There’s no doubt the biggest drawback of having auto racing as a newspaper beat is the uncertainty of the sport. Accidents are part of the landscape, but one ever knows what the seriousness is of such an incident, major or minor.
Yes, there are moments of great excitement whenever drivers compete to the very end before a winner is determined, sometimes even after the checkered flag has been dropped.
There are also moments of great loss, tragedy on the track. Although the sport has greatly advanced in safety, there is always that fear a crash, regardless of its intensity, could produce a moment that involves the loss of a life.
Please spare me all of the amateur philosophy about why men and women compete in such a dangerous event. It can happen in any sporting effort. The belief in this corner is that when it’s your time to go, when God opts to call you home, it’s over.
Since 1999, seven high-profile drivers I had the pleasure of closely working with have perished on the track. There were others before them, but these seven are ones that perhaps those who don’t follow motorsports closely will recognize:
1999 – Greg Moore, the first fatality at Auto Club Speedway, in a single-car crash during the Marlboro 500, the CART season-finale.
2000 – Adam Petty, the sport’s first fourth-generation driver, loses his life at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. His last NASCAR race was at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
2000 – Kenny Irwin Jr., at a practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
2001 – Dale Earnhardt, on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt had previously won at Auto Club Speedway and Riverside International Raceway.
2007 – Eric Medlen, a NHRA Funny Car driver, in a test session in Florida. He was a Southern California fan favorite since he raced for John Force.
2011 – Dan Wheldon, the personable open-wheel driver, in a massive and fiery crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
2013 – Jason Leffler, in a dirt car during a heat race at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedeboro, N.J. Lefler was well-known in this area as he hailed from Long Beach.
These losses have taken a toll, but none with the same impact as Neil Bonnett’s death at Daytona in 1994. Two weeks prior, he and I shared lunch in the pit area of the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, with his signing a die-cast model of the hauler he had fond memories of. It was a reminder of his successful relationship with the late San Bernardino businessman Warner Hodgdon.
These thoughts of the past raced to the front this week as Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first public statements of the battle he’s currently enduring for concussion-like symptoms. It’s the result a concussion he suffered earlier this summer at Michigan International Speedway and has kept him out of the seat for the past three races.
A good, impartial look at the situation suggests Earnhardt should step out from behind the wheel until the issues can be resolved. Earnhardt has not won a race this year and has just five races (including this weekend) to get a checkered flag and secure a berth in the Chase, NASCAR’s 10-race equivalent of the postseason.
Earnhardt will miss this week’s race at Watkins Glen and Jeff Gordon will once again sub for him. There is an open date before the Aug. 20 race at Bristol, Tenn. That might seem perfect for a return, but Earnhardt indicated on a visit to the track on Friday he would like to test his abilities on another level with NASCAR’s sanction.
The sanctioning body has more to lose than gain if it gives the driver its approval to return, with the possibility of a reversal with his physical comeback.
This isn’t Earnhardt’s first experience with concussions. NASCAR’s most popular driver can trace his history to an accident in 2002 at Fontana, although it was not known at the time. Earnhardt’s self-diagnosis was correct, although he kept it secret, but put NASCAR in a bad spot.
As a result, NASCAR strengthened its commitment to keeping drivers with concussions off the track. In 2012, Earnhardt missed two races after suffering his second concussion in six weeks.
Earnhardt is determined to return, even though there are still issues.
“I’d love to race more,” Earnhardt said on “The Dale Jr. Download” podcaast last week. “In my mind, my plan is to race more. I have plans to keep going. I’ll worry about that when I’m well. My doctors are confident they can make me stronger than I was before this event.”
While race fans want too see him compete more, there is a greater number who want him to recover before climbing back into his Chevrolet. He can do more by showing real concerns for his health, and the sport, by just stepping way.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.
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