Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Tifft was made available to the media at Bristol Motor Speedway:
MATT TIFFT, Joe Gibbs Racing
“It’s great to see everybody, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed being at the race track. I think it’s been since June and I can’t say that I’ve ever been away from a race track for that long. I know there’s been a few updates along the way, but I just figured it would be a great opportunity to come out and update everybody here. I guess first of all, just going back to what happened, I was diagnosed with a low grade, grade two Diffuse Astrocytoma or a Glioma, which is a slow growing brain tumor. It was a benign brain tumor and this was something that we just couldn’t mess with. We didn’t want to wait around. This was something that hadn’t taken on a cancerous form or a dangerous form yet, but in the future it very well could have. On July 1, I had a craniotomy – I have this nice scar over here now. It was a successful surgery, they got as much as they could out and with these things, they best describe it as a wet cotton ball like in a cup of water basically. They can pull out as much as they can, but there’s always going to be a couple strands left in there. That’s just one of the risks that they know of, but they were actually able to go in and do a fairly aggressive surgery and get the most out as possible. For a couple weeks, it was just rough getting off the anesthesia and all that stuff, but one of the most shocking things to me was that apparently with a brain tumor one of the biggest symptoms is your loss of smell. I came down the stairs I think the Monday after I had surgery and my Mom was washing something with Murphy’s oil and I guess I couldn’t smell things for years and it just made me nauseas. All of the sudden I started smelling everything and I was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ My sense of smell is back incredibly so that’s cool. Just one of those things you wouldn’t really recognize normally unless we figured out it was a brain tumor and that is one of the symptoms. Part of the recovery process was just trying to get back to a normal state of mind so the first couple weeks getting back every day I could do like 30 minutes more of activity without getting too wore out. One of the most fascinating things I thought from the surgery was that they had to take a flap and basically the jaw muscle over here was stretched out so the most painful part was actually the jaw because your brain doesn’t actually feel the pain there like you would think it would. What I would figure out though was every day when I had new experiences and going to the mall and walking around, just things that you think are just so normal to everybody, all of the sudden those things were stressful situations that you could just tell what affect every day normal things had on your brain so it was just fascinating getting to learn about that. Every day I just got stronger and better and to the point that I was able to start driving a street car again and get back to normal life. After that I was able to get back to normal physical activity level and what we did then was after the surgery and after we felt like it had healed enough, we did a five day EEG study – before and after the surgery we wanted to make sure that there was no chance or seizures whatsoever. This is obviously out of respect for everybody with competition and making sure everybody is safe and for myself being out on the track as well just because the nature of what we do is obviously a high pressure situation. Proved both times that there was no evidence of seizures whatsoever so that was a huge step in the recovery process ultimately to show that it was a successful surgery and my brain was functioning at a healthy and safe level. One of the great things was that we had two sets of doctors from Duke and UCSF come back and tell us that as far as treatment for this tumor, they actually felt like since it was a slow growing, low grade tumor that I actually will not have undergo any treatment and that was the best news out of all of this. They feel like if we can do MRI monitoring about every eight weeks, at least for a while and then they’ll back it down to months and slow it down from there, but just keep an eye on it since it’s something that can grow back, just the nature of the genetics of this tumor, but obviously that’s a huge step that I didn’t have to undergo any treatment. That was great news to hear that. Moving on from that, in the last week, obviously sitting out of a race car is tough – not going to play that down at all, I’ve missed it. From my doctors this week, they feel that I am at a point now where I can start to work back now at going back to racing. Actually this weekend no Sunday at Hickory, I’m going to get in a Late Model and start to get back in the seat. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that. Obviously it’s been a couple months since I’ve been in a car and in that time I just really want to thank everybody from Joe Gibbs Racing and Red Horse Racing for working with me and Steve DeSouza (JGR) and Chris Gayle (crew chief) and all those guys over there, I can’t tell you how great they’ve been in the whole process and understanding everything and everybody that’s filled in as well from Sam Hornish Jr. and Owen Kelly to Dakoda Armstrong and Kyle (Busch), it’s not easy when you have something like this to work out the logistics of it. Those guys have been great in working with us and our partners – we’ve got some great partners and some really cool companies who have worked with us through this whole process and have been willing to work with other drivers coming in the seat.”
Did you ever consider giving up racing?
“My goal from the get-go has been to get back in the race car. Honestly, if you look back at the updates and stuff that I did, the reason I was able to stay so positive and so driven during this whole time was that one goal of getting back in a car.”
How scary was this process for you and how did you deal with it and stay positive?
“Of course, I probably came off as positive as I could, but the fact is that this is a very scary and a very real thing to go through. I actually lost my step grandmother to a brain tumor so I was very familiar with it. I had a really great support group with my family and my girlfriend, just getting through the whole thing, it’s not something I would ever – the great news was that it was something that we caught very early so the whole time just realizing that it could be a whole lot worse was just keeping that in the back of my mind because I started working with the American Brain Tumor Association and some of the folks from over there that were so helpful with giving me resources and everything. I thought one of the most fascinating things going through this whole process was just going through social media and people sharing their stories and everything like that. It really puts things into perspective and I think sometimes we get lost in this world of NASCAR that sometimes we get trapped in a bubble a little bit and you get hit with something like this and it’s shocking, but then you realize with other people, there’s a whole lot more that could be going wrong and it just really makes you appreciate things a whole lot more.”
What are the steps after the test at Hickory and what do the doctors need to see?
“I think first things first, just going to go do the test on Sunday and see how everything goes. The most curious thing to me is just seeing what my level of stamina is compared to the past because it’s been so long since I’ve been in a car. I don’t know what the exact steps are going to be, but I think the biggest thing is just to get back going and get back re-oriented in a race car.”
What does someone think about in a hospital at night alone?
“I don’t know, you have different thoughts when you’re there. Luckily, I was able to get cleared pretty quickly back home. My surgery was on July 1, which was I believe a Friday night and I was cleared back almost 24 hours later. The doctors gave me a checklist to go through to get cleared back and they thought I was going to go back home on Monday, I went back home Saturday. I remember waking up that night in the ICU and I think the XFINITY race was actually on and it was playing in my room there so I remember waking up and seeing just a little bit of the race and then going back to sleep. In the beginning it was definitely, your body has been through so much when you literally take out part of your brain, it’s just your body’s chemistry is all changed really. In the beginning I was driven to get back home, but then as soon as I got back home, you get that realization that this is not going to be tomorrow that I’m going to be okay, this is going to take some time and in the beginning that took a while to really understand that. There were definitely some times where you’re bummed out and you just want things to go back to normal. Then you just have to keep telling yourself that you have to do everything necessary to get back to that point.
Was it easy to watch the races or tough to watch someone else in your car?
“It was tough. I think in that race we had David Ragan in the car. You never want to see, one of the oddest things for me was seeing my name on the door plate there and you’re not in it. It’s bizarre. I think it made it easier knowing I had the support of the team and support of everybody to get back in. You never want to get to that point in any sport where you feel like someone is taking your job, but when you go through something like this, hopefully years down the road I look back at this and it’s just a little speed bump in a long career and it’s just great that we caught it when we did. It’s never an easy situation.”
Who are you testing with on Sunday at Hickory and will you race a Late Model race?
“The team we’re going with is one that I knew from when I did some Late Model racing back in Florida so I think it will be a pretty low pressure environment. For myself, what I want to see is short run speed and how well I’m able to adapt to tire falloff, but just the normal stuff that you want to see and how I can adapt and feel the car again just with handling characteristics and stuff like that. Make sure that I’m totally good to go with all that. Also long runs and trying to run as many laps as possible to get a whole fatiguing day so at the end I can feel that is equivalent to a race day. I think that we’ve definitely looked at, if possible, a race before getting back in, but we just have to get through this test on Sunday and I’m really looking forward to it. The big thing is just getting in the heat. Obviously it’s been so hot lately, it’s a great test for that and being fatigued in the car and still seeing what that’s like. I’ve pushed myself in the gym probably harder than I ever did before this happened and just for that time when I do get in the car that I can hopefully be at that level or even better than where I was before.”
What do you think your emotions will be on Sunday when you get in the race car?
“I think I will be smiling from ear to ear. I can’t tell you how excited I am to strap back in the seat. It will be a really great feeling.”
Do you have any fears of racing being over-stimulating when you get back in the car?
“That’s an interesting question, I think that’s obviously something that I thought of before just what that would be like. I’ve been trying to do as much as I can at home just with simulation and computer games and stuff like that – the Dusenberry Martin Racing guys gave me a pretty cool setup to practice on there. Just the visuals themselves of racing with other cars even in a virtual setting like that, I think it helps. Just the strain on your eyes from a computer, real sense is obviously different, but I think it’s definitely going to be an interesting piece of it for sure. I honestly can’t tell you what it’s going to be like until I get back in.”