While most pro athletes can seem like superheroes, NASCAR drivers are in a league of their own. Look at Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, and you can probably imagine the rough script of an action movie; he followed in the family tradition, experienced the tragic death of his father, and kept racing to become a motorsports star in his own right.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s life, however, wasn’t something perfect; there was plenty of fear and pain along the way, too. These days, though, he’s trying to use that suffering to make the world a better—and safer—place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a successful NASCAR career with a few notable bumps in the road
In the world of NASCAR, few names are more recognizable than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite his fame and fortune, though, the driver’s life hasn’t been perfect.
While Dale Jr. didn’t initially dream of racing greatness—he earned an automotive degree and took a job as a mechanic in his father’s garage—he eventually realized that racing was in his blood. After starting out on the short track scene, he joined the Busch Series in 1996; two years later, Junior made his Winston Cup Series debut.
In total, Earnhardt Jr. won 50 races across NASCAR’s Cup Series and what’s currently called the Xfinity Series, took first place at two Daytona 500s, and was a 15-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver crown. His time behind the wheel, however, wasn’t completely perfect.
Suffering through some brutal post-concussion symptoms in silence
In recent years, sports fans have generally come to accept that concussions are a serious medical issue. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s own experiences confirm that scary reality.
“In 2014, the worst [symptoms] would be, like, feeling drunk. It felt like I had drank. It felt like I was not able to do the simplest tasks around the house or at home because I was drunk,” Dale Jr. told Graham Bensinger in a video interview. “Buckling a belt or tying a knot in shoelace was a challenge. You couldn’t put a sentence together because you couldn’t remember a word.” Earnhardt Jr. also struggled to say certain words and experience both balance and vision problems.
Despite those scary symptoms, Junior didn’t tell anyone what he was experiencing; instead, he just kept notes on his iPhone that could be shared with a doctor in case the unthinkable happened. Even his now-wife, Amy, remained in the dark.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to remove the stigma around concussions
While Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t initially tell anyone about his post-concussion symptoms, things are much different these days. In October 2018, the driver wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about his experiences.
In his article, Dale Jr. explained that NASCAR drivers, like other athletes, are conditioned to push through the pain. His silence, however, was also motivated by misunderstanding.
“I persisted because it’s what racecar drivers are supposed to do. You tough it out,” he wrote. “I also believed then what so many still do now: that a concussion is permanent. I worried if I revealed how I really felt, my peers on the racetrack would see me as damaged goods. Those same myths and fears affect football players and construction workers, kids playing youth sports, and even people who get in the odd car accident on their way to the office. But these myths lead us to make uninformed decisions that harm our lives and livelihoods.”
By sharing his experiences, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes that he can make a difference and remove the stigma around concussions. While they shouldn’t be taken lightly, there’s no reason to hide your symptoms and avoid seeking help.
“Now, I tell my story to let people know they don’t have to silently walk it off. I tell it to my racing friends who confess they’ve also been suffering in secret and to many others who’ve never raced a lap,” he explained. “I will always wonder how many more races I could have won or how much longer I could have raced if not for my stubbornness. Don’t make the mistakes I made. Help is out there. You just have to ask.”