DARLINGTON, S.C. — On September 2, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would miss the remainder of the 2016 season. Earnhardt has been sidelined since the race at Kentucky due to concussion-like symptoms that his doctors have traced back to an accident that took place at Michigan International Speedway on June 12 during the FireKeepers Casino 400. His symptoms took several weeks to appear prompting Earnhardt to see a neurological specialist in mid-July. After missing seven races, including the Southern 500 at Darlington, the decision was made to sit out the remainder of this season.
Sunday he stopped by Darlington Raceway to discuss this decision. He was accompanied by Micky Collins, the Medical Director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program and team owner, Rick Hendrick.
Earnhardt entered the media center wearing the glasses that have become familiar in the last few weeks and while he seemed a little nervous, there was also a sense of relief present in having made a decision that many feared was coming.
He began by saying, “I feel like the recovery is going really good. I’m starting to see improvements as we are going. It seems like this has lasted a really long time, but when you look at it on paper it has been a very short period and the gains that I’ve felt in that short period give me a lot of confidence that this is going in the right direction. And all the stuff and hard work we are doing is paying off.”
Earnhardt also talked about being back at the track with this teammates, stating it was “certainly fun to be here at the race track and to be able to see the team and be in this atmosphere that you get so used to being in week in and week out. I’m happy to be here today and it certainly is a place where you get pretty good exposure and it drives your symptoms a little bit so I’m getting some good exercise as we speak.”
He went on to describe the healing process as interesting and said that he has “learned a ton.” Some of the issues he’s encountered include vision problems, balance difficulties and anxiety.
“I struggled with my eyes for a while and I’m starting to see improvements there which I was thrilled to wake up one day and feel a difference and start to see improvement there. Riding in a car or walking to gain stability that I’ve talked about before is starting to improve, which was a major relief for me because that was probably the most difficult thing to deal with throughout the day because it was there 24 hours a day. My balance is miles better than it was when I first went to see Micky. We do a lot of exercises every single day.”
Earnhardt gave much of the credit for the gains he’s made in his recovery to his fiancée, Amy Reimann, who has provided encouragement and even participated in his daily exercises.
“Amy has been there every step of the way pushing me to stay focused and to realize the progress we have made and to keep working hard. It’s been a good experience and I’m looking forward to getting well and definitely on the right track.”
Collins explained that there are six types of concussions and discussed Earnhardt’s particular areas of concern.
“We have learned a tremendous amount about concussions over the last five or 10 years and we understand this injury could happen to anyone,” Collins said. “What happens with a concussion is the brain moves inside the skull and when the brain moves inside the skull we have learned a number of chemical changes that happen to the neurons or the cells in the brain and at the end of the day what occurs is there is an energy problem with the cells. We have actually learned now that there are six different clinical profiles or different types of concussions that we see.
Earnhardt, Collins reiterated, “was having problems with the vestibular system, with the ocular system and with some anxiety and mood issues that is very much associated with these problems. Collins further explained the treatment and prognosis, saying “We have made progress with this injury to the point where we actually matched treatments to the different types of concussions that can occur and we have very specific treatments that can treat these different problems that Dale’s experiencing. In fact, over the last two or three weeks I’m pleased to tell you that the fruits of that labor are now paying off. Dale has been a model patient. I know this is cliché sitting up here, but Dale has worked as hard as any patient that I treat currently or in the past. He has been very diligent about doing his therapies and we actually have very specific treatments that are targeting these problems that Dale has and we are seeing the benefits of that.”
Collins added that he had two goals for Earnhardt.
“When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes. He is feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He is having fewer and fewer symptoms and is doing very well. To me, that is the number one goal is to get Dale feeling as normal as a human being. The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. Yes, we will be working on that as well. I’m very confident that we are moving in the right direction in that respect.”
In the beginning, Earnhardt did not expect the healing process to be this lengthy.
“When we first went to see Micky I anticipated the experience to be similar to what I had in the past. That we would work on getting better and it would happen in a relatively short period of time and I would drive a car before the end of the season. “
As time passed, however, he was faced with something quite different.
“I think as we continued to go get evaluated,” he said, “we realized that it is going to be a bit more of a process.”
While he’s disappointed that he won’t be back in the racecar this season, Earnhardt also feels it’s the correct move and that having a definite plan has helped him to heal more quickly.
“I think it’s the right decision considering how I feel personally and physically. I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination. You don’t know how long this process is going to take and we want to be healthy and able to compete at some point, but also we don’t want to take any risks and re-injury ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better.”
“To have a definite plan where everybody is on board with, that Rick’s comfortable with, that I’m comfortable with, that Micky’s comfortable with, has really made it a much easier process for me,” Earnhardt explained.
“But I get to go do all my sponsor requirements and appearances,” he continued. “I went to Wal-Mart for Mountain Dew this past week. So, I’m well enough to continue to honor my commitments with my partners. Really, the only thing I can’t do is just get in a car and race. I can drive down the highway. Now that my symptoms have improved I feel much more comfortable doing that. Getting back to normal is right there in the near future. I’m getting better every day.”
Rick Hendrick has assured Earnhardt that his car will be waiting for him when he is ready.
“The seat is his and I expect, we’ve got a lot of time between now and Daytona. I saw him like two or three weeks ago and then I saw him last Monday and I saw him today, the improvements have been phenomenal and listening to the doctor we are excited about Dale Earnhardt Jr. being in the car at Daytona and we’ve got right much time, excited about him racing beyond 2017.”
Hendrick likened Earnhardt to “a member of the family” portraying a relationship that is as much personal as it is business and he even got in a little ribbing.
“I care about him as a person probably as much or more, than as a race car driver. So, I’ve been concerned. But, I’ve been surprised how hard he’s worked. I shouldn’t say that” he said quickly, laughing, “But he sends me video as proof.”
On a more serious note, Hendrick described his organization as a tight knit family that is there for one another.
“We’re like a family there at Motorsports and all the drivers and crew chiefs, you see the team light up when he shows up. It’s just like anytime you have a member of your family hurt or sick or going through something,” he said, “everybody wants to rally to help him. I don’t think there is any way you’d have gotten Jeff Gordon back in a race car other than helping the organization and helping Dale. And I think that’s proof of that. We just feel good. I’ve seen the progress. The sponsors have been super. They all care about him. They care about him so much that they want him to be on the cautious side.”
It obviously hasn’t been an easy decision but it’s a smart one, and it should not be confused with apathy. Earnhardt wants it all and he’s not ready to settle for less.
“But my heart wants me to continue,” Earnhardt emphasized, “and wants me to continue to be working with the guys I’ve got. I’m only 41. I think I have some good years left. I’m as good as I have ever been inside the car. My ability to communicate and drive the car and get everything out of it, I feel very confident. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company. Rick likes to say we have unfinished business.
“I certainly feel the same way. We have races to win. We went through this process in 2012. It was very scary and difficult. Micky told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again, and he was right. We got well, and I had some of the greatest years and racing experiences of my career shortly after that. And so, he’s telling me that this is possible again, and I believe it. And if we work hard enough and we really rehab these systems, anything is possible from here on out. So, I’m very positive and feeling very good and am confident about the future.”
The future may look uncertain but opportunity often arises from misfortune. Earnhardt’s 2016 season is over but the possibilities for next season are endless and there’s unfinished business that needs his attention.