Concussions in sports are commonplace in American sporting culture, but recently concussions in motorsports have become a more widely talked about issue. The talk surrounding concussions in motorsports gained steam when NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., missed the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series season due to repeated concussions. However, the threat of concussions is not exclusive to NASCAR’s top three series, it is also relevant in the short track racing world.
Stephen Nasse, winner of the 2016 Rattler 125 Pro Late Model race and former winner of the Red Eye 100, says he has suffered at least one concussion over the course of his young racing career.
“I think I’ve had one diagnosed a while ago but I’m certain I’ve had more undiagnosed ones through the years,” Nasse told Speed51.com. “I’ve been racing since age four so I’m sure I’ve had a few.”
“I think that racing and what it does to your body and mind is why I had such a hard time concentrating in school. I couldn’t ever stay focused,” he explained. “Even now I notice my attention span is short and if it’s something tedious, it takes me a while to do it. I get a lot of terrible migraines, so bad that the only thing that relieves them is throwing up.”
Nasse, 21 years old from Pinellas Park, Florida, is one racer that has been affected by Dale Jr and his recent concussion issues.
“I don’t think it really ever made me think until Dale Jr was sidelined because of it,” Nasse said. “My whole life all I’ve known is racing though and I think I will always be racing something but I’ve considered trying other things like a dirt Late Model or Modified. Not that the risk wouldn’t be just as high but depending on the tracks the speeds would be less.”
Another driver affected by concussions is PASS South and CARS Tour Super Late Model competitor Hannah Newhouse. Newhouse suffered a concussion in the spring of 2015, after a wreck during a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Irwindale Speedway (CA).
Newhouse, 19 years old from Twin Falls, Idaho, detailed the events leading up to the crash.
“A competitor blew a motor in front of me and I slid into the turn four wall driver’s side door first.”
The impact was enough to give her a concussion. Despite the concussion, Newhouse raced soon after in a Super Late Model prior to returning to NASCAR competition.
“It was terrible because I was out of college for a week following with extreme light sensitivity and throwing up, but that didn’t stop me,” she explained. “I decided to race my Super Late Model the following weekend which wasn’t my best idea. My parents weren’t thrilled. It took about four weeks to get cleared by a doctor and then by NASCAR since it was a K&N race.”
Newhouse praised the safety improvements inside the cars and believes the ongoing improvements play a major role in limiting the impact of injuries, including concussions.
“I was a cheerleader for a while and I also raced and was more concerned about concussions then. Our safety equipment is so heightened and continues to improve more and more each year,” Newhouse stated. “A concussion isn’t the first injury that comes to my mind when I think racing simply because I have broken my wrist and arm while racing and that seemed way more impactful at the moment, maybe it’s just the young and naive me but I don’t think long term when it comes to concussions even though I’m well aware of the side effects and long term effects.”
Sarah Cornett-Ching is another driver well aware of the impact a concussion can have on racers. She suffered a severe concussion following a devastating crash in the ARCA Racing Series finale at Kentucky in 2016.
Nearly four months after that crash, Cornett-Ching is still recovering and fighting to regain her stamina. She will make her first start in a race car since that crash in February during the PASS Winter Meltdown at Dillon Motor Speedway (SC).
“I don’t really know the exact time when I felt like I was ‘coming back’, but it’s more like the symptoms began to go away slowly and I would wake up one day and realize I didn’t feel nauseous anymore and then a few weeks later I would notice that I didn’t have a headache all the time,” Cornett-Ching explained in a PASS press release. “My memory would slowly improve and I would feel like I could do anything I used to be able to and when I started exerting energy it just knocked me back down. I am still working on getting my stamina back to where I was but thankfully the symptoms have totally gone away and the doctor has cleared me for all competition.”
Two-time Langley Speedway (VA) track champion Mark Wertz has had two concussions over the course of his career, with the more severe one occurring after a wreck at Martinsville in 2005 and a less severe one in 2010. After the Martinsville wreck, Wertz explained how he had bad headaches for nearly two months.
Wertz says if he gets another he may re-evaluate his decisions to get behind the wheel, but is making safety changes constantly to prevent concussions.
“I stress safety and not cutting corners on safety equipment and a proper fitting seat and helmet,” Wertz said. “If I was to get another at this stage of my career, I would evaluate the severity of it and go from there unlike in the past just looking forward to the next weekend. Too much is at stake, I mean even the competitors you’re racing against could be at risk if my judgement was impaired.”
Another driver, wishing to remain nameless, told Speed51.com that he suffered a concussion this past season when his head hit a bar above him in his car. While that incident has made him weigh the risks of racing, he will be making changes this season to prevent another.
“I love racing but it made me wonder. I’ve bought a new seat and I’m making sure my head won’t hit that bar again.”
The concussion for him isn’t the scariest part, it’s what could happen if it had been more severe.
“You feel terrible and it’s nothing you can do. I don’t make any money racing and if I were to get hurt much worse than I was it would put my house and job in jeopardy,” the anonymous driver said.
Concussions are defined medically as “A clinical syndrome characterized by immediate and transient alteration in brain function, including alteration of mental status and level of consciousness, resulting from mechanical force or trauma. “
While the effects of concussions are wide ranging and severe, drivers to continue to race despite the risk of effects. Improvements in safety have helped a lot over the years, thus leading to a hope of fewer concussions.
-By Reese Nobles, Speed51.com Mid-Atlantic Correspondent – Twitter: @RNoblesSpeed51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com