SUSAN WADE - NHRA NEEDS A CONCUSSION PROTOCOL
It was astonishing enough in 2011 that a senior NHRA executive said the sanctioning body’s technical committee has no aerodynamic expert. That just didn’t sound proper for a sport that rewards aerodynamic efficiency and superiority.
Seven years later, it’s just as astounding that the NHRA – a sport with the fastest-accelerating vehicles on Earth, ones that on a perfect pass will jiggle a driver’s brain in an extreme, abnormal fashion – doesn’t have a concussion protocol.
Competition Plus isn’t picking on John Force Racing, but its incredibly calamitous start to this season makes it an easy example of why one is necessary. Despite the media and public alike being told reigning Top Fuel champion Brittany Force did not suffer a head injury when she demolished her Monster Energy Dragster on her first eliminations pass of the season, clearly she did. (She said, “I don’t remember any of the crash. The last thing I remember is staging the car. The next piece I remember is the Safety Safari helping me out of the car. I remember looking down at this mangled mess and thinking someone had wrecked. Then I realized the mess was my car. After that, I remember bits and pieces. But I do remember my whole family in the hospital with me. My first question was what happened.”)
She was back in two weeks in a hastily built new dragster, and she won four races later. But did her brain have time to heal properly from its beating at Pomona?
Her father crashed hard in each of the first three races this year and was knocked unconscious during his incident at Phoenix. His accidents warranted trips to the hospital. During the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., John Force wrecked in Friday qualifying. He underwent a CT scan of his head, neck, chest, and abdomen and was completely cleared and released from the hospital in less than two hours. He ran the next two days. He was back on track three weeks later at Gainesville, Fla., where he blew up another engine and body in qualifying. He made three more passes that weekend. Was he truly in proper shape to race? Who knows for sure? What Force knows is his team fixed the mechanical problems and four races after his string of explosions he was back in a final round.
John Force said at Phoenix, “The NHRA and I are making sure I go through all the tests to make sure my head is OK.” And his daughter assessed herself as “just a little banged up” at Pomona.
Maybe a roughed-up driver – any driver, not just Brittany or John Force – isn’t the best judge in such cases.
John Medlen, co-crew chief for Funny Car racer Jack Beckman, knows that’s true.
“We all know how we feel. But many times, you don’t know what’s going on because the senses aren’t there to tell you that something is wrong,” he said. “I’ve been through the concussion thing, with boat accidents, went through a real bad one. And I didn’t think correctly for two weeks. I was unconscious for 10 minutes. So was it a concussion? You bet it was a concussion. And it takes a while for that region of the brain to heal itself.”
He indicated he’d like to see the NHRA develop and use a concussion protocol. And when John Medlen talks about head injuries in drag racing, the NHRA needs to listen. Since he lost Funny Car racer son Eric Medlen in 2007 to severe brain injuries from a testing accident, the diligent dad has logged hours upon hours of research to learn how to spare other lives.
He said, “I’m proud of the NHRA organization and what they do,” but he’s all for the sanctioning body instituting a uniform concussion code.
Medlen rhetorically asked, “Don’t you want to rise to the top with innovation, more technology, in protecting the drivers?” He encouraged the sanctioning body: “You want to keep moving to the top. You don’t want to erode and push things aside and ignore them. You want to lead the pack.”
Neurological specialists, he said, “do that for a living. They know the signs. Leave it up to them. Right now, the drivers have to decide. But if you took that out of their hands and a physician decided, there would be no decision on the part of the driver. The physician, more likely than not, is going to make the best, safest decision.” He said it might be smarter and safer if an experienced doctor says, “You might think you’re OK. But anatomically no, you’re not OK. We’re going to give you a chance to heal. And come back later, when you’re 100 percent.”
Medlen said, “The doctor’s going to have to stand up and say, ‘No, you’re not [OK]. It’s my professional opinion that you need to sit out for a period of time and let your brain heal.’ He’s the professional. If you continue to damage it, or compromise it in any way before it’s healed, you’re jeopardizing your long-term health. You want to have a presence – you want to maintain a quality of life so you can enjoy the years you have to compete and don’t make an irrational decision. Heaven help you if you would have another accident the next race or the next run and your brain’s compromised and has had no time to heal. Then what? That’s the extreme of the situation. But it’s possible.”
But he knows that no matter what, drivers aren’t always reliable medical sources.
Alexis De Joria is an exception. She was diagnosed with a concussion at the 2016 fall Las Vegas race following a wall-banging incident during qualifying that jerked her head hard against the roll-cage padding. She sat out eliminations there and missed the entire season finale at Pomona. Immediately after exiting her damaged car, she said she felt fine. Later that evening, it became evident she had suffered a concussion. At home, at Austin, Texas, the official diagnosis from Texas Sport and Family Medicine was that she had suffered a concussion. "I underwent a series of cognitive tests, and the doctors diagnosed me with a full-blown concussion that required me to step away from the seat for the time being," DeJoria said then. "It takes two weeks for these symptoms to subside, and even then, because of the trauma from the concussion, it would be unsafe for me to race this weekend. To go out and get behind the wheel of a 10,000-horsepower race car with its high G-forces and the possibility of tire shake, would just be too traumatic for my head in its sensitive state. I've never been a quitter and never will be, but I must accept my fate and sit this last race out."
Sadly, her logic is not the norm.
“The majority of the people, if they think they’re OK and the doctor says they’re not, they’re probably going to make their own decision and say, ‘I need to go to the race.’ That’s just human nature,” Medlen said. “If the sanctioning body says, ‘This doctor has the say whether you can continue to compete,’ then all bets are off. That doctor says. And if he’s right or wrong, I’m not in a position [to say]. But I would err on the safe side,” Medlen said. “If the physician says to the driver, ‘Sorry – you have all the indications that your brain has not healed yet, I’m going to make the decision that you have to sit out,’ they can be mad at the doctor if they want. But somebody’s got to make those decisions.”
Most injured racers claim they have been “cleared by the doctor” to return quickly to the cockpits of their 10,000-horsepower cars that launch at 5Gs, jet down a dragstrip at more than 330 miles an hour, and jerk to a halt with a negative-5-G jolt. But look at some evidence: Elvis Presley found a doctor who supplied him medication on dangerous demand, and so did Michael Jackson and Prince. Oh– for the record, that’s the late Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Besides, NHRA drivers have no one authority, no one doctor or neurological specialist, to pass judgment. How much easier would it be to search and find at least one doctor who says it’s perfectly fine to return to competition? When Steve Torrence had his heart attack (which medical experts attribute to his radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a teen), the doctor told him he could go back to work, without any idea that Torrence drives a body-pounding Top Fuel dragster. Torrence wisely decided he should sit out a race. He had to instruct the doctor.
A driver knows right away not to mess around with a heart condition. For example, Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson hated to be sidelined for three months in 2014 following heart surgery, but he did what was right. But the NHRA can’t count on drivers always to act responsibly and unselfishly when it comes to concussions: they’re human. And they pay a high price for stubbornness or willfulness.
“You look at professional athletes – I think Muhammad Ali was the best example,” Medlen said. “His quality of life was greatly compromised. The brain injuries continued to happen over a period of time, and the brain can take only so much. [With] scar tissue, the brain is compromised, and I think it dramatically compromised his quality of life for a number of years.”
Renowned IndyCar Series consultant Dr. Terry Trammell told reporter Bob Pockrass, “It is a challenge to balance both the safety of the drivers and the need for them to be on the track to compete.”
That’s a fact. As NASCAR announced this May that it had strengthened its concussion practices, driver Kyle Busch conceded, "A lot of times, NASCAR has to help us from ourselves.”
Medlen said with certainty, “That race car’ll hurt you. We’re all family. We all love each other. As a group of people, anything we can do to preserve your well-being, I think [we need to do] due diligence to try to do that.
“The sanctioning body,” he said, “is the only one that has the power to make the rule that would mandate that.”
The National Football League has been under the glaring interrogation lights in the past few years because of head injuries, repetitive brain trauma, and their insidious extension CTE (the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). While the NFL arguably might be late to recognize the problem and seek a solution, the NFL laudably has developed procedures to protect its players.
NFL teams determine a player’s so-called “baseline status” (non-concussed status) during the preseason. During games, the NFL mandates, “If a player exhibits symptoms of a concussion, he must be evaluated by his team’s medical staff.” So he first undergoes a brief sideline assessment. If medical personnel conclude the player has been affected, he is taken to the locker room for further testing.
Before returning to action, the player must go through the league’s Return to Practice Protocol. That’s a five-step process that starts with rest and recovery “until his signs and symptoms and neurologic examination, including cognitive and balance tests, return to baseline status.” Only then can he begin to take up light aerobic exercise (cardio, stretching, balance drills) under the watch of team medical personnel. Step 3 is continued aerobics and strength training. Once mastered, football-specific activities are permitted. If a team physician and neurological consultant clear the player, he can return to practice and games.
The process involves neutral neurological consultants (one on each sideline) at every game, as well as spotters. These spotters sit in a booth and monitor the field through binoculars and video replay to detect injuries. They serve as an “extra set of eyes.” What they look for specifically are any loss of consciousness, a blank or vacant look, disorientation, slowness to rise to feet following hit to the head, motor coordination and imbalance problems, clutching head after contact, and visible face injury.
So the protocol is extensive and is making use of emerging technology to improve measures and protect players as much as is possible. The National Hockey League, plagued for decades with head-trauma injuries, has a similar program. So does the National Basketball Association. A Major League Baseball player who has had a concussion must sit out for at least seven days, then must pass strict testing before returning to action. He could be placed on the 15- or 60-day disabled list if symptoms do not subside. NASCAR and the IndyCar Series continually are perfecting their rules.
They all have rules about how to react to concussions. The NHRA does not. And not having such a policy is foolish.
“It’s a matter of personal opinion, but after losing your son over something like this, could you err on the safe side? Yes, I think about that all the time,” Medlen said. “I would rather err on the safe side than not, because you don’t know the long-term outcome of all this. We don’t know, and with a brain injury you can’t go back.
“There are two days on the calendar year that do not exist: yesterday and tomorrow. So the only thing you can deal with is today,” he said. “And today is the paintbrush for tomorrow. You can only learn from yesterday.”
And learning from yesterday needs to translate to action today. NHRA needs to pick up the paintbrush and capture a brighter tomorrow when it comes to protecting drivers in concussion situations.