NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
BOJANGLES’ SOUTHERN 500
TEAM CHEVY DRIVER PRESS CONF. TRANSCRIPT
SEPTEMBER 4, 2016
DALE EARNHARDT, JR, DRIVER OF THE NO. 88 CHEVROLET SS, RICK HENDRICK, TEAM OWNER, HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, AND DR. MICKY COLLINS, MEDICAL DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH MEDICAL CENTER SPORTS MEDICINE CONCUSSION PROGRAM, met with members of the media at Darlington Raceway to discuss Dale’s health, the decision to keep him out of the race car for the remainder of the season and many other topics. Full Transcript:
CAN YOU PROVIDE US AN UPDATE ON HOW YOU ARE FEELING AND HOW YOUR RECOVERY IS GOING?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “I feel like the recovery is going really good. I’m starting to see improvements as we are going. It seems like this has lasted a really long time, but when you look at it on paper it has been a very short period and the gains that I’ve felt in that short period give me a lot of confidence that this is going in the right direction. And all the stuff and hard work we are doing is paying off. It certainly fun to be here at the race track and to be able to see the team and be in this atmosphere that you get so used to being in week-in and week-out. I’m happy to be here today and it certainly is a place where you get pretty good exposure and it drives your symptoms a little bit so I’m getting some good exercise as we speak. It has been a real interesting experience and I’ve learned a ton. I have a lot of respect for Micky (Collins) and his group and the direction that they are giving me is really working. I struggled with my eyes for a while and I’m starting to see improvements there which I was thrilled to wake up one day and feel a difference and start to see improvement there. Riding in a car or walking to gain stability that I’ve talked about before is starting to improve, which was a major relief for me because that was probably the most difficult thing to deal with throughout the day because it was there 24 hours a day. My balance is miles better than it was when I first went to see Micky. We do a lot of exercises every single day. Amy (Reimann, Fiancé) has been there every step of the way pushing me to stay focused and to realize the progress we have made and to keep working hard. It’s been a good experience and I’m looking forward to getting well and definitely on the right track.”
COULD YOU DESCRIBE DALE’S INJURY AND MEDICALLY SPEAKING HOW IS HE DOING?
- MICKY COLLINS: “We have learned a tremendous amount about concussions over the last five or ten years and we understand this injury could happen to anyone. What happens with a concussion is the brain moves inside the skull and when the brain moves inside the skull we have learned a number of chemical changes that happen to the neurons or the cells in the brain and at the end of the day what occurs is there is an energy problem with the cells. We have actually learned now that there are six different clinical profiles or different types of concussions that we see. They can be cognitive issues or thinking problems. They can be problems with something called the vestibular system in the brain, which allows Dale to interpret movement and motion and stabilizes his vision when he moves his head and interpret complex visual information. The third type of concussion is ocular or your eye movements, actually moving your eyes in tandem, bringing your eyes together diverging your vision. The fourth type of concussion is migraine. The fifth type is neck and the sixth subtype can be anxiety and mood related problems. When I first saw Dale a month and a half ago I can tell you he was pretty sick. He was having problems with the vestibular system, with the ocular system and with some anxiety and mood issues that is very much associated with these problems. We have made progress with this injury to the point where we actually matched treatments to the different types of concussions that can occur and we have very specific treatments that can treat these different problems that Dale’s experiencing. In fact, over the last two or three weeks I’m pleased to tell you that the fruits of that labor are now paying off. Dale has been a model patient. I know this is cliché sitting up here, but Dale has worked as hard as any patient that I treat currently or in the past. He has been very diligent about doing his therapies and we actually have very specific treatments that are targeting these problems that Dale has and we are seeing the benefits of that. When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes. He is feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He is having fewer and fewer symptoms and is doing very well. To me that is the number one goal is to get Dale feeling as normal as a human being. The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. Yes, we will be working on that as well. I’m very confident that we are moving in the right direction in that respect.”
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING OF THIS PROCESS IT SEEMED LIKE IT HAD BEEN A TWO WEEK, TWO WEEK, NOW ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU GUYS ANNOUNCE YOU WILL BE OUT FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON. DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT THE REMAINDER OF THE SEASON MIGHT BE DOUBTFUL? HOW DISAPPOINTING IS IT TO FIND OUT YOUR SEASON IS OVER?
DALE EARNHARDT, Jr.: “When we first went to see Micky I anticipated the experience to be similar to what I had in the past. That we would work on getting better and it would happen in a relatively short period of time and I would drive a car before the end of the season. I think as we continued to go get evaluated we realized that it is going to be a bit more of a process and Micky can speak on the reason why we decided to make this decision to not race anymore, but I think it’s the right decision considering how I feel personally and physically. I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination. You don’t know how long this process is going to take and we want to be healthy and able to compete at some point, but also we don’t want to take any risks and re-injury ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better. Mickey can talk more about the decision that we made since the last evaluation.”
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “No, I mean I’m going through the process so I know how I feel and how I need to feel and how I’m supposed to feel so I’m not shocked. I’m not hearing things from Micky that I don’t already know about myself. I’m very disappointed. I miss my guys, I miss the garage, I miss all of you folks (the media). It’s so much fun to see so many familiar faces. That part is the disappointing part because I am just used to being here and this is sort of our circle, our family. It’s been weird not being at the track. Again, I would love to be competing with my guys. We are obviously out of the Chase and all that stuff, but I’m not really concerned about that I just enjoyed what I was doing, enjoyed my job and have a great group of guys that believe in me as a driver. It’s a difficult decision.
- MICKY COLLINS: “I last saw Dale on August 24th. Though he is improving it is very clear that his test result and our findings, the things we look at are not back to normal. We have very specific data that we look at in terms of these different systems that I referred to earlier. Dale is a competitor. He wants to be back in a race car like no other. The stress that he puts on himself for that is very apparent when I sit down and talk to Dale, he wants to race. I felt that myself and Dr. Petty, who is also treating Dale, the neurosurgeon and our treatment team at the University of Pittsburgh we have a pretty robust team. We sat down and I feel very strongly the right decision was made to take Dale out of racing, so we can focus on getting him better and reduce the stress that is associated with that. Stress and concussion don’t get along well and we see stress can really exacerbate and worsen things. I don’t think its coincidence that since we made that decision we are starting to see a lot of progress here that I’m excited about.”
CAN YOU SPEAK TO HOW THIS SITUATION HAS BEEN DIFFERENT FROM WHAT DALE HAS EXPERIENCED IN THE PAST?
MICKY COLLINS: “Yes, I treated Dale in 2012. I can tell you some of the exam findings and findings that we found with this injury were different, they were more extensive. Different types of injuries that we see and now you understand better perhaps why that is there are different types of concussions. We see different symptom profiles. The injury at Michigan kind of broke the seal on this injury and when we saw him he was having a lot of problems, but clearly we are seeing Dale improve at this point in time and we are excited about his progress.”
WHEN THE TIME COMES WHAT DO YOU NEED TO SEE TO CLEAR DALE OR CLEAR A DRIVER TO PUT THEM BACK IN A RACE CAR?
- MICKY COLLINS: “You make a good point. It’s a razors edge concentration focus. I want to make sure everyone understands the systems that are injured for Dale or the systems that make Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Jr. his ability to sustain focus and stabilize his vision when he moves his head and interpret complex visual information. Though Dale is feeling as a normal human being to get him to that level of being a race car driver is exactly to your point it is a different set of skills than any of us in this room have. I’m very confident that we will be able to do that. Right now it doesn’t really, I don’t have specific criteria because that is a ways… we have time. But, yes, I can tell you we are going to need to stress the systems enough to see if they produce any problems and actually rehab those systems enough to where he is not going to run into problems with this injury. I feel confident that we are heading in that direction.”
WILL WE SEE YOU AROUND THE RACE TRACK? DO YOU HAVE OTHER THINGS YOU WILL BE DOING OR ARE YOU 100 PERCENT ON THE RECOVERY? WHEN DO YOU HAVE TO KNOW ABOUT 2017 OR MAKE DECISIONS ON THAT?
DALE EARNHARDT, Jr.: “Well, I think any race car driver would tell you if they are not in the car it’s really weird to be at the race track. I feel, even though I love to see my guys and I know they are happy to see me today, I feel like a bit of a distraction and taking them off of their focus to get their car in tech and all that good stuff. I won’t be able to not stay away from the race track. I think that I have a vested interest in how well the team does the future of the team and its success and I want to be a part of that. I want to be a witness to what they are doing and what we are trying to learn as a company we are trying to always get better so I want to be a witness to that. It is just very strange. Doug Duchardt (General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports) prodded me to come to the Tuesday debriefs and it just feels really weird because I’m the only guy in there that really didn’t go to the race track or drive a car, but it does help me to at least stay on the same page and up to speed with what the company is doing and what we are trying to learn. I understand the importance of that. Micky has said that I can basically do everything that I want to do and go everywhere that I want to go. The more I do the more I stress those systems. I’m trying, the worst thing I can do really is sit on the couch. I tell Micky I feel awesome when I’m at home, but any time I leave the house, I lose about 20 percent if I’m rating myself on a scale from 1 to 100. He says do that more, push yourself and you will see those symptoms start to fade in those environments that are upsetting you. So, I think coming to the race track would be a great thing for me and it’s just an odd feeling wondering what to do with yourself when you are there. I love watching racing so I was a fan before I was a driver, so I will figure out a way to enjoy it until I can get back in that seat.”
RICK HENDRICK: “We were talking before he had to get out of the car about extensions. I want him to race with me as long as he can and he wants to be there. The seat is his and I expect, we’ve got a lot of time between now and Daytona. I saw him like two or three weeks ago and then I saw him last Monday and I saw him today, the improvements have been phenomenal and listening to the doctor we are excited about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. being in the car at Daytona and we’ve got right much time. Excited about him racing beyond 2017.”
THE COMMON BELIEF IS THAT MULTIPLE CONCUSSIONS COMPOUND PROBLEMS. YET IT APPEARS FROM WHAT DALE IS SAYING, THAT YOU CAN MAKE HIS BRAIN LESS SUSCEPTIBLE TO INJURY IN A SIMILAR CRASH TO MICHIGAN. IS THAT TRUE? WILL YOU BE ABLE, WITH CONFIDENCE, TO TELL HIM THAT HE ISN’T PUTTING HIS HEALTH AT RISK IF HE GETS BACK IN THE RACE CAR?
- MICKY COLLINS: “That’s a great question. The point I want to make is that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now; is to make sure we get Dale’s systems rehabbed to the point where not only does he feel normal, but hopefully to the point where we don’t see less force causes to come back. We’ve advanced things to the point where we really do know how to rehab these systems well. And there are a lot of treatments that Dale is going through. He’s going through vision therapy, he’s going through exercise therapy; there’s a lot of different therapies we’re doing to build those systems. And, hopefully we can get to a point where we see that he can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. If he had a significant force, that can cause an injury as it would anyone. But that’s what we’re trying to get to is that level.”
HOW HAS ALL THIS IMPACTED THE REST OF YOUR LIFE? HAVE YOU AND AMY HAD TO TALK ABOUT THIS? HAVE YOU HAD TO DELAY SOME PLANS?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “No, nothing has really changed. We’re very fortunate that our plans are going to work out just fine. Aside from just not being at the track and doing what I’m used to doing, the first four or five weeks were really difficult. I was very ill and it was hard to enjoy even the simplest activities. But, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve really gotten to where I feel a lot more comfortable about going out and doing and being out an about and being observed. I go to Target or somewhere and I have symptoms and I might stumble across the aisle or something, or need a little more sidewalk than a normal guy. But, I’ve got to put myself through those situations for that to sort of correct itself. Really, like Micky said, the anxiety and the nervousness of the whole process drives all that and makes it much more than it really is. And that’s why I feel awesome at home because there’s no anxieties or issues at home. You sit on your couch and almost convince yourself you’re 100 percent. And then you’ll walk outside and realize you’re not. Or, you go somewhere and you’ll have a symptom and realize that you’ve still got a ways to go.
“Amy’s been great. She’s been there every single day pushing me. Without her, this would be nearly impossible to go through. So, that’s been awesome to have her with me every day, and available to help me. And she doesn’t complain and she’s right there with me doing all the exercises. She even does the exercises that I’m doing just to be healthy herself. But, yeah; we’ve got some great things that me and her are going to do this off-season that I’m excited about. The last several weeks have been trying to remove some of the stress and going week to week to evaluation to evaluation was very difficult. To have a definite plan where everybody is on board with, that Rick’s comfortable with, that I’m comfortable with, that Micky’s comfortable with has really made it a much easier process for me.”
“But I get to go do all my sponsor requirements and appearances. I went to Wal-Mart for Mountain Dew this past week. So, I’m well enough to continue to honor my commitments with my partners. Really, the only thing I can’t do is just get in a car and race. I can drive down the highway. Now that my symptoms have improved I feel much more comfortable doing that. Getting back to normal is right there in the near future. I’m getting better every day.”
NASCAR HAS TESTING POLICIES AND RULES. WILL THE DECISION TO BE OUT OF THE CAR FREE YOU UP TO MAYBE DO SOMETHING MORE SUBSTANTIAL, TESTING-WISE, LATER IN THE YEAR THAT YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO DO OTHERWISE? HOW WOULD THE DOCTOR FEEL ABOUT THAT AND HOW WOULD RICK SUPPORT THAT?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “I really don’t understand what you mean.”
WILL YOU BE ABLE TO TEST A CUP CAR AS OPPOSED TO A LATE MODEL AT HICKORY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “Oh, just to see how I do?”
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “Yeah, once we’re cleared, I definitely don’t want to go into Daytona cold turkey. I would certainly want to get to a race track. What we did in 2012 was we took a short track car to Gresham and ran for a day with no data system on the car or anything like that. And I’ve talked with NASCAR, and they are completely comfortable with allowing us to go somewhere for a day. Like Micky says, we’ve got to get in that environment and test those systems before we get the final sign-off. So, that would certainly be something that I would insist on happening before we went to Daytona for SpeedWeeks.
RICK, YOU CONSIDER DALE AS ONE OF YOUR OWN. HOW ARE YOU HANDLING THIS FROM A PERSONAL ASPECT?
RICK HENDRICK: “Well, he is like a member of the family. And, I care about him as a person probably as much or more, than as a race car driver. So, I’ve been concerned. But, I’ve been surprised how hard he’s worked. I shouldn’t say that. But he sends me video as proof. But, we’re like a family there at Motorsports and all the drivers and crew chiefs; and you see the team light up with he shows up. It’s just like anytime you have a member of your family hurt or sick or going through something, everybody wants to rally to help him. I don’t think there is any way you’d have gotten Jeff Gordon back in a race car other than helping the organization and helping Dale. And I think that’s proof of that. We just feel good. I’ve seen the progress. The sponsors have been super. They all care about him. They care about him so much that they want him to be on the cautious side. We’re not going to make the Chase. We couldn’t come back even if he wanted to get back in the car, and I admire that part of him being truthful. You guys (media) know Dale as well as anybody. If you ask him a question, he’s going to give you exactly how he feels and the truth. And, we’re excited about the progress. We are excited about him getting back in the car. I think he’s been unbelievable to share and keep us up to speed and explain what he’s going through. We didn’t know. The education of educating us has been great. So, I can see the light now. And I see how taking the pressure off of him, the pressure off the team, the pressure off the sponsors; let’s just have a plan and let’s go with the plan and get him well. Have a chance to test him and come back next year and have him for the long haul.”
FOR DR. COLLINS, WITH THE CUMULATIVE AFFECTS OF CONCUSSIONS AND WITH DALE’S HISTORY, HOW LIKELY IS HE TO GET ANOTHER CONCUSSION ONCE HE COMES BACK? FOR DALE, SOME PEOPLE INCLUDING FANS AND MEDIA HAVE SUGGESTED THAT YOU RETIRE. WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THEM?
- MICKY COLLINS: “I’m very confident in the way we’re approaching this case. Everything that Dale presents makes sense to me. The findings make sense. The improvements make sense. The therapies are taking hold. He wasn’t feeling well when we saw him. I could easily see why that was. And seeing his response to treatments has been very positive. So, I am positive that we’re going to get Dale back to being a race car driver and I’m excited about that prospect. But, again, the stress; that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. The only time you run into problems with concussions is when it’s not managed appropriately. And that’s what we’re doing with this one. We’re taking the time that we need. We’re doing the treatments that are needed. And that’s because we want to make that goal of Dale being able to sustain the normal biomechanical forces that would not produce a return of difficulties. And I think we’re headed in that direction.”
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “Yeah, I think that I have the passion and the desire to drive. I enjoy it. I have an amazing team and a great owner. I’m in such a great position and am enjoying being a part of the sport. My heart is there to continue. And if my doctor says that I’m physically able to continue, then that’s an easier decision for me to make. It’s not something that I think about. We’re trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal. So, I intentionally really put all those thoughts and concerns and consideration on the back burner until I can really just say that I feel normal. Getting normal and just having a good quality of life going forward for the next many, many years is the first goal. And so, I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the future until I get well.
“But my heart wants me to continue and wants me to continue to be working with the guys I’ve got. I’m only 41. I think I have some good years left. I’m as good as I have ever been inside the car. My ability to communicated and drive the car and get everything out of it, I feel very confident. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company. Rick likes to say we have unfinished business. I certainly feel the same way. We have races to win. We went through this process in 2012. It was very scary and difficult. Micky told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again, and he was right. We got well; and I had some of the greatest years and racing experiences of my career shortly after that. And so, he’s telling me that this is possible again, and I believe it. And if we work hard enough and we really rehab these systems, anything is possible from here on out. So, I’m very positive and feeling very good and am confident about the future.”