February 17, 2017


A Racing Mind : Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns at Daytona after letting his brain heal from multiple concussions -- and after undergoing a different sort of rehabilitation for his psyche. (Tommy Tomlinson, 02/16/17, ESPN The Magazine)

Darlington Raceway on a Wednesday in December is vast and cold and empty. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew works alone in the garage, making last-minute tweaks to his race car. The car is stripped of paint and decals, down to bare primer -- gunmetal gray. There are no fans, just a NASCAR official and a Charlotte neurosurgeon. Today is not about money or trophies. It's about whether Dale Jr.'s brain has healed enough to do what his heart needs so bad.

A helicopter comes in low over the rim of the track and lands with a kiss in the infield. Dale Jr. climbs out. His soon-to-be-wife, Amy Reimann, was supposed to be with him, but there was a mix-up over the time, and he couldn't wait on her -- the chopper needed to leave the house in North Carolina while their four buffalo were across the pasture. The buffalo freak when the helicopter gets close. Dale Jr. leads a big life. There are occasional buffalo problems. [...]

He is at Darlington in December because of Michigan last June. On the 62nd lap of the FireKeepers Ca**** 400, he got bumped and slid high up the track. The right side of his car hit the wall -- back end first, then the front, a double tap. He had a history of concussions. He knows of at least four others in his career, but this didn't feel like that at first. He brushed it off as allergies, or maybe a sinus infection. He ran three more races, jostling his brain even more with the normal pounding of life in a race car. Then the symptoms caught up with him. Suddenly he couldn't walk two steps without stumbling. His eyes vibrated in their sockets. He fell into dark moods he couldn't shake. He ended up sitting out 18 races, the entire back half of the 2016 season. Some days he thought he might have to retire. Other days he thought he wanted to.

Over months of rehab, he found his way out of the fog. But to race in 2017 -- beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 -- he needs medical clearance from NASCAR. The last hurdle is this test at Darlington. NASCAR normally limits testing to a few scheduled sessions. But while Dale Jr. was out, NASCAR passed an exception allowing drivers who missed time for medical reasons to run one extra private test. It might as well have been called the Dale Jr. Rule. The NASCAR official is here to make sure the crew doesn't gather extra data on the car, which would be an unfair advantage. The neurosurgeon, Jerry Petty (no relation to legend Richard Petty), is here to check on Dale Jr. between runs. In his 18 years at NASCAR's highest level, Dale Jr. has run 169,682 laps in competition. These laps at this empty track might be the most important of his life.

Dale Jr. puts on his helmet and gets in the Chevy SS. Adam Jordan, the crew member responsible for the car's interior, leans through the window to make one last check. He swears he can see Dale Jr.'s heart pounding under his firesuit.

An interesting thing happened to Dale Jr. in those five months out of the race car: He demanded less and listened more. He has always been a living contradiction -- part people pleaser, part selfish and spoiled. In his time off, he focused on shedding the side he doesn't like. "The person I became in that little moment is the person that I always want to be," he says.

And here is his conflict: Can he hold on to his new self and still keep the edge it takes to survive on the track?

He is 42 now, and he knows that someday soon he will have to give it up. But now, in Darlington, he flicks the ignition switch and the engine explodes to life. He pulls out of the garage and rumbles past the ambulance with the EMTs waiting, just in case. He jerks the wheel left and pulls onto the track. Everyone else is behind him now. This is the part he has to do alone.

Posted by at February 17, 2017 12:16 PM