Kurt Busch’s head injury recovery sets a good example


Kurt Busch won’t be racing this weekend, and his continued absence from the NASCAR events he surely dreads missing is proof of a seismic and significant shift: Drivers are beginning to understand the importance of taking care of their brains.

Increasingly, they seem to be putting their health and safety first, as the sport eliminates the misconception that injuries mean weakness and recognizes the serious consequences of concussions and head injuries.


There’s no doubt that Busch would do anything to be behind the wheel of his #45 Toyota 23XI Racing this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The same has probably been true for the last three races he missed at Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

But Busch is set to miss his fourth straight NASCAR race, and the reason behind that, while obviously unfortunate, should be applauded.

During a qualifying round at Pocono in late July, Busch spun and crashed hard, hitting the wall and destroying his car. Although he was able to get out of the car on his own, he was not cleared to compete after multiple assessments in the field care center. Busch said he experienced “concussion-like symptoms” after the wreckage and hasn’t been able to return to the track since.

In Busch’s latest statement on Twitter regarding his fourth consecutive race, he said:

“Healing from a brain injury does not always follow a linear path. I’m feeling good about my recovery, but this week I’ve been pushing to get my heart rate and body in a racing simulation type environment, and it’s clear I’m not ready to be back in the car. race.

Good for him.

It’s obviously a tough and possibly painful road for Busch, 44, but especially so since he, NASCAR and his doctors should be commended for taking brain health and concussion symptoms seriously. He does not hide his symptoms and prioritizes his health over his race car and his position in the points classification.

Busch’s response – along with NASCAR and his team, 23XI Racing, which is co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin – is the latest example of what appears to be a (relatively recent) shift in sports towards valuing the health of athletes. on the need to be competitive above all. In this case, Busch sets a strong example, especially at a time when his precarious playoff spot could be threatened if there are more than 16 different regular-season winners this season (there are currently 15).

It’s similar to what we’re seeing in other sports, especially football with the rise of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and increased awareness of head injuries and their subsequent long-term effects, which can potentially be fatal. More and more athletes are aware of their brain health and taking precautions to protect themselves.

It’s encouraging to see NASCAR and its athletes embracing this change in mindset, but it hasn’t always been the case.

Not long ago, drivers hid their injuries or concussion symptoms for the sake of their job, further endangering themselves and their competitors. They feared being seen as weak or damaged, they feared their teams or potential future teams would hold it against them, they didn’t know where to turn for help, and they planned to be forever attached to long-term stigma of head injuries.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — NASCAR’s foremost concussion health awareness advocate who is committed to donating his brain to science — noted all of this in his 2018 book, Race to the finish. He admitted hiding his own concussion symptoms, particularly early in his career, and explained why it was a mistake. He knew how people talked about others in the garage, how they wondered if a driver was permanently affected after a serious accident or a head injury.

The Hall of Fame explained that if a driver was in a wreck, assessed by the field care center and cleared, most interpreted this as the driver being physically and mentally OK. He wrote:

“These field checks were the same as they had always been: quite simple. Everyone has lied to their doctor once in a while during a routine medical exam, right? He says, “How do you feel?” and we say, “Oh, I’m fine,” just to get out of there and go home. Race car drivers didn’t just do that once in a while. They did that all the time. Most likely still. Why? I told those reporters in 2002 and it’s still true: I didn’t want to tell anyone how bad I felt until I got better and started running better because I didn’t want anyone to think I was broken, that I was spoiled. »

Earnhardt said he’ll be shaken or possibly concussed after a bad wreck on Sunday, feel better on Thursday and get back behind the wheel the following weekend, exposing himself to other injuries. He didn’t want to miss a race or change people’s perception of him, so he kept going, sometimes when he shouldn’t have.

Of course, some NASCAR drivers have been in Busch’s position in the past and missed races due to head injuries. In 1997, Ricky Craven suffered a concussion in a shipwreck and missed a handful of races as his symptoms worsened.

During Earnhardt’s full-time NASCAR career, he’s been sidelined more than once due to concussion-related symptoms – most recently when he missed the second half of 2016. before returning in 2017 and then retiring at the end of the season. Tragically, he estimates he’s had 20-25 concussions throughout his career, but he’s turned his experiences into awareness that’s almost certainly impacting the NASCAR garage.

So while this isn’t a new topic in the sometimes violent sport, it certainly seems like head injuries are being taken much more seriously now by NASCAR and its athletes. In 2017, NASCAR expanded its concussion protocol, emphasizing awareness of head injury symptoms.

NASCAR’s medical team provides neurological support and assessments to other doctors at on-site care centers, where drivers must go for clearance after serious on-track incidents. If a pilot is not cleared, they are then evaluated, as in the case of Busch. And if they are ultimately not cleared by neurospecialists on the track, such as Busch, then the driver must obtain medical clearance to return to competitions from a licensed and certified neurologist, neurosurgeon or neuropsychologist with at least five years of experience. experience in sports treatment. – related injuries.

Unfortunately for Busch, that hasn’t happened yet, but he’s doing everything in his power to ensure a safe return to competition. The 2004 NASCAR Cup champion has been granted a medical waiver to keep him eligible for the 10-race playoffs this fall – although whether or not he gets there could depend on how many regular season winners there are, in addition to his health.

Of course, it’s never a good thing when an athlete injures his head, and everyone, including his competitors, hopes he recovers quickly.

But instead of fighting it or hiding it, Busch has been transparent about his situation, and I hope this will inspire other NASCAR drivers, should they find themselves in an equally unfortunate position, to follow his example. by choosing to value their brain rather than the race.