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NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. confirms decision to donate brain to science

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had two concussions in 2012, confirmed Friday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway he will donate his brain to concussion research.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had two concussions in 2012, confirmed Friday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway he will donate his brain to concussion research. AP

Dale Earnhardt Jr. confirmed Friday he will donate his brain for concussion research when he dies.

“Anything I can do to help others,” said Earnhardt, who has suffered at least two concussions during his racing career. “It seemed like a reasonable thing to do.”

Earnhardt said he has pledged his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which works in concert with Boston University’s Brain Bank.

Earnhardt, speaking after practicing at Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s STP 500, said he was inspired after learning of former U.S. women’s soccer star Brandi Chastain’s recent announcement that she will donate her brain, as well as three former Oakland Raiders who will do the same in honor of Ken Stabler, a former Raiders quarterback who died in 2015. Stabler was later diagnosed with Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

... The real purpose of the conversation should be to help drivers, football players – whoever it is – to understand that it’s OK to self-diagnose and get help.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt said his experience in 2012, when he suffered two concussions, had already helped him truly appreciate the value of understanding the science behind brain injuries.

His first concussion came during a test at Kansas Speedway, where he did not ask for further medical help after being cleared at the track and missed no races. At a race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway two months later, Earnhardt again crashed. This time he sat out two races.

During that time, Earnhardt went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Earnhardt suffered two concussions in 2012, one in a test at Kansas that he didn’t report, the other at Talladega which forced him to miss two races.

“They gave me the confidence going through that process that I could be successful and get through it,” Earnhardt said. “I have been healthy and successful and I learned a ton. I may be even a better race car driver today. Going through (it), I learned so much and have so much respect for the work those doctors are doing and I was really inspired by some of the athletes who have pledged their brains before me.”

In 2014, NASCAR began requiring drivers to under go preseason baseline neurocognitive testing. Drivers appearing to have head-related injuries must go to the hospital and be cleared by a neurologist.

Even before Earnhardt’s announcement (he made it initially on Twitter last week after reading about the Raiders’ donations), concussions have been in the news in auto racing this season.

After being diagnosed with a concussion after a crash in practice, Will Power didn’t race in the Indy Car Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. It turned out to be a misdiagnosis: Power had an inner ear infection.

Days later, NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski said on Twitter: “It is every sports league’s fault for giving life altering decisions to the medical community in order to absolve themselves of liability.”

Earnhardt, however, believes NASCAR has the correct policies are in place.

“I see the argument in reverse,” he said. “Most concussions are self-diagnosed and, as a driver, I think the real purpose of the conversation should be to help drivers, football players – whoever it is – to understand that it’s OK to self-diagnose and get help.

“I feel very good about the protocols that are in place. Concussions are like snowflakes. There are no two concussions that are the same. Each one deals with certain parts of the body and to be able to use that impact test helps you understand how to treat that particular concussion.

“I think the protocols and the advances that we have made in trying to protect ourselves are great things. I’m excited about what NASCAR has done. They are talking to the right people. They are talking and involving themselves with the right folks to get the best information to be able to protect the drivers the best way they can.”

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