WADE: NHRA Needs Concussion Protocol

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — The fab shop at John Force Racing worked overtime to build defending National Hot Rod Ass’n Top Fuel champion Brittany Force a powerful new dragster within two weeks.

She had a devastating accident on her first pass of the season, but with the new car she won again four races later. JFR’s collection of crew chiefs and its dedicated Jon Schaffer/Ronnie Thompson-led crew figured out why John Force, too, crashed hard and ruined cars at the first three events. Three races later, the 148-time winner was back in a final round.

But the clock ticked  – not for the beleaguered Force team but for the NHRA. Then, track-prep issues arose as the sanctioning body tried to slow the cars while Funny Car bodies and engines blew up regularly. The clock ticked some more.

It’s still ticking; and time is wasting. It has become apparent the NHRA is far behind other major sports in formulating and enforcing a concussion protocol.

The National Football League has been under the bright interrogation lights during the past few years because of head injuries, repetitive brain trauma and their insidious extension CTE (the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Arguably late to recognize the problem and pursue a solution, the NFL commendably has developed procedures to protect players.
The protocol is extensive and is making use of emerging technology to improve measures. The National Hockey League, long plagued by head-trauma injuries, has a similar program, as does the National Basketball Ass’n.

A Major League Baseball player who has suffered a concussion must sit out for at least seven days and must pass stringent testing before returning to action. NASCAR and the IndyCar Series are continuously fine-tuning their procedures. They all have rules about how to react to concussions. The NHRA does not.

“It is a challenge to balance both the safety of the drivers and the need for them to be on the track to compete,” renowned IndyCar Series consultant Dr. Terry Trammell told ESPN writer Bob Pockrass.

That’s a fact. As NASCAR announced in May that it had strengthened its concussion practices, driver Kyle Busch conceded, “A lot of times, NASCAR has to help us from ourselves.” Drivers always say they’re fine following an accident, just as other athletes downplay a knock to the head and other injuries. But the NHRA still lets the driver dictate his or her fitness to return to action.

Most claim they have been “cleared by the doctor” to return quickly to the cockpits of their 10,000-horsepower cars that rocket down a drag strip at more than 330 mph. Just remember – Elvis found a doctor who supplied him medication on demand, too. So did Michael Jackson and Prince. NHRA drivers have no one authority, no one doctor or neurological specialist, to pass judgment.

John Medlen, co-crew chief for Funny Car racer Jack Beckman, lost his son, Eric, in 2007 to a catastrophic head injury from a Funny Car testing accident. And although he said, “I’m proud of the NHRA organization and what they do,” he’s all for the sanctioning body instituting a concussion protocol.

Rhetorically Medlen asked, “Don’t you want to rise to the top with innovation, more technology, in protecting the drivers? You want to keep moving to the top. You don’t want to erode and push things aside and ignore them. You want to lead the pack.”

Neurological specialists, he said, “do that for a living. They know the signs. Leave it up to them. Right now, the drivers have to decide. But if you took that out of their hands and a physician decided, there would be no decision on the part of the driver. The physician, more likely than not, is going to make the best, safest decision.”

Medlen said it might be smarter and safer if an experienced doctor says, “You might think you’re OK. But anatomically no, you’re not OK. We’re going to give you a chance to heal. And come back later, when you’re 100 percent.”

Medlen suffered concussions himself from boat-racing mishaps and knows how inaccurate one’s own assessment can be.

“We all know how we feel,” Medlen noted. “But many times you don’t know what’s going on because the senses aren’t there to tell you that something is wrong. I went through a real bad one. And I didn’t think correctly for two weeks. I was unconscious for 10 minutes. So was it a concussion? You bet it was a concussion. And it takes a while for that region of the brain to heal itself.

“The doctor’s going to have to stand up and say, ‘No, you’re not (OK). It’s my professional opinion that you need to sit out for a period of time and let your brain heal.’ He’s the professional. If you continue to damage it or compromise it in any way before it’s healed, you’re jeopardizing your long-term health.

“But the majority of the people, if they think they’re OK and the doctor says they’re not, they’re probably going to make their own decision and say, ‘I need to go to the race.’ That’s just human nature,” Medlen added. “If the sanctioning body says, ‘This doctor has the say whether you can continue to compete,’ then all bets are off. That doctor says. And if he’s right or wrong, I’m not in a position (to say). But I would err on the safe side.

“That race car’ll hurt you,” he said with certainty. “As a group of people, anything we can do to preserve your well-being, I think (we need to do) due diligence to try to do that.”

The clock still is ticking.