Dale Earnhardt's Medical Mystery
17 September 1997It was chilling to watch.
The No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet took the green flag for the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, August 31, bounced off the wall in turns one and two and circled the 1.366-mile track at a snail's pace.
Team owner Richard Childress yelled to his driver over the radio, "Dale, park the car now! Stop the car!" Seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt responded, "I'm sorry. I saw two race tracks."
When Earnhardt finally brought his race car down pit road his crew sprang to action helping their driver from the car and then watched helplessly as safety workers took him to the infield care center. Doctors at the track quickly arranged for his transportation to nearby McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, SC.
As the race continued on and Jeff Gordon won the Winston Million, whispers spread through the garage area like wildfire. "What's wrong with Earnhardt?"
Hundreds of tests, four medical facilities, 25 physicians and almost one week later the question still couldn't be answered yet doctors cleared the 45-year old driver to continue to pursue his racing career.
After being taken to McLeod Regional Medical Center, Earnhardt was subjected to several tests including analysis of potassium and carbon monoxide levels as well as an electrocardiagram designed to evaluate heart function. All results were described as essentially normal and Dale was released Monday. However, the head of neurology at MMRC, Dr. Joseph Healy, Jr., advised Earnhardt to undergo further outpatient tests.
Although Earnhardt declared himself ready to race, he realized that NASCAR would require definitive medical confirmation from doctors before he would be allowed to compete in the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6. So it was off to the hospital for more poking and prodding and monitoring.
The Kannapolis, NC native underwent extensive testing for the next two days with a number of medical facilities participating in the test analysis including the Baptist Hospital Bowman Gray Center in Winston-Salem, NC, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, and Charlotte Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, NC.
Again doctors could find nothing medically wrong with Earnhardt. The proper paperwork was delivered to NASCAR headquarters and on Thursday, September 4 the sanction body announced that Earnhardt had been cleared to climb back into the Richard Childress Racing entry and compete.
On Friday morning, Earnhardt and Dr. Charles Branch, a Bowman Gray Medical Center neurosurgeon, held a press conference to discuss the the activities of the preceding week and the subsequent conclusions.
Dr. Branch first consulted with Dr. Healy and others from McLeod Regional Medical center who were confident that they could find no significant abnormality or identifiable problem. "Later in the week," he explained, "we put him through another collection of tests, focusing more on his brain and the blood vessels supplying the brain."
The tests included a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of his brain looking for structural abnormality of his brain. Blood vessels were examined with a magnetic resonance angeogram (MRA) for signs of restricted blood flow. Both test results were normal.
"We looked at his heart to see if there was a blood clot or some other abnormality on a valve in his heart." Dr. Branch continued. "That again, was essentially normal. We had a very specialized test looking at the blood flowing to the brain and blood vessels. That was normal."
So with the battery of tests yielding normal results, the question still remained. What's wrong with Earnhardt?
Dr. Branch offered two possible explanations. "He had a temporary dysfunction of his brain that we believe is a migraine-like episode where a blood vessel feeding the base of the brain temporarily went into spasms or contracted and maybe restricted some of the blood flow to his brain stem just long enough to create this temporary dysfunction, but it resolved completely," he explained. "This is not something you can treat or identify once it's gone.
"Another possibility is there was a temporary dysfunction related to a little short circuit in the brain because of an old injury he may have sustained years ago. Again, the brainwave testing and all the other testing we did were normal, so whatever this was was temporary and impossible to say if this will or won't happen again, but it doesn't appear likely."
The neurosurgeon concluded, "After a very extensive battery of tests focusing on the episode he had, we could not find something we could treat or that we thought was in any way abnormal. We tried to determine whether or not there was any medical condition that we could identify that we could say would put him at any further risk at continuing his occupation as a race car driver and we could find none. There, we basically issued a generic release for him to return to his occupation without any restrictions."
Earnhardt, who claims his biggest brush with mortality came when he was involved in a horrendous wreck at Talladega Superspeedway last year which left him with a broken sternum and broken collarbone, was understandably concerned while he waited for the doctors' verdict.
"One thing that concerned me was my dad died of a heart attack at (the age of) 44," Dale said. "My dad had a slight heart attack the year before they found out he had heart problems and they never knew it. They were treating him with blood thinners and things before he died, but you never know. I was concerned about my health and what I may and may not be able to do from here on. The major thing was life itself and spending it with my family and from there, being able to spend it with people who are close to me. I definitely wanted to find out was was wrong and what was going on."
After learning that he was never in danger of his life being threatened, the hardest thing Earnhardt had to deal with was advice from the physicians to slow down a bit and try to reduce stress levels as much as possible. Not an easy task for a man who is pursing a record eighth driving championship and also campaigns three race teams of his own.
"It's a tough position," said Earnhardt. "The sponsor commitment, the fan commitment, and of course NASCAR and all the things we do. I've got three kids that race on and off. That's a big commitment. But I've got people who help me out with that. When it comes to the Busch car and truck team, I've got great people like Ty Norris and Steve Crisp who handle those two deals. Then the Winston Cup planning is all in there. Don Hawk, the president of our company, is overseeing all of it. You've got things in order and working. It's like a team effort. After the test Wednesday, I did go home and I did relax for the day and a half before I came up here (Richmond, VA). The problem is, I feel great. The problem is, they can't find anything wrong."
The fact that the doctors could not pinpoint the exact cause of "the episode", however, does not appear to be enough to dissuade Earnhardt to continue his pursuit for checkered flags.
"If he's (Dr. Branch) confident, I'm confident inside me that I'm healthy and I'm fine," he declared. "It happens once in a lifetime or whatever. I'm putting this behind me. I'm ready to go racing. "
Lori Vizza -- The Auto Channel