Dale Jr. re­lived his dark­est days while writ­ing mem­oir

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Encore - BY THÉODEN JANES [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

When Dale Earn­hardt Jr. de­cided he was go­ing to write a tell-all book — about the crashes and the con­cus­sions and the silent suf­fer­ing he en­dured in the fi­nal years of his ca­reer as a NASCAR star lead­ing up to his re­tire­ment in 2017 — it ac­tu­ally got him pretty ex­cited. This is go­ing to an­swer all the ques­tions fans have about why I stopped rac­ing, he thought. And it’s go­ing to help peo­ple, oth­ers who are suf­fer­ing in si­lence with con­cus­sion-re­lated symp­toms — to let them know they’re not alone, and to hope­fully in­spire them to seek help from med­i­cal experts like the one who helped him. Writ­ing this book, he con­vinced him­self, is go­ing to be fun. Well, Earn­hardt will know fairly soon whether “Rac­ing to the Fin­ish: My Story” does in­deed ad­dress his fans’ ques­tions, and to what ex­tent it could help peo­ple: The book was re­leased re­cently, six days af­ter his 44th birth­day and 539 days re­moved from the his­toric an­nounce­ment of his re­tire­ment. But he can say now, defini­tively, how much en­joy­ment he got out of the process of put­ting the book to­gether: Vir­tu­ally none. “I hated re-liv­ing it,” Earn­hardt told the Ob­ser- ver in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And I never even thought about that, I guess, when we were start­ing. ... Then we got down to hav­ing to talk about it, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to re-live it ... and think about those symp­toms, and remember those dark days, and remember the feel­ings that I had, and the emo­tions I had.’ “Hav­ing to re-live them just made it all too real again — and that was mis­er­able.”

THE NOTES IN HIS IPHONE

Though Earn­hardt says he suf­fered close to two dozen con­cus­sions over the course of his 20-year ca­reer, he points in the open­ing pages of the book to two in­juries that he views as piv­otal in shap­ing ev­ery­thing that was to fol­low. The first was a vi­o­lent crash dur­ing a tire test at Kansas Speed­way in Au­gust 2012. “That crash was the one crash that made it so easy for me to get con­cus­sions, and it hurt my brain so badly,” he says. In fact, that in­jury and the head­lines that were gen­er­ated when he missed those races led him to seek ad­vanced treat­ment from Dr. Micky Collins, di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh’s sports medicine con­cus­sion pro­gram. But then came the sec­ond of those piv­otal in­juries: At the Duck Com­man­der 500 at Texas Mo­tor Speed­way in April 2014, he clipped the muddy in­field grass and lost con­trol as his car veered right be­fore slam­ming into the out­side re­tain­ing wall mul­ti­ple times. In the book, he writes that “it was like an old wound had been opened. ... I knew some­thing wasn’t right. I knew it in­stantly”; the next morn­ing, he se­cretly started what he calls in the book “a jour­nal of symp­toms” in the notes app on his iPhone. This time, he opened up to no one. “I didn’t want to go back to the doc­tor,” Earn­hardt says. “My thought process was, I went to the doc­tor in 2012 with a con­cus­sion. He sat me out of the car for two weeks, and I did some ex­er­cises ... and they helped me. His whole team went through a bunch of men­tal and phys­i­cal ex­er­cises, then sent me home with a bunch of home­work. “So next time I got hurt, in my mind, I’m think­ing, ‘Hey, I know what to do. I’ve just gotta take it easy, do a lit­tle home­work, and I’ll be good.’ And I would write down in the notes (for a cou­ple or a few days af­ter crash­ing), and byWed­nes­day or Thurs­day, ‘Hey, I’m a hun­dred per­cent. Feel­ing good. OK, I’ve taken care of it. Prob­lem solved.’ And I’d go back and race again. Three months later, I’d crash and feel sick again. “I just kept try­ing to take care of it my­self, think­ing, ‘Ahh, I’ve got, you know, two to five years left in my ca­reer, I’ll just get through it, and I’ll be done.’ I kept try­ing to tell my sis­ter (Kel­ley Earn­hardt Miller, who is co-owner, vice pres­i­dent and busi­ness man­ager of JR Mo­tor­sports), ‘I need an exit plan. What do you guys think about re­tire­ment, and when should I do that?’ ... I should have sat down with Kel­ley and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a prob­lem. I need to go to the doc­tor.’ ” Earn­hardt pauses, and sighs. “But I thought, ‘I’m just gonna man­age it my­self. If I don’t crash real hard, I should be able to fin­ish my ca­reer and be done with it. But it caught up with me.” Be­tween April 2014 and the sum­mer of 2016, he logged an alarm­ing num­ber of notes chron­i­cling a pat­tern of crashes and dis­turb­ing symp­toms that slowly wore him down, un­til things fi­nally came to a head and he was forced to miss the sec­ond half of that sea­son. And even then, he con­tin­ued jot­ting down notes in se­cret. Collins was among the first to learn of the pri­vate jour­nal. Earn­hardt even­tu­ally also re­vealed it to Amy, and later to his sis­ter. But to some ex­tent, he only showed them to Miller out of frus­tra­tion. “I re­ally didn’t have a sense of how bad he was,” Miller says, “be­cause he ap­peared fine. The things that he was suf­fer­ing through were not nec­es­sar­ily things that any­one else could see.” “She would au­to­mat­i­cally go into busi­ness man­ager mode,” Earn­hardt writes in the book. “If you stop now, you will be leav­ing this much money on the ta­ble . . . your re­tire­ment port­fo­lio would look like this . . . your re­la­tion­ship with this spon­sor would look like this. I told her that I didn’t want my busi­ness man­ager’s opin­ion; I wanted to know what my sis­ter thought.” Fi­nally, he just opened up the notes app and handed her his iPhone. Within months, Dale Earn­hardt Jr. an­nounced he was re­tir­ing. And within a year, he had de­cided to share those notes with the whole world.

STEVE HELBER As­so­ci­ated Press

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. briefly re­turned to rac­ing last month, run­ning in a NASCAR Xfin­ity Se­ries race in Rich­mond, Va., that his daugh­ter, Isla, and his wife, Amy, at­tended.

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