How Do We Deal with Athletes’ Head Injuries?

Kurt Busch joined 23XI Racing in 2022, driving the No. 45 Camry
Kurt Busch joined 23XI Racing in 2022, driving the No. 45 Camry

Head injuries in professional sports are nothing new, but with growing understanding of the ramifications, all sports, including motorsports are taking the trauma more seriously.

Concussion protocols need to be refreshed. For stick-and-ball sports, for motorsports. What we’re using to determine whether an athlete should continue to work isn’t always viable. Everyone’s reaction to a heavy hit will be different. 

This past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch announced he won’t be driving in the NASCAR Cup Series on a full-time basis during the 2023 season, as he recovers from a head injury sustained in a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway on July 23rd this past summer. The 2004 Cup Series champion hasn’t been in a race car since that crash and his No. 45 Toyota Camry’s owner’s points were transferred to 23XI Racing teammate Bubba Wallace, who is using that number through to the close of the season.

Is this goodbye? Likely not. Busch expects to be active with the 23XI Racing team as they move forward with Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. He could end up doing some broadcasting work as well. Following his victory at Kansas in May, Busch qualified for the playoffs that have whittled the championship field from 16 to 12 to eight this weekend. He’d been pushing himself to get back in the car for the playoffs but he couldn’t quite climb that final set of steps.

Kurt Busch won’t be driving fulltime in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series

At age 44 and with nearly a quarter of a century behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car, Busch has raced hard from start to finish, and has had other crashes that have caused injury, but at this age and with this new, rather stiff Next Gen stock car, things like this head injury just aren’t as easy to overcome as they might have been a few years ago. 

“Over the years, things add up,” Busch said. “With the accident at Pocono, it’s not one circumstance more than the other. The new car, we have to continue to make it safer. Whether it’s mine, [Ross] Chastain’s or [Alex] Bowman or Cody Ware,” all of whom have had major crunches that took them out of competition this year, “There have been a ton of hits that we’re all learning from and finding the areas that we need to improve.” He called it a “look-out-the-windshield” moment of truth for him.

The physical nature of Busch’s injury has him working to regain balance, equilibrium and deal with middle- and inner-ear issues that affect peripheral vision. That’s been the case for many who have suffered concussion, including three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dario Franchitti. His massive, airborne crash at Houston in October of 2013 relegated the driver to the sidelines in competitive racing. He listened to trusted physicians Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell, who told him the writing was on that Houston wall. It was time to retire or face the possibility of never again thinking clearly after the next one. And there would be a next one.

Franchitti still drives cars in anger, primarily vintage cars. And he has a ball doing it. He married and has two daughters, one of whom appears to have the same need for speed as her father and is a competitive person – again like her dad. Franchitti still works with Chip Ganassi Racing as a mentor, and has broadcasting work with the FIA’s Formula E Series.

Franchitti was working towards his fifth INDYCAR championship before a Houston 2013 crash sidelined his career

Rising star Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports is dealing with a head injury and has been sidelined, will be sidelined likely to the close of the season in Phoenix next month. Much younger than either Busch or Franchitti at age 29, Bowman has raced USAC National Midgets and was the 2009 champion in that open wheel classification. Midgets are known for cartwheeling and for the ability to continue after the driver has tasted a bit of dirt and landed rubber side down. They are much more softly sprung, especially when competing on dirt. No doubt his activities in that arena caused Bowman some brain injury along the way. 

It could be the case for Tua Tagovailoa, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins quarterback who was cleared to compete four days after incurring concussion on the field. He had another. No doubt, he’ll have more. Quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers estimates he had “thousands” of concussions during his 20-year career. No doubt these two are not the exceptions. Contact sports like football – and racing – can cause issues of this nature. These injuries can occur in mainstream sports like baseball, basketball and in soccer.  

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries. They are serious. Motorsports has done a good deal of work to lessen impacts with walls and with other drivers. Notably Tony George’s introduction of SAFER walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has instigated a switch throughout much of the sport to that type of containment of car and driver in an accident. Better medical knowledge and far superior safety equipment came about after Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. All of the upgrades we’ve seen pretty much stem from his crash.

What should we see now? That’s for the physicians and people far smarter than us to decide, but with Kurt Busch and Dario Franchitti having to give up the sport they love in order to live a healthy life, and with Alex Bowman sitting on the sidelines and waiting for his head to clear, it’s time for talk. Action can come later.

About Anne Proffit 1248 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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