|Ricky Craven was an excellent NASCAR stock car driver before a vicious wreck in 1996 at Talladega. He is now a commentator on ESPN.
It was announced recently that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was being forced to sit out a two-week period thanks to a concussion suffered in a last lap accident at Talladega Speedway.
The timing could not have been worse since the popular Earnhardt had moved to seventh in the Race for the Chase, NASCAR’s climax to a long season each year.
Earnhardt fell from seventh to eleventh in the melee started when Tony Stewart cut the inside lane. However, as the sheet metal is being replaced as drivers head for Charlotte, I cannot help but wonder about drivers who have left the sport after suffering head injuries.
The list is long and includes Steve Park, Jerry Nadeau, Ricky Craven, Ernie Irvin and Bobby Allison, to name a few. There have been others, for sure, but just those are enough to send signals to the hierarchy of NASCAR.
Craven is now an accomplished commentator on ESPN; but the fact remains that his auto racing career was shortened by his injuries suffered on the race track.
Every driver forced out of the sport because of injuries suffers in one way or another. From the loss of a job to the loss of any kind of recognition, egos are bruised and in many cases, so are their brains.
Park suffered his injury during a Busch Series race in 2001. He returned to drive in the NASCAR Truck Series, but he wasn’t the same. He finally gave up and now has memories to think about.
Ironically, Park was racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he crashed in 2001 before moving to the truck series the next year.
While you will seldom hear former drivers complain about their current state of affairs, fact is that several have seen their careers fizzle sadly.
And many will tell you that NASCAR drivers are simply not like other athletes. In other words, they will live with their wounds.
The big question now is whether or not former NASCAR drivers are going to follow in the shoes of former National Football League players who have combined to sue the league for head injuries suffered during their playing days.
Only time will tell. It will take a united group of current drivers to retire and determine that they were injured during their era. The old –timers will matter, too, but today’s drivers including Earnhardt and the rest will have time to determine if they, too, have suffered life-alterring head injuries while chasing the big money.
In addition, NASCAR drivers will have the time to investigate whether NASCAR showed a sincere concern about the well-being of the men who have made the governing body gazillions of dollars.
Four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon admits that when championships are on the line, he and others will attempt to ignore their injuries in favor of chasing titles.
The problem with head injuries is that the effects many times don’t arise until long after the injury has occurred. All might be fine until out of nowhere, the individual loses consciousness or simply becomes confused.
Could the sudden development be the result of an injury suffered many years earlier? And could NASCAR’s drivers eventually seek legal help long after the careers have ended?
More than 2,000 former football players have joined the suit with a long list of recognized names including former quarterback Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears), Art Monk (Washington Redskins), Alex Karras, a former Detroit Lion who died recently; to name a few.
In the majority of cases, players have noticed changes long after their careers have ended. And it’s at that point that those same players begin to wonder if their current state is the result of a blow to the head many years prior.
It’s frightening and it’s perplexing. All you know is that you’re suddenly not the same; and just maybe the ultimate sacrifices have led to the weaknesses of your limbs; the double vision; or even sudden seizures in the form of a blank look or when full-blown grandma seizures that leave you flailing on the floor.
The players want compensation for their injuries. To them, team owners along with NFL executives used the players to make millions without being concerned about the players long after their careers ended.
The bottom line is that the players want compensation for their injuries long after their playing careers have ended.
And now, NASCAR’s many drivers must be eyeballing what’s going on in the NFL.
Irvin, who had the nickname “Swervin’ Irvin” when he ran the short tracks, still struggles with his exit from the sport adding that both he and Nadeau could work as greeters at Wal-Mart.
Two crashes at Michigan International Raceway ended Irvin’s career.
Irvin, who won 15 races and pocketed $10.2 million during his Cup career, said every driver prays that a career-ending injury never ends a career. But when it does, the reality sets in as the individual suddenly wonders if anyone cares.
Irvin explained that head injuries are suffered every 24 seconds.
Craven was the 1995 NASCAR Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year. He suffered a concussion in a vicious rollover during the 1996 Winston Select at Talladega and was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome two years later.
Ironically, Craven replaced Irvin at MB2 Motorsports in 1998 during the last three races of the season. After the 2005 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season, he became an analyst for ESPN and Yahoo! Sports.
Only time will tell if NASCAR’s Cup superstars will follow the tracks of the NFL players by eventually determining that the leaders of the sport are at least partially responsible for injuries that altered the driver's life.
However, if the NFL is any indication, NASCAR might as well get ready for the onslaught, too.
Brain injuries are strange simply because you cannot see the damage. You cannot treat it like a cut on your arm. It’s so much more complex.
You lie there wondering about the future and worry every time you slur your speech. And every time you make a mistake, you wonder if you made the error simply because the brain isn’t working correctly.
All eyes are on you when you’re hurt especially when your talent makes money for others. However, while you may have been the prince of your sport, you can also bet that a young gun is ready to replace you at any given minute.
Dale Earnhardt’s concussion certainly is not the first to be suffered in a major NASCAR event; it might serve as the most important considering Little E’s significance to the sport.
And you can bet that at least one attorney has considered following in the shoes of members of the legal fraternity that launched the lawsuit representing former NFL players.
Somewhere there is a legal beagle rubbing his hands together while trying to understand the pitfalls of restrictor plate racing. Chances are that the same attorneys who have never attended a NASCAR Sprint Cup event are likely to become fans of a sport that could lead to massive paydays.