News & Media

Concussion effects can bring life to abrupt halt

October 12, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Craven, McClure know firsthand the emotions Earnhardt Jr. will experience

Ricky Craven was aboard his plane, sitting to the right of his pilot, when he first realized he had a problem. The aircraft entered a cloud, and the former NASCAR driver became frightened that it had flipped upside down -- until the skies cleared, and Craven's pilot grabbed his arm and pointed to the artificial horizon gauge, assuring his passenger that the craft had remained upright all along.

Even after that episode of vertigo, Craven convinced himself he would get better. And indeed, he went to the next race at Atlanta in that spring of 1998 and drove his Hendrick Motorsports car into the top five -- until a vehicle ahead of him spilled fluid, coating his windshield and obscuring his vision, and suddenly that same disorienting feeling returned.

"I remember visiting the doctor and him saying, 'We know what's wrong, but we don't have a quick fix.' I think that begins that process of frustration."


"I started dropping like a rock," Craven remembered. "... I was ridiculously slow, actually. We had a horrible day."

He was dealing with the lingering effects of a concussion he had suffered almost a year earlier, one that initially caused him to miss two races and would later force him to sit out four months. The anxiety, the worry over losing his ride, the concerns about how long it might take to recover -- if at all -- Craven endured every bit of it. Few people in the NASCAR garage area are better qualified to understand what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going through now, given that the sport's most popular driver is sitting out at least two races because of the effects of two concussions suffered six weeks apart.

"Drivers love control," said Craven, now a television analyst for ESPN, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Every one of them, across the board, love when they're in control, regardless of what the application is. Because in this case, it's career threatening. That's probably not a word that was used a lot ... but that's reality. It's really what it felt like for me. I remember going through that process and being like, 'I have to prepare for not racing again.' I think Junior is going to experience all those emotions. Probably has experienced all of them."

So has Eric McClure. The Nationwide Series driver sat out six weeks battling the effects of a concussion he suffered in a crash during the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, the same track where Earnhardt suffered his second concussion in six weeks in a 25-car accident on the final lap of Sunday's Sprint Cup event. McClure readily will admit he's not Earnhardt, with all that popularity and Chase positioning on the line. He doesn't even know the guy. But he experienced first-hand what it was like to suffer a concussion and have life as he knew it grind to a halt.

"It's the most helpless feeling," McClure said. "And that's when you start to think the worst, because you can't control anything."

Suffering from concussion effects is like wandering into a gauzy, unknown world where the familiar suddenly seems very far away. Craven was diagnosed with an inner-ear problem and, like Earnhardt, took it upon himself to see neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty, regardless of the risks it posed to his career. McClure didn't have that option -- his concussion was discovered during a two-day hospital stay following his Talladega accident. In both cases, lingering symptoms combined with the undefined length of the recovery process took a toll on optimism and hope.

Craven said he started to lose confidence in his recovery immediately after his diagnosis. "The feeling that day was sickening," he remembered. He sold his airplane and braced for a life without racing. McClure sold his late-model car and wrestled with what to do with his first motor home, which he had just purchased because his three children were getting old enough to accompany him on the road. Although he leaned heavily on his faith and his church for support, he also watched doctor bills roll in, battled through insurance red tape and wondered if he'd end up on disability.

"The longer it goes, the more you talk yourself into that," he said. "I point-blank asked Dr. Petty if he thought that was it. I said, 'If you just go ahead and tell me, I can go ahead and make plans.' Definitely, the longer you have symptoms, the more you think about it. It just happens. You tell yourself, 'I'll be back, this is going to work out.' But for me, here I am, I'm in my 30s, I'm not going to be a Cup driver, I'm not going to do this forever, and I've got to get and maintain another job. And so the long-term health for me became more important than the race car. But yeah, you do think, is this it? Am I going to get better? Are they going to let me come back? Because you see some drivers who weren't able to come back. It definitely weighs on you."

Craven still gets a little emotional when he recalls the initial aftermath of his diagnosis. "I can remember what it felt like for me," he said. "You've put everything you had into this, to get to this point, and when you cross this bridge, there may not be a way back. I don't know the severity of Dale's injuries or his symptoms. But I do know he doesn't have complete control over it. Because I just know this part is very primitive in terms of how much they know and how they treat it."

Junior's head injury

Three days after the Talladega wreck, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to see a neurologist, who diagnosed him with a concussion.

How they treat it is to wait. Earnhardt is out for at least two weeks, and before he's cleared to return, he will have to pass tests that raise his heart rate and check his reaction time, and then likely take laps on a track by himself. Since doctors in cases like this generally recommend physical as well as cognitive rest, he won't be at the race Saturday night in Charlotte. It's bad enough that an affected driver has to watch someone else drive his car, as Earnhardt will do this weekend when Regan Smith pilots the No. 88. But then there's the complete powerlessness of the recovery process, which varies according to the individual and his symptoms, and has no defined length of time.

"One of the things I was very aware of was, it wasn't going to be as simple as putting my arm in a cast or having total reconstructive on my knee," Craven said. "I remember visiting the doctor and him saying, 'We know what's wrong, but we don't have a quick fix.' I think that begins that process of frustration."

For Craven, that process lasted months, until he passed another battery of tests and was given the green light to get back in the race car. "There were certain things I had to do to get cleared, but it can be done," he said. For McClure, the process took six weeks, and he vividly remembers the moment Petty told him he had been cleared to race again. "My wife was there. We sat there for a minute, and it's so cliché, but we just kind of hugged and held each other and just took it all in," McClure said. "For us, the lives we had the last seven years were getting back to normal."

For McClure, normal returned quickly. His first race back, at Road America, produced his highest finish of the season to that point, and his best results this year in the No. 14 car have come since his recovery. Craven thinks his best seasons were after his concussion, a span that netted his two career victories on the Sprint Cup tour. "I think if Dale manages this correctly, he's got several years left," Craven said. "And I'd use myself as an example. My best years were after. It was three or four years afterward, and I didn't last long, and I will admit I don't think I was quite as fast when I came back. But I was a much smarter driver. I was much more calculated. I know it's different for everybody."

As is the recovery process. Looking back now at 46, Craven realizes he never should have returned to the car so soon after the 1997 crash at Texas that produced his concussion. Knowing that, he would advise Earnhardt to proceed with caution. "I would offer that if it was serious enough to lose two weeks, I commend him for that," he said. "But if it's serious enough to lose two weeks, then I automatically start thinking, then maybe it's serious enough to lose six weeks. Does it make sense to even get back in the car? That's just coming from me. I have not heard that. But that's just coming from a 46-year-old who's gotten knocked around a little bit and has some similar perspective."

For NASCAR's most popular driver, that might be easier said than done. Even so, McClure thinks that by sidelining himself for at least two weeks, Earnhardt is making a statement that will not go unnoticed by other competitors. McClure might not have Chase position at stake, but he has been there through every step in the concussion process -- the confusion, the anxiety, the hopelessness, the recovery, the relief. And he thinks Earnhardt's condition only will bring awareness to an injury some still struggle to understand.

"I think this is going to be huge for people in our sport," McClure said. "Because we've all raced hurt, we've all raced maybe when we shouldn't have, because that's what you do. You work so hard to get these opportunities, and you want to succeed for your team and suck it up and drive. But because of his status in the sport -- I loved the outpouring of support I had, but this is a huge deal for the mainstream world. So other drivers and people now may come forward now because he did. He had the courage to do that."