Monday, August 8, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Give Concussions Time

The Olympics started from Brazil. Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR race from Watkins Glen. Brad Keselowski, in what only can be described as a sheer act of bravery, raced twice on one of the most dangerous tracks in motorsports. Chris Buescher is three points outside the top thirty. Nissan continues to control Super GT. Mazda can't win in IMSA. An Argentine world champion won one final time in front of his fellow countrymen. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Passing of Bryan Clauson
Bryan Clauson died Sunday from injuries suffered Saturday night at the Belleville Midget Nationals. Clauson was 27 years old. The California-born driver's 112 USAC victories have him ranked fifth all-time in USAC victory and Clauson won two championships in both USAC's sprint and midget divisions. Clauson competed in 26 NASCAR Grand National Series races for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2007-08 with his best finish being a fifth at Kentucky and his only pole position came at Daytona International Speedway. Clauson made three Indianapolis 500 starts and this year he scored a career-best 23rd-place finish and led three laps.

Our thoughts and prayers go to the Clauson family.

Give Concussions Time
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missed another race as the two-time Daytona 500 winner suffers from concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt, Jr. has missed the last five races and previously missed two races in 2012 after suffering a concussion.

While we wait for Earnhardt, Jr. to return behind the wheel of the #88 Chevrolet, we speculate because we are human and there is nothing better to do. Will he return for Darlington? Can he still qualify for the Chase? Will he ever race again? We speculate because concussions have no solid recovery period. It's not like when Josef Newgarden fractured his collarbone at Texas and he was given a two- to six-week time frame for recovery. We had an idea when he would return and for Newgarden he was back in two weeks. Concussions are much more fluid. James Hinchcliffe suffered a concussion in the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis and was back in the car less than a week later. During 2015 Formula One preseason testing, Fernando Alonso suffered a concussion at Barcelona on February 22nd and missed the Australian Grand Prix on March 15th.

When it comes to concussions, returning to competition comes down to when an individual feels better and for some drivers, the symptoms last a few days and life goes on but for others and in this case Earnhardt, Jr., the symptoms are longer lasting and a return seems like it may never return.

These questions about Earnhardt, Jr. returning and many speculating he will never race again are familiar to me. Living in Pittsburgh and having a family of die-hard Pittsburgh Penguins fans, Sidney Crosby's concussion in January 2011 caused many tense discussions and brought to the surface old fears of the franchise suffering another downward spiral. When it first happened, we all thought Crosby would be back soon. When April came and Crosby had yet to return, we all thought he would return for the playoffs. When he didn't return for the playoffs, then people started giving nervous. The hope was Crosby would be back and fully fit for the 2011-12 season but I had plenty discussions with cousins and others saying he was done and we had seen the last of Sidney Crosby in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. It took Crosby almost two years to get back to regularly playing again. He played 22 of 82 games in the 2011-12 season. Over five years removed from the initial concussions and Crosby has added his name to the Stanley Cup for a second time and had a second gold medal draped around his neck but for time is precious in sports. An athlete only gets so many chances at the highest level.

Crosby is an example that you can take your time recovering from a concussion and still return to the pinnacle. Earnhardt, Jr. might not race again this season but sacrificing a shot for a championship in 2016 for four or five chances down the road and a better quality of living after he retires from competition makes sense. Earnhardt, Jr.'s prolonged battle with concussion-like symptoms should also make NASCAR consider scheduling for the future. Earnhardt, Jr. and his doctors believe his current situation dates back to an accident at Michigan on June 12th. NASCAR had the week off after Michigan but Earnhardt, Jr. raced three consecutive weeks before stepping out of the car. If the effects of concussions take this long to surface in individuals, perhaps NASCAR should consider shortening the schedule by a few races to give the drivers a few more weeks off during the season to all drivers more time to recover from accidents and any other bumps and bruises. Two weeks ago, I suggested shortening the season by four races so the Chase would begin before football season starts and end before the heart of the football but in that suggestion it came that the teams would have an off-week after every five or six races with the final 11 races being contested in 11 consecutive weeks.

Another thing all motorsports series (NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and everything in-between) need is more extensive monitoring process. Of course, that is easier said than done. Motorsports series aren't like team sports where each team has a set of doctors and teams have their own training facilities that players visit every day. Drivers are all over the place. While many NASCAR drivers live in the Mooresville, North Carolina-area and plenty of drivers from other forms of motorsports live around Indianapolis, there are drivers that live in Florida and California and then there are drivers who live abroad or are constantly traveling abroad. Unlike many team sports where two to four games are played a week, a race happens on the weekend and for the most part a driver is free to do whatever he or she wants from Monday to Thursday.

Another difficult part is getting driver to comply with the monitoring. Brad Keselowski has had his fair share to say about concussions but considering he had a hard accident at Watkins Glen less than two weeks ago in testing and it took a month for the symptoms to catch up with Earnhardt, Jr. to sideline him, how would Keselowski respond to being monitor by NASCAR for four weeks? I am sure Keselowski isn't the only driver who would wipe his or her hands of the situation when passing the initial test after an accident but concussions aren't as simple as that.

More studies are being done on the effects of concussions and more and more athletes are donating their brains to science to further the understanding of what sports can do to the human brain but those answers might not come for decades. What we can control being is observant when we suspect a concussion could be imminent and being more precautions when a concussion is diagnosed

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Denny Hamlin but did you know...

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran won the IMSA race from Road America in the #31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP. The #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport Oreca of Tom Kimber-Smith and Robert Alon won in PC. The #4 Corvette of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner won in GTLM. The #33 Riley Motorsports Viper of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating won in GTD.

João Paulo de Oliveira and Hironobu Yasuda won the Super GT race at Fuji in the #12 Team Impul Nissan GT-R. The #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Takashi Kobayashi and Shinichi Takagi won in GT300.

Tom Chilton and José María López split the WTCC races in Argentina.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Grand National Series race at Watkins Glen.

Chad Boat won the 39th annual Belleville Midget Nationals and is now in the running for a chance to win an Indy Lights ride in the Jonathan Byrd's Indy Challenge.

Coming Up This Weekend
After three weeks off, MotoGP is back in action and makes its first appearance in Austria since 1997.
Pirelli World Challenge returns to the former Miller Motorsports Park, now Utah Motorsports Campus.