I did it because they (NASCAR) let me do it. That was a time when I needed someone to save me from myself and say, `We’re not going to allow you to do that.’

“Doctors speculated that my career might be over,” recalled Waltrip. “I lost a sponsorship deal because they said they didn’t want a driver with a broken leg. So I know how these drivers feel. They feel pressure from their teams and sponsors. They feel like they’re letting people down if they’re not there in the car, keeping themselves up in points and in the running to make the Chase.

“If I had it to do again, I would say, `No, I don’t think that will work,’” he admitted. “When you’re hurt, you’re hurt, and you’ve got to admit it. The smart money is to stay home, get yourself healed up and then go back to work.

Modern-day NASCAR drivers have finally begun to embrace that mentality; some more grudgingly than others. NASCAR has also done its part, instituting new rules requiring drivers to be examined and cleared by a medical liaison after each and every crash. The sanctioning body recently began administering offseason neurocognitive baseline testing to its athletes, as well, establishing healthy parameters to use when examining drivers in the aftermath of a crash.

Junior helped change the discussion
Those new protocols were instituted after the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. suffered a pair of concussions within a month at Kansas and Talladega in 2012. Earnhardt described his Kansas test crash as "the hardest hit I've ever had," and after a subsequent wreck just four weeks later at Talladega, he knew instantly that something was not right.

Earnhardt already knew a thing or two about playing hurt. In 2004, he suffered significant burns to his back, neck and thigh in a sports car crash at Infineon Raceway, but insisted on starting the next few NASCAR races before giving way to relief drivers.

“I was lucky to even be allowed to be in there (to start the races),” recalled Earnhardt of his 2004 injuries. “It took a long, long, long time to heal. The burn on top of my left leg was a big, open wound. There was no skin … it was all muscle. It was bleeding and I had to change the bandages every four hours or so.”

Older, wiser and perhaps more secure concerning his place in sport, the third-generation driver did things differently in 2012. Ignoring decades of tough-guy “rub a little dirt on it” mentality, he consulted doctors after the Talladega crash and actually heeded their advice, doing what few of his predecessors had ever done before; removing himself from the race car for two events in the heart of the championship Chase.

“It almost cost me my career,” says Earnhardt of his concussion scare. “It almost cost me my happiness."

Yesterday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin chose not to return following a lengthy red-flag stoppage for rain, complaining of muscle spasms and pain in his upper back and neck. He was replaced by youngster Erik Jones, who did yeoman work before being swept up in a late incident and finishing 26th, six laps down.

In another era, Hamlin might have faced the same pressure to continue – despite the possible risk – that Petty, Waltrip and Rudd experienced in their day. In another era, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver might have yielded to the “Macho Man” mentality that prompted decades of drivers to risk life and limb in the pursuit of a few championship points.

Sunday, however, Hamlin was allowed – and even encouraged – to make a better choice.

That’s a step in the right direction.


  1. Anonymous2:52 AM

    I would be careful using Hamlin as your poster child for your reasonable argument. Does anybody believe the stinky fish story that came out of Fontana last year or the comments regarding his posture and the like before he strapped into the car yesterday? Does he still play basketball with his "best friend" MJ??? Something seems odd...just saying...

  2. TheNASCARJeff8:27 AM

    When Richard Petty had a wreck in I think the 1982 Daytona 500 his father Lee told the media; "He"ll plow tomorrow" well next week Richard did plow with some wires and pulleys attached to his helmet and the roll cage plus a special boot so he could hit the clutch.

    Dale Earnhardt won the pole at Watkins Glenn, lead most of the race and finished top three all with a broken sternum. After the race he told Dr. Jerry Punch; The car was running out of brakes and the driver was out of gas."

    I for one am happy to see NASCAR allowing drivers to stand down to avoid further injury to themselves and others on the racetrack. Now in the words of Danny "chocolate" Myers, please lets not screw this up!

  3. Anonymous10:44 PM

    I think another example you missed was Davey Allison in 1992 and even worse was Mark Martin in 1999. Mark had a broken wrist and a fractured leg and went on to race the next day.