By CHRIS JENKINS, Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — If Michael Waltrip were to count up all the concussions he has sustained over a NASCAR career that stretches back nearly 30 years, he'd certainly hit 10 — and probably keep going.
Safety measures since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 have gone a long way toward preventing head injuries, and NASCAR officials have taken steps to improve the way they identify and treat concussions. But Waltrip knows that won't undo all those hits he took in the 1980s and '90s.
"I whacked my head — a lot," Waltrip said. "If you think about this, I showed up in '85, when it was relatively 'safe.' We thought we had it figured out. I raced all the way through 2001 when people were getting killed. And all through that time, I was hitting my head and knocking myself out and getting concussions and going to the hospital. And I don't know what that means to me in 10 years. But I know it's a concern."
The 48-year-old Waltrip gets uneasy when he hears stories about NFL players and other athletes who are having serious neurological problems after they retire, issues that a growing amount of research indicates may have been caused by repetitive brain injuries they sustained during their playing days.
Could that happen to him, too?
"I would be the perfect case study to see what's going to happen," Waltrip said. "Because I can go back and look at the races and count up times I was knocked unconscious that I can't count on both hands."
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson says he has had two concussions racing stock cars, and probably many more racing dirt bikes when he was younger.
"We're not immune to concussions," Johnson said. "And certainly after severe concussions or being concussed several times, the numbers change. We know that. The dynamic is there. I think we've reduced the opportunity for it to happen, but ultimately, it can happen. I just think the odds are a lot better today than they've ever been."
Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 — which came after drivers Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper all were killed from similar head injuries — forced NASCAR to get serious about safety.
Today, drivers must wear a head and neck restraint, while impact-absorbing SAFER barriers have been installed on racetrack walls and NASCAR completely redesigned race cars to reduce the risk of injury. Racing seats used to look a lot like passenger car seats; now they look more like something out of a spaceship, with foam-padded supports on each side of the helmet that barely allows a driver's head to move during a crash.
It's working. Going into Sunday's Daytona 500, there hasn't been a death in NASCAR's top three national series since Earnhardt's.
"If I'm Kasey Kahne or Kyle Busch, I don't have those concerns any more," Waltrip said. "We've got the cars and the tracks, we've got it all fixed. You can still get hurt. You're running 200 miles an hour. But the chances of getting hurt are slimmer. The chances of hitting your head and hurting it are really slim."
NASCAR officials say they've identified 29 concussions in their top three series since 2004 — and only 11 of those happened in the past five seasons.
"Not huge numbers, when you see it," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations. "But with each of those, each one's different, we've had to assess each one differently. Knock on wood, we haven't had as many to have to deal with."
And while there have been some drivers who experienced long-term effects from traumatic head injuries over the years — including Bobby Allison, Ernie Irvan, Jerry Nadeau and Steve Park — O'Donnell says NASCAR doesn't see any evidence of widespread health issues related to multiple head injuries, as the NFL and other sports are.
"There's always concerns for any driver that's been in the sport," O'Donnell said. "But in terms of drivers formally approaching us and saying, 'Hey, I want to talk about this or look at it,' we haven't seen that occur, in terms of what you're seeing in other sports right now. We'd certainly be open to working with anyone, if we see that, in helping to stop any trend that we saw."