NASCAR Senior VP of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell meets the media in Charlotte to address questions about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion.
STEVE O'DONNELL: First and foremost, I think I just want to open up by saying how proud we are of Dale Jr., and the entire team. It takes a lot of guts for an athlete of his caliber, where he stands in the sport, where he stood in the Chase to come up here and admit he had an issue.
It's everyone's responsibility in this sport to participate in the safety of all of our athletes. It's on the athlete, the owner, NASCAR, the tracks, and I think you saw the process work in terms of Dale Jr. knowing he had an issue, seeking out Dr. [Jerry] Petty, who sits on our advisory board, and taking the right steps. No matter how tough it is, I think it represents what you want in an athlete and represents the sport well.
Our primary concern is obviously Dale's health and seeing him back in the racecar. I think you heard today from Dr. Petty that things look good to be able to do that. So we're encouraged by what we've heard as well. And we'll leave it up to Dr. Petty, as you heard today, to make the final decision on when Dale Jr. can be back in a racecar, as we would with any concussion symptoms that we've received from drivers.
That's our normal process, where if a driver is evaluated or seen by a doctor, we rely on a neurologist with at least five years' experience in the sports field to evaluate the athlete or the driver to get back in the sport, and Dr. Petty obviously has years of experience in that. He's been around the sport a long, long time. He's been around a number of sports, and we'll rely on him to make that decision and go from there. With that, I'll answer any questions you may have.
Q. This question is not as antagonistic as it may sound. You said the process worked. But the fact is Junior had a concussion after Kansas and was able to sort of hide that or keep it to himself and possibly could have done more. So is there something that NASCAR can do to insure that drivers are getting treated or examined after these types of incidents?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think that's a fair question, and it will probably help to go back to Kansas and what happened. He was seen by an ambulance, proper safety measures were in place, he was cleared. I talked to Pat Warren at the track. He had conversations with Junior, post incident and everything seemed fine. So that's where I would say the process of an evaluation for any athlete or driver it's not just NASCAR making the call. It has to be the driver as well letting us know how he's feeling. Part of that we can always evaluate as we will. We'll look at Kansas and see what we may be able to do better. We'll do that with safety each and every incident.
You heard some of the things with the incident data recorder we had on the car, so we're able to look at that, and able to evaluate it. But I think we've got to also rely on the drivers to be up front with us and let us know. I think you saw him do that here today.
We do have our medical liaison team who brings every driver's records from when they've raced with us to every event, so we know what's going on. We know their history. We can evaluate them from there. But I think it's something that we'll obviously take a look at, but I think we really applaud the move he made today to take that step.
Q. When you see an incident like this, two concussions, Eric McClure's concussions – I know Keselowski broke an ankle. Do you have concerns about the safety of the car?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think Dale Jr. answered that best. I think we're very confident in the safety of our cars. But we look at them candidly as a rolling laboratory. Each and every event we try to learn something new and make them as safe as possible, and I would say our race cars are the safest in the world. I think when you look at the concussion history that we've had, even over the last five years, we've had a total of nine concussions in our National series in five years. That's less than two per year. When you look at the number of events we run per weekend in Trucks and Nationwide and Cup, that's a pretty small number.
I don't want to minimize that because any concussion is a cause for concern, and we'd like that number to be zero. But I think our overall safety record, the fact that our R & D Center is the only that exists in Motorsports to evaluate every crash to look at what we can do better, the experts we have on staff at the R & D Center, I think I'd put our safety record up against anyone.
Q. Dale Jr. said his Kansas wreck was 40-Gs. If you had that information from your data recorder, wouldn't that make you want to have somebody check him out a couple of days later, three days later, five days later to make sure he's OK?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, I think looking back there are always things you can second guess and look at. I think that's one of the things we'll evaluate as we go forward. But I think, again, I'd put it back on everybody's got a responsibility as part of this. That's something we can learn from as well.
I'm sure in talking to Dale Jr. as we have, knowing where we stand now, that will absolutely be part of the procedures that we look at moving forward.
Q. I know you said you're going to leave this up to Dr. Jerry Petty, but does NASCAR have any concerns about the fact that in 2002 Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted he raced with a concussion for a couple of months? He intimated just now he had a few concussions, let the symptoms clear and raced that weekend. Are you going to be any more vigilant about the fact that there's a pattern there? Does it concern NASCAR at all that drivers seem to be allowed to make those decisions on their own without having an independent, objective test that you administer to make sure they're okay to race against 42 other guys if they had their bell rung?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Let me clear some things up. I think a driver is cleared every year to race. So before they even get in the car in Daytona the drivers have been seen. We know their medical history. So that is first and foremost going into a year.
I think what you heard Junior say is he didn't recall. I think he referenced the 2002 and he's had two here. So what I would say is surely moving forward we'll rely on Dr. Petty with knowing the history, knowing the baseline, if there is an incident at the track, we have that data, we can evaluate it. If we think there is a reason or the medical liaisons and the staff in the Care Center believe he should be sent for further evaluation, we'll do that./
I think we've got a pretty good history of sending drivers to the Care Center and then also to a neurologist if we think there may be any cause to do so.
I think going back to your question on do drivers try to cover it up. I think you saw Mr. Hendrick talk about 10 years ago what the situation was. But I think you saw a driver who is racing for a championship, who is our most popular driver get up here ask go see a doctor and get out of a car. That takes a lot of guts. I think it also shows where our sport has come, and they know that safety is first and foremost.
We know it's a dangerous sport, but we've got to be relying on our drivers too to be up front with us. And I think for the most part they are and we have that good relationship to continue forward.
Q. At Talladega, because he was able to get the car back to the garage, Dale didn't have to go to the Care Center. Is there any thought that you would require guys to go anyway after a hit that you saw? And how can you change the mentality of the athletes to be honest and forward about this?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think to answer your first question, I think the challenge for us is every hit is subjective. So if we required every driver to go to the Care Center – let's take Dale Jr. in this instance. If it was lap 40, he seemed fine, drove the car in, and had a quick adjustment in five laps and could get him back out there and he felt fine, have we then cost a driver a championship, or are you asking me the opposite question?
So it's very tough. It's still a subjective call. It's something we take a look at week-in and week-out. So we'll continue to do that. But I think the policy – and we have sent drivers to the Care Center when they have hit during a race and been able to drive it back and we've evaluated that.
Q. How you could encourage the athletes to continue in this era of concussion in sports to be honest and come to you, even if their ride is in jeopardy?
STEVE O'DONNELL: No, to answer that, it probably starts in Daytona. We have a driver safety meeting every year in Daytona where we bring in our expert to talk to our drivers about what we've learned in the past year, and any new safety elements we've had, what you've seen from that, obviously over the years, the safer barrier, the HANS device, new helmets, seats, all of those things have been updates we've talked to drivers about and worked with the teams and tried to implement as quickly as we can.
Those are things we do on a weekly basis if necessary. But more importantly, every year we have that forum with the drivers, their teams, to make sure it's as safe as possible going forward.
Q. Steve, you talked about the safety record for NASCAR, and I don't think anybody can argue with that. But to your knowledge has NASCAR ever sat a driver down because of medical concerns resulting from an injury?
STEVE O'DONNELL: We actually have, and I would say the toughest call would be Rick Crawford. If you look at 2005, he had the longest streak in the trucks, was ready to break it. Had an incident. It was evaluated in the Care Center. Saw a neurologist, and we chose to say no. That was by the doctor's orders. Very tough call.
I think Rick is still not talking to some of us sometimes. But I would probably point to that as an example that sticks without with a driver who had been in the car for a long time – or excuse me, the truck – had set a streak, and unfortunately we had to sit him out.
Q. You've referenced that a neurosurgeon with five years' experience or more can clear a driver. What other things are part of the concussion policy that they have to go through? I know Dr. Petty talked about things similar to the NFL. Can you take us through at this point? Obviously, the concussion policy doesn't kick through until it's been diagnosed. So if a driver's hidden it, you don't know about it. So what happens from the point of a driver getting a concussion, what is the policy and detail before they get back on the track?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think if you take an incident say here at Charlotte, if a driver were to have an incident, first and foremost is evaluated in the infield Care Center where we've got board certified emergency technicians or doctors, I'm sorry. And they'll evaluate the driver at that point.
If the driver complains of any symptoms or if the emergency room physician believes there may be symptoms, we refer them to a neurologist. In most cases, it is Dr. Petty.
Drivers have a lot of trust in Dr. Petty. He's worked with the NFL and the [Charlotte] Panthers and NASCAR has that relationship. So at that point he's required to go through the tests that you heard Dr. Petty lay out. Then it's up to our neurologists to make the call on whether or not that driver's going to be back.
NASCAR, we take ourselves out of that, and rely on our doctors to make the call on whether or not the driver could be back. In some cases it could be two weeks, some could be less, some could be longer like Eric McClure. It's a case-by-case basis based on a driver's history or lack thereof and what the doctor tells us.
Q. You talked about neurosurgeons. Does that mean Dr. Petty's going to present his information to somebody else? Is there an advisory board?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Actually, Dr. Petty would be the neurologist who would evaluate it. Dr. Petty also works with Dr. Deshmukh who is here and who is part of our advisory board as well. So that's usually who we'd refer anyone to with a potential head injury or concussion. At that point, again, it's up to them to clear them, and we rely on their expertise.
Q. I seem to remember from all the years in NASCAR that NASCAR from a federal standpoint is totally different from the NFL and baseball and such because these are independent contractors. So does that limit to some degree what NASCAR can do in a situation like this?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Our safety record is pretty clear. I think our drivers are very confident in what we have in place each and every weekend, especially here at Charlotte. If you looked out at the safety measures that are in place, the personnel NASCAR has on board, the relationships that the drivers have between our officials, the safety workers at the track, our liaison team, our advisory panel for the doctor.
So I think if anything, it offers us an even better relationship, because unlike other sports, we've got 43 drivers here each and every weekend. They see the same folks. They are used to the same folks at the track. The ambulance personnel who saw Dale Jr. in Kansas had worked the same corner for 12 straight years. They know that racetrack and I think that familiarity helps us and gives us an advantage as well.