Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hopes His Death Will Improve Future Safety of NASCAR
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a legitimate legend in the NASCAR world, a Hall of Famer who won the Daytona 500 twice (2004, 2014), was recognized as the Most Popular Driver a staggering 15 times (2003-17), and emerged victoriously from 26 Cup Series races.
But his days on the race track weren’t always smooth, and several scary moments have impacted his life rather significantly. They’ve also allowed him to embrace his own mortality and the idea that his eventual death could help improve the future safety of the sport he treasures.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s long history of concussions
Dale Earnhardt Jr. put together a highly successful racing career that spanned nearly two decades, but it came to a close in 2016 due to lingering head injury symptoms stemming from the multiple concussions he suffered behind the wheel. In fact, the 2022 Hall of Fame inductee revealed on In Depth with Graham Bensinger that he’d experienced upwards of 20 concussions throughout his NASCAR tenure.
The host of “The Dale Jr. Download” podcast was able to brush many of them off in his 20s, but the concussion-like symptoms caught up to him at the tail end of his career. In fact, they impacted him enough that he couldn’t go about some of his everyday life activities, such as driving to the store without assistance.
Those symptoms eventually dwindled, but not before pushing him to make a life-changing decision with long-term ramifications.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision could improve safety of NASCAR
In April 2016, ESPN’s Bob Pockrass reported that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had decided to donate his brain to science for medical research.
“I was a donor already for many years … and so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do for me,” Earnhardt explained. “Anything I can do to help others. Hopefully the science has advanced far beyond what it is today and they don’t need it. It was something I didn’t have to ask myself whether I wanted to do it or not.”
Earnhardt’s inspiration came after he saw that three former Oakland Raiders players had pledged to donate their brains in honor of former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler, who died and was posthumously diagnosed with Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The legendary driver also drew motivation from United States soccer star Brandi Chastain, who had made the same decision to allow for research after her death.
“I just thought that was amazing that those guys did it in honor of their teammate, and I read where Brandi had done that maybe a month ago,” Earnhardt explained. “That was really inspiring. … I didn’t expect it to turn into the story it did, but if by all means, if it raises more awareness and inspires people to donate their brains and pledge their brains — they don’t need just athletes. They need everybody. I’m going to give up all the organs that are worth anything when it’s over with. So they can have it all.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had the bigger picture in mind
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision speaks to his own character, but also to the bigger picture around NASCAR.
The man with 260 top-10s in the Cup Series knows the ins and outs of the industry from the driver’s perspective. He clearly understands how his counterparts have felt about head injuries for many years.
Since his retirement in 2016, Earnhardt has opened up further about his concussions and the accompanying symptoms. And that’s a far cry from the earlier reluctance to discuss physical problems that stemmed from crashes throughout his lengthy career.
Earnhardt knows many other current and former drivers likely feel similar hesitance and fear on such a touchy topic. But his commitment to this cause could help forever change the sport for the better, both through the research that will be possible one day and because of the mentality shift he might promote for other athletes.