Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?
While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.
In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.
The long-term effects of head trauma in the NFL, along with other sports, are just now beginning to be realized. This year, NASCAR has mandated baseline cognitive testing for its drivers — a move applauded by some (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and questioned by others (Brad Keselowski). The question to you: Is NASCAR opening a Pandora’s box? How will the sport enforce sitting a driver not cleared by doctors when championship and future sponsorship considerations are on the line? Can this objectively be accomplished?
Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): Like it or not NASCAR has to be proactive in this area given the NFL situation and now a similar one in the NHL. Drivers aren’t going to like being told to sit out should they fail the baseline test, but the bottom line is the health and well being of all competitors and not putting anyone else at risk. Athletes get injured and are forced to the sidelines. It should be no different in NASCAR.
Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): What we know now is exponentially more than what we knew 10 years ago, and what we’ll know in 10 years will be exponentially more than what we know now.
If there was any question if NASCAR couldn’t enforce a concussion policy, the doubts should have been washed away when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races in 2012. If the sport’s most popular driver can sit out two races in NASCAR’s playoffs and the sport survives, we needn’t worry about the consequences of anyone else missing a race.
Outside of being extremely complicated, we all know our brains are the most important part of our lives. That life outside of NASCAR should always be considered. If NASCAR institutes an independent doctor or panel of doctors to be in charge of all concussion and head-related examinations and injuries both before and during the season — with approval from many of the sport’s most influential drivers — there should be minimal controversy.
Nate Ryan (USA Today; @nateryan): Any professional sport potentially featuring violence must seem proactive in ensuring its athletes are of sound mind. Earnhardt’s concussion (in 2012) proved that the NASCAR industry is ready to accept its stars being sidelined for the greater good. It’s hard to envision sponsors raising vociferous objections to a driver benched because of a brain injury, but it is worth considering if championship dispensation should be given. Though Keselowski raises some valid points, it will be hard for drivers who lack college degrees making the case that they somehow are better suited to evaluate their well-being than board-certified physicians. Yes, there will be circumstances that make the process tricky, but it’s better for NASCAR to err on the side of caution instead of facing the PR nightmares endured by the NFL.
Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News; @bobpockrass): NASCAR owes it to the 10-year-old boy sitting in Row 10 that its drivers’ minds are in the game. If they are not, they must err on the side of caution to prevent accidents that could impact fan safety and driver safety. Whatever the cost of possibly being wrong in sitting the driver is worth it when considering the cost of possibly being wrong and letting a driver race.
Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): The issue of concussion in NASCAR is long overdue for more study. Maybe we could put Jerry Nadeau, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Allison on a committee to help. NASCAR has access to black boxes that record G-force impacts; that’s an easy-to-read number that a doctor could use. By the way, what was the G-force impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Kansas crash?
Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): It’s a good move. As is often the case in other sports, athletes sometimes have to be protected from themselves. In a tight point race late in the season, a driver probably would try to start a race with two broken arms and double pneumonia. It could result in some tough calls — do you block a popular driver from competition if his injury is borderline? — but NASCAR is in the tough-call business.
Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine; @ESPNMcGee): Listen, the days of taping one’s eyelids open and going racing are over. It’s easy to romanticize those moments now, but the reality is that they were stupid and we’re lucky no one got killed because we let them happen. This is a not privacy issue. This is a life-or-death issue. And the practice of establishing baseline medical stats so that on-site medical teams and local doctors have a better understanding of their sudden patients is nothing new. Other race series have done it for years. I have covered many an IndyCar race where a driver has had to sit-out a race because they suffered a concussion or blacked out the week before and doctors ordered them to sit. At the time, that’s not fun for the racer or their fans. But the motive isn’t a conspiracy. It’s to keep the racetrack as safe as possible. Oh, and help make sure your favorite lives longer.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro