Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first appearance at a race track at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International on Friday since being sidelined for concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt has missed the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races as Alex Bowman and then Jeff Gordon have filled-in as substitute drivers behind the wheel of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Gordon will drive the car Sunday in the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen and again when the series returns to action Aug. 20 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The weekend between the two races is an off-weekend for the series. A date for Earnhardt’s return to racing has not been set.
Earnhardt held a press conference in the Watkins Glen media center on Friday. Here’s a transcript (video at bottom of article):
ON BEING BACK AT THE TRACK:
“It is great to be back and seeing everybody. I’m super nervous coming back. Hadn’t been to the track. I miss my team and my teammates. Amy (Reimann, fiancé) is gone on a trip for the weekend, so I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do. Figured coming to the track wasn’t a bad idea. Get to hang out with my guys a little bit. It just felt so weird not being there, so here we are.”
IS IT POSSIBLE YOUR DOCTORS WON’T BE ABLE TO GIVE YOU CLEAR DIRECTIVES SO THAT YOU WILL HAVE A BIG DECISION TO MAKE ON YOUR OWN FOR YOUR LONG TERM HEALTH?
“I think my doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I have been through and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I will be ready to go back and get into a race car. Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time. It is frustrating to have to do it that way, but that is the process, and we hope and expect that when we go back for the next evaluation that we are symptom free and can start to see a timeline develop. Until then, we are just taking it one evaluation at a time. Those are typically every two to three to four weeks.”
YOUR FANS WANT TO KNOW IF THIS HAS BEEN TOUGH EMOTIONALLY ON YOU BECAUSE YOU HAVE SEEMED SO STRONG THROUGH THIS:
“I just want to get better. You put everything… nothing else is really a priority except for just getting the symptoms to clear up and get back to feeling like yourself. That is all that I am thinking about. The process isn’t as fast as you would like it to be. I talk to my doctor every other day, sometimes for an hour or two about the psychological side of it because it can become very frustrating and obviously being a race car driver, we don’t have a lot of patience to begin with. This is a challenge. But we’ve got some great doctors, and I really believe and trust what they are telling me. I am confident and positive that they tell me without question that we are going to get back to normal. I just have to do what they tell me. There are a lot of activities every day. There is about two to three hours’ worth of physical and mental therapy that I do each day. Not a lot of fun. Probably some of it, just trying to describe it, it pretty mundane. But they really stress your symptoms, and that is what they want. They want you to do things that really push your mind, and bring out the symptoms. So, in the last evaluation, we really ramped up the therapy to make it a little more strenuous. We will continue to work. I will work every day and listen to my doctors and hopefully continue to see progress.”
SINCE THIS PROCESS FIRST STARTED, HAVE YOU PERSONALLY CONSIDERED WHETHER YOU SHOULD CONSIDER RACING, OR HAVE THAT DISCUSSION BETWEEN YOU AND AMY, OR EVEN WITH JUST YOURSELF?
“No. My doctor thinks that to get through the therapy and to get through the symptoms you don’t need to be adding stress to your life. The stress will slow down the process. So, going into those kinds of conversations aren’t even necessary at this particular point. The point right now is just to get healthy. Just to get right. I’m not thinking about the what-ifs. I’m just listening to my doctors. We went into this with the intentions of getting back in the car when we get cleared. I think that is a possibility and so do my doctors. So I am excited about that. Whenever it happens; it happens. It is frustrating that we’ve had to miss this many races. When we first went into the doctor’s office, we never anticipated being out this long. Unfortunately it is a slower process. There are no guidelines or rule book, or consistent history on how long this stuff really takes to clear up. So, we just have to be patient. My doctors feel great about the opportunity that I will not only be healthy again, but they can actually make my brain stronger to be able to withstand these common events. The event that I had at Michigan which they have tied this concussion to I shouldn’t have had a concussion from. I should be able to get through events like that without having any issues. So, they are not only working to get me healed up, but are working to make it to where I can compete and go through events like that without any concern.”
ON GETTING CORRECT INFORMATION ABOUT HIS CONDITION TO EVERYONE:
“I think the podcast was just a great outlet for us to give updates. People are wondering; people are curious so that was a great avenue for us. It is effective. I don’t mind being honest about what is going on and I think that is maybe helped some people to when they are going through the same situation. The one thing I worry the most about and I think I said on the podcast is that I don’t like people to make assumptions on where I am at and how I am doing and what I am up to. So it is best for my peace-of-mind to give me peace of mind and to bring down any stress and anxiety through the process is to just open up and be honest about what is going on and how we are doing. That is what we’ve done. It is just a coincidence and a fortunate situation to have that avenue. So we will probably continue to use that.”
CAN THEY NOT SET A TIMELINE UNTIL YOU ARE SYMPTOM FREE?
“Yes, because you don’t when they are going to quit. You just don’t know when the symptoms will stop. Every day I am doing these exercises to sort of retrain the brain to fix the issues that I have with the balance and to gain stability. It will fix itself when it decides to. There is no common history that will tell you that ‘man, this is going to last a month’, or this is going to last…because I’ve had situations that…and I’ve talked to other people with this history that didn’t last this long. That is why it is frustrating. My past history didn’t take this long and cleared up… and you could see the progress, feel the progress every day. It is a little bit different. The symptoms I am having this time are different, but not uncommon. So my doctor is very positive and I feed off of that. I talk to him every other day like I said for him to keep reinforcing that positive energy so I can get in there and believe in the rehabilitation and the work I’m doing because it is really tough for me to get in there and do it. I just don’t want to do it, but I know I have to. I just don’t know when this is going to stop; and when things are going to fix themselves. That’s why it has to be from one evaluation to the next. That is the best I can do for everybody.”
IS IT YOUR EXPECTATION TO BE BACK IN THE CAR AS SOON AS YOU ARE SYMPTOM FREE?
“I don’t know what the doctor would choose there. Whether you could go symptom free and go immediately back in the car. Or if they would maybe want you to be symptom free for a week or two weeks. I don’t know what he will do. We haven’t really talked about that. I personally would like to get in a race car and drive it at a closed course somewhere. Whether that is one of my late models, or if NASCAR would lift the restrictions on the testing policy to go to Gresham or someplace I want to get in the car and run for a day. I think I should do that. That would be the smartest thing to do before actually trying to accomplish an entire race weekend.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW FRUSTRATING THE ANXIETY-SIDE OF THIS HAS BEEN? ALSO, HOW HAS THE SUPPORT OF YOUR FANS HELPED YOU?
“I’d love to speak on the support. It’s been awesome. All the NASCAR fans are supportive of all the drivers when they find themselves in situations that are challenging. It’s been no different. That’s helped me a lot and gave me a lot of motivation to get back and get back in the car. Even hearing from not only the fans, but also the other drivers and my peers is such a positive motivation. The more of that I see, the better. I think it helps me keep going and keep working hard and take my therapy seriously. As far as anxiety, with 2012 it was just about resting and not doing anything that would drive the symptoms and really letting your mind and your head rest to heal. For whatever reason, my doctor wants to push me into situations that drive the symptoms and that’s basically going somewhere that I’m not familiar with, or being in busy places. Going out to eat or going to lunch or coming here, my doctor calls that ‘exposure’. This is probably the worst situation (laughs) as far as making my symptoms go haywire, but that’s what he wants. He wants me to do anything whether it’s going places and pushing myself to get into areas that give me anxiety and drive the symptoms. All the rehab drives the symptoms. They want me to push the symptoms so my body gets used to them and they become suppressed and then it’s no longer an issue.
“I kind of had the same thing with the old concussion. I could go places. The anxiety was bad and it would drive up the symptoms, too. That’s just part of the process. That’s a common occurrence with situations like this. You don’t want to go anywhere where you’re going to feel worse. And this situation, my doctor tells me, is good therapy to go somewhere that makes you feel worse. Go in there and get exposure and then get out and go somewhere where you can kind of get calmed back down and then repeat the process. And so, I’ve been going and eating and having lunch with my family. I go to Kelley’s house and get in the living room with her kids; boy that drives up the symptoms pretty good (laughter). But, it’s been great to spend time with them. It’s unusual, the time that I’ve been able to spend with them since we’re not racing.
“There are six types of concussions as far as what part of the body they really affect. Mainly I’ve got ocular imbalance issues. They are all connected. And so, you can have an injury to the ocular or the balance and it will affect the emotion. And it is all sort of tied together. So, if you injure one part of your brain, all of them get deficient in some way, shape, or form. So, you have all these other symptoms. And you’ve just really got to corral and fix that one area and it stops affecting the rest of it. So, we’re working on it.”
YOU’VE BEEN A BIG ADVOCATE FOR PEOPLE WITH CONCUSSIONS IN THE SPORTS WORLD. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR OTHER DRIVERS THAT MIGHT HAVE THE SAME SYMPTOMS BUT ARE AFRAID TO STAND UP TO IT?
“It’s really hard, as a driver, to say that you’ve got a problem. And it’s hard to tell someone what to do in that situation. If you’re not feeling good; for me, I was sort of scared straight into getting checked out. When I got hurt in 2012, it was so severe and my body changed and my mind changed so much, I just had to get it looked at. I couldn’t go every day trying to self-manage my issues. And I just feel like, hopefully, anytime anybody gets dinged-up, or realized that they’re just not right, or they’re foggy, or whatever their symptoms are, that they would reach out to a neurologist and get checked out. And there’s easy access with our sport. We’ve got a lot of great people that are part of the sport and who have been part of the sport for a long time, that handle those issues and can get you to the right people.
“It’s hard because you basically put yourself out there to be pulled out of the car. But man, your quality of life is so important. Your health beyond your driving career is so important. If you plan on having a family, or have a family already, those things are going to be a priority. There are so many reasons to do the right thing and go ahead and get the help you need and get back in the car, when you’re healthy. I’ve learned a lot through this experience in the last three or four years and feel like it’s a hard decision to make. And I feel like it would be even harder, the younger you are, and the situation you’re in when you’re trying to get a career going and just trying to make a living driving cars, it would be tougher. Being in the situation I’m in now, having ran for so long, maybe it wasn’t as challenging or as hard a decision to make, to make the right choice. But if I was 21 and just getting started or very young, it would be so hard to make that decision. So, I can definitely understand the point of view from the drivers.”
OUTSIDE OF NASCAR, HAVE ANY OTHER PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES REACHED OUT TO YOU TO TALK ABOUT CONCUSSIONS? DO YOU FEEL LIKE MAYBE YOU OPEN A DOOR FOR OTHER SPORTS TO MAYBE LOOK AT CONCUSSIONS MORE SERIOUSLY FOR OTHER ATHLETES?
“I don’t know. I just know I’m trying to take care of myself. I’ve talked to a lot of drivers. I’ve talked to a lot of people. You get in this situation and a lot of people reach out and a lot of people have their own experiences that they want to share. And when you’re going through that, you definitely want to share your experience with people who have had a common experience.
“It’s so frustrating trying to explain your symptoms to somebody who’s never had a concussion. And it’s so frustrating trying to explain to somebody what just regular day-to-day life is like when you’ve got these symptoms. Nobody can see it. You can’t scan and see it. Doctors can’t see it. They really rely on the patient to be honest and upfront. So, when you can talk to someone who has been through it, it’s a great experience and it helps both of you, to be honest with you. So, there’s been a lot of that. And I really appreciate those calls and relationships I have with those guys.”
IS IT AMAZING TO YOU HOW FAR WE HAVE ADVANCED MEDICALLY?
“I think about that. I’m so thankful that there is knowledge and there is rehabilitation that is specific to what I have going on. There is just not this umbrella of treatment that they sort of give to everybody. They have specific ways to help and heal specific types of concussions and certain symptoms. That is why I think I enjoy talking to my doctor so often and going to see him so often is because you have so many questions. Every day you get a new concern or a new question and you really can’t wait to get in the room and be able to talk to him about it. For them to have the knowledge they have today versus where we were 10 or 20 years ago is something I am very thankful for and I feel very fortunate when I got to see my doctor he will put me in front of four or five different specialists that handle a lot of different things as far as my rehabilitation and medication and so forth. There is so much to grab on to. There is so much to learn and so much positive things to take back from the evaluations when you are able to get in front of all those people and hear all the specific things that are happening to you and what you need to do and why it’s happening and how you can help it. We didn’t know all that stuff before and there is still a lot to be learned. I like to see my doctor and I like to get in there and learn as much as I can and try to understand the progress we are making and what to expect. There is still a lot to be learned though. There have been so many advances and I feel so fortunate to have the treatment and the access to the treatment that I have.”
IN TALKING TO YOUR DOCTORS HAS IT ALWAYS BEEN WHEN YOU ARE HEALTHY AND SAFE TO GET BACK IN? OR HAVE THEY AT ANY POINT INTRODUCED AN ELEMENT OF IF?
“No that is not the conversation your doctor is going to have with you when he is trying to get you right. You are just worrying about getting normal. You go in there and you see your doctor and all you and him talk about and all he cares about is fixing you. He doesn’t care about my racing or whatever I do as a profession. He is just trying to fix what is wrong with me. That is his job. He is not a counselor or a psychologist. That is not his profession so he is just telling me do this treatment, take these medications, do this every day and I promise you we are going to get you right. And that is not the conversation you are going to have in the middle of treatment with someone who is suffering or someone who is going through that process. The conversations I have had with him is that he believes we are going to fix it. He believes that he can make me stronger and that I will be able to pick up where I left off.”
HOW LONG ARE YOU HERE FOR? WILL YOU GET INVOLVED WITH TALKING TO JEFF (GORDON) AND GREG IVES ABOUT THE RACE/COMPETITION?
“I doubt I will get too in depth with that. I just wanted to come and see everybody. I got to go see my guys they would be really upset if I didn’t. I am real happy to see all you guys and just whoever I run into on the way from A to B. It’s been so weird not to be at the track. You don’t really realize how many relationships and friendships you have and how much you appreciate them until you are not able to have access to it. Just to be able to come to the track was something I was excited about. I’m going to go into the garage to the hauler and I will stick around until after practice is over and things kind of calm down, so I can see my guys when they are not working. Then I’m probably going to go back home.”
YOU’VE HAD A GREAT CAREER IF IT CAME TO THAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT IT FROM THAT PERSPECTIVE?
“What? You didn’t say the word. (Laughs)”
“When I went to see Dr. Petty for the first time in 2012 and then he set me up with the guys in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) they told me that our process was to get better and go back to racing. This one is no different. When I first went to see my doctor in this particular instance it was I need to get right because I need to get back in the car as soon as I can. I’m surprised that I’ve missed this many races. I never thought this would take this long. I didn’t have a massive accident and I didn’t have really crazy symptoms. This thing happened so awkward where we had the accident in Michigan and then the symptoms crept in very slowly like two weeks later. I didn’t think this was that serious, but it had gotten to a point to where I definitely didn’t need to be in the racecar. At that point you’ve got to go get checked out and get ahold of it and figure out how to fix it. But, from the very onset of this it was ‘man this will go away in a couple of weeks. I’m going to have to miss a race or two and we will get back in the car and we will get going again.’ I’m thinking about, well it’s going to put more pressure on me to win a race to get in the Chase and all that stuff. I have every intention of honoring my current contract.
“I sat with Rick (Hendrick) before this happened a couple of months ago to talk about an extension. That is the direction that we are going. As soon as I can get healthy and get confident in how I feel and feel like I can drive a car and be great driving it then I want to drive. I want to race. I miss the competition. I miss being here. I miss the people and as Rick likes to say ‘we’ve got unfinished business.’ I’m not ready to stop racing. I’m not ready to quit. It’s a slower process, I wish it wasn’t. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. As impatient as I am I worry about everyone else’s patients as well. But, I’m not going to go in the car until the doctors clear me. The doctors won’t let me race. This is not my decision, but it’s the right decision and I trust what my doctors are telling me. When they say I’m good to go I believe them. If they say I’m healthy and I can race I’m going to race.”