Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, and crew chief Steve Letarte met with members of the media at Martinsville Speedway and discussed returning to competition this weekend and the process Dale has gone through in healing his concussion.
QUESTION: Talk about how things have been going since we last saw you at Charlotte.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “It’s been just a lot of time off. A lot of time on my hands. Just exercising, and doing what the doctors told me to do. Feeling better every day. Just going through the process. You just have got to be patient and let thing happen. I’ve learned a ton, just about what I’ve went through. Feel like I’m a lot smarter. A lot more prepared, and understand the situation a lot better now than I did beforehand. So, that’s really good. It’s been a good experience. It’s something I’d rather not have went through; I learned a lot from it. It’s been good for me. I’m just excited to be back to work. Get back in the car, and get back to normal. Get back to the life that I’m used to.”
Q: Steve, we know Dale ran some laps earlier this week at Gresham Motorsports Park and you were pleased with how it went.
STEVE LETARTE: “Yes. Part of the sequence of events that the doctor laid out was that Dale and him had things they had to work through. But then from a team standpoint, they expected us to take the car to the race track and just run some laps. We went down to Gresham; it’s a nice little short track that we were able to run. I think we ran 125 laps. I thought the laps were great; the times were great. His (Dale, Jr.) feedback was as good as it always it. So, that was really encouraging. Excited to have him back here at Martinsville.”
Q: Dale, what sort of support did you get from other drivers, from your fans during the time you were out of the car?
DEJ: “I was really kind of shutoff from everything. I got some text messages from people that it was nice to know people are thinking about you. Most of the guys that I got contacted by were just wishing I was at the race track. Wishing I was racing with them. That it just didn’t seem normal not to be racing with me. And, I felt the same way. It wasn’t normal for me to be sitting at home. I had great support from the fans, and my family and everybody.”
Q: A lot of speculation that you should have taken the rest of the year off. Did you ever consider sitting out the rest of the year?
DEJ: “I left the table of options really kind of open. Like the decision to get out of the car in the first place; I wanted the doctors to make that decision instead of me. If I could race, I wanted to be at the race track. It’s what I love to do. If the doctors felt that I was healthy enough to do that, I wanted to be doing it. I’ve really kind of left all that up to them throughout the whole process. And, I’ve been honest and upfront about how I felt every day and when we go through exercises – how those are affecting me. I’ve been pretty honest, and so far they’ve been real pleased with what they’ve seen, and feel like I can get back in the car. That is what I want to do. I felt like I could have raced in Kansas for sure, and probably ran at Charlotte with no problem. I feel foolish…you know…I feel kind of foolish sitting at home feeling okay, and not being in the car. It feels really un-natural. I feel good, and the doctors say it’s okay, I want to be in the car.”
Q: What have the last two-and-a-half weeks been like for you? Have you been scared? Have you been frustrated or kind of go with the flow?
DEJ: “Just probably more going with the flow. There have been times when it’s frustrating because you want your brain to clear up, and the fogginess to go away, and all those symptoms to go away. Every concussion is different. They’re kind of like snowflakes. Everyone is different and you react differently to each one. Like I said, I’ve learned a whole lot about it. I feel good knowing what I know now about it; know what I’ve learned about it. It’s just been really frustrating at times. Regan (Smith) did a really good job for the team. I told him that I was worried about the momentum we’d built as a team, and he maintained that. I feel like we didn’t miss a beat and I can get back in the car as if nothing has really been changed. That couldn’t have went better. It was really hard to see your car out there running around turning laps without you in it. That was difficult. I just know we had a really good test up until the tire blew at Kansas, and I was really expecting to go there and run really well; so it was frustrating knowing how good of a car we had, and not being able to enjoy that with the team. But, you just kind of have to be patient and stay in regular contact with the doctors. Once I got to know the guys at Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Center for Sports Medicine Concussion Program -UPMC), I was on the phone with Micky (Dr. Michael Collins) twice a day, just talking about everything that I was doing and everything I was feeling, because I just wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to take any chances, and I wanted to get back in the car as soon as I could. But, I wanted to make sure it was not too quick.”
Q: With all that you have learned the last several weeks, will your approach going forward change when it comes to issues like this as far as you look at another incident in the future?
DEJ: “Yes, absolutely. It changes the way I feel about it to where if I know I’ve suffered another concussion, or if I have symptoms after an accident, I’m definitely going to be a lot more responsible about it. I can understand people’s opinions that they would try to push through it, or they would ignore it to stay in the car because I did the same thing in the past. Some concussions are kind of light, and the symptoms are real light. If you don’t have another incident, you feel like you can get through it. Some concussions are really bad, and I don’t care how tough you think you are, and your mind is not working the way it is supposed to, it scares the shit out of you. You are not going to think about race cars. You aren’t going to think about trophies. You are not going to think about your job. You’re going to be thinking about what do I got to do to get my brain working the way it was before. That’s going to jump right to the top of the priority list, I promise you. I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I’ve learned. I’m glad I did what I did. I hate the attention that it got, and hate kind of being in front of you guys talking about it. But, I’m glad it did what I did. I’m glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made. They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I knew something wasn’t right. You can’t ignore concussions. It’s really dangerous doing that. You read about it in the papers, and I was going through it. I was living it. So, I had to make a choice, and I feel like I made the right one.”
Q: How do you approach this weekend? Do you feel like you can get in the car and be the old Dale? Or do you kind of have to ease into the first part and kind of get your balance?
DEJ: “I feel like I’ve been out of the car for a year. It doesn’t feel like a couple of weeks. But, I think we can go right to it. I felt good at the test. I like this race track, and I feel like we can run good here, and I want to do a good job over the next four weeks. I want to run hard, and I want us to go into every weekend trying to do what we’ve been doing all year long.”
Q: You mentioned being shut off from everything, just wondering if you could talk about the last two weeks? What you were limited to as far as television, as far as contact with the team?
DEJ: “The first 48 hours they told me not to do anything so I just kind of didn’t do anything. I slept a lot. No TV, just basically just standing walking around the house doing nothing. It was really weird. So I went back to the doctor and I told him that I couldn’t do that anymore that I need to watch TV or play video games or something. I needed some kind of entertainment. I went to Pittsburgh and they put me on a physical and mental exercise program that I did every day. That really made the biggest difference it was really crazy because I went to Pittsburgh a mess. I was just really mentally a mess. The doctors up there we talked for the whole day and went through these exercises and did a lot of stuff and in 12 hours I felt really good. I felt completely different, I couldn’t believe it. It’s been pretty normal the last 15 days or so have felt a lot better and everything about my life is back to normal except for the driving part. I just haven’t been able to do my job so I’m glad to be doing this.”
Q: You know Brad Keselowski. He drove you. He drove for you. How is he going to hold up in this situation? A lot of people say he might crack under the pressure.
DEJ: “I don’t think he’s going to crack. I think he’s going to be hard to beat. I think he will be a tough competitor all the way through. Brad has been waiting on this opportunity all his life so I don’t expect him to crack under the pressure. I think he will be tough.”
Q: You said you went to Pittsburgh feeling like a mess and I know that the team release said you hadn't had any headache symptoms for a couple of weeks, but were there moments here like up until you got in the car at Gresham and up until you actually got cleared Tuesday were there moments you thought maybe you wouldn't make it back, maybe this isn't going to work out?
DEJ: “The part of the two concussions, I’m trying not to get long winded, but the two concussions were completely different as far as where my brain was injured. As far as I can understand what the doctors have told me. The first one at Kansas was your typical concussion where the frontal lobe and the headaches and the fogginess that you typically feel. The one that I had at Talladega was a vestibular is what they call it. It’s more in the back or the base of the brain where the brain and your spine sort of connect. It sort of mixed up a lot of anxiety and emotional stuff so they symptoms were more like anxiety driven. If I would get into sort of a busy situation I would just get a lot of anxiety. I was already that way anyways I’ve never really been much on being around crowds and a lot of people. So the two concussions were completely different. I was dealing with different symptoms. When I went up there to Pittsburgh I was just really frustrated, when I say I was a mess, I was just really frustrated and having a lot of anxiety about, man how long is this last, is this ever going to be right again. I had no answers, didn’t know anything. These guys up there are the professionals and I just asked them everything I wanted to know. Then we went through all these drills and exercises, they ran me ragged. It was a fun day. By the end of the day I felt like I understood what I was dealing with, understood what the process was and I felt a whole lot better. If I ever got any doubts I would just call Mick up and we would talk about it for an hour. Really that was the best therapy for me just kind of understanding what was going on. The typical symptoms of being foggy and having headaches those were really prevalent in the first concussion, not so much in this one.”
Q: In racing you can take some fearsome hits, but when you compare it to say football or hockey a person might take five fearsome hits in one game. I just wondered what you had learned or if you had thought about that and the fact that you do have recovery time? Does that make it a little bit less trouble you might get in this sport than in others?
DEJ: “I guess you could say that. I don’t have any statistical facts or anything, but I was surprised to hear how much more often the guys in the NFL have issues than we do. We were talking about how many concussions I thought I’d had in a year and it was somewhere between four… or how many I had in my career and it was somewhere between four and six. They were saying that most of the guys in the NFL have that many a season. I just can’t imagine. That would be a scary situation to be in. The symptoms alone are frustrating trying to just go through your everyday life. I would compare it to like a computer that has too many processes running in the back ground that slows it down and it just doesn’t work as fast. Programs don’t start up as quick and things sort of hang up in the middle. That is kind of what it’s like. The G-forces are way different for the different sports and everything sort of happens differently in the event itself as far as a race car versus a guy having a helmet to helmet hit. The even itself is quite different in the way the brain handles the traumas different. I felt like that our sport I do have an opportunity to get back in the car probably sooner than you would on the football field because on the football field you are going to go out there and you are going to run into somebody head on the first opportunity you get. You better make sure you have your melon in good shape if you are going to do that.”
Q: Does it make you feel at all like your career could be fleeting at this point with layering? Do you worry that one more bad one and you would have to stop?
DEJ: “I guess I don’t really think about that too much. The one thing that I can tell you is that I’m definitely going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors. I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do. I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road, but I feel pretty fortunate to have recovered from this concussion rather quickly. I feel lucky that I made the choices that I did to give myself that opportunity. I think that had I tried to push through this second one I would have really put myself in a lot of danger. I think we can just hope that I don’t have any more big hits for a while and race another five, 10 years and have some fun.”
Q: What was the single thing you missed about being in the car?
DEJ: “The team, just working with the team, working with the guys, we’ve got a pretty good relationship and I really enjoy working with them and being at the track. Just going through practice, making a change, it working and everybody getting excited about that just that small improvement that we made. It’s hard to put your finger on one detail, but when you are sitting there watching the race go on I miss hearing Steve (Letarte) and T.J. (Majors) voices and just being in the car and going through the process. Begin out there and competing watching all my peers compete and just wishing I was in the mix being out there doing it. Just being around the guys, every one of my guys we’ve gotten a great relationship built over the last couple of years. It’s fun to race with them, it’s fun to go to work with them.”
Q: Growing up, did you see your dad having the same symptoms as you had after he took some hard hits?
DEJ: “No, it’s really hard to tell when somebody has a concussion unless they speak up and say something. Concussions are pretty easy to hide. I’ve never known anyone that had one or been around anybody that had a concussion and wasn’t being honest about it.”
Q: On wearing a new helmet this weekend.
DEJ: “I am going to wear a new helmet this week. I know that is going to draw a lot of attention it might not. It’s a Stilo helmet and I had worn one before. I like the helmet back then a couple of years ago when I decided to wear it back then, but there was a particular part about the helmet that I didn’t like that they weren’t able to make an adjustment for at the time so I went away from the helmet. I’m going back to it. This was all sort of in the process prior to all this concussion stuff. I didn’t want anybody to really put two and two together thinking that I’m changing away from my Impact helmets because of the concussions. That is not the case at all. I have just wanted to try to the Stilo helmet since they made some modifications to it. It’s definitely not a final decision I’m just checking it out because I liked it before. It’s a nice helmet, but I’ve enjoyed my Impacts too but I’m going to try this one out and see how it works. I’ve enjoyed working with Impact and I do like their helmets and I just didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea there.”