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Feature Writing
Fifth Place
Mike Adaskaveg, Speedway Illustrated

Hidden Danger

A cold rain fell the night before the World of Outlaws’ event at Rolling Wheels Raceway Park in Elbridge, New York. That rain transformed the half-mile track’s surface into fly paper, providing exceptional grip. It led to Elk Grove, California’s Paul McMahan shattering the record at the self-proclaimed “The Fast Track,” with a 15.461-second lap, an average of 145.527 mph.

A record was broken that night at Rolling Wheels, but so was a two-decade-long racing career.

After time trials, West Lawn, Pennsylvania’s Dave Ely, who set the fastest time at the event in 2013, quietly coasted the Gene Frankowiak-owned sprint car into the spongy pit area, disappearing into the haze and never returning. Ely was set to start first in his heat race, but he told the crew to load the car. Everyone was puzzled.

“I got up to speed in hot laps, coming out of the fourth turn, and something weird happened,” Ely says. “Things became blurry and hazy—like I was watching in fast-forward. When the first turn came, I had caught the car ahead of me—really quickly. But, I couldn’t figure out how to pass it or where to go.”

Then, Ely changed his setup to the one he uses at his home track of Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway “to see if things had calmed down in my head” and went out for time trials. The effects he experienced in hot laps had not calmed down.

“I couldn’t tell you much about those two laps,” Ely says. “Afterward, I sat in the car to gather my thoughts. I was dizzy. Then, I went into the motor home and threw up.”

Continued Symptoms

Ely returned home on Monday and focused on returning to work at Diversified Machine, Inc., but his symptoms worsened.

“I was nauseous, lethargic, and my speech was slurred and I was stuttering,” Ely says. “I had bad crashes in ’98, ’04, and ’10. I told my wife I thought I had another concussion.”

His wife, Jennifer, had seen her husband’s symptoms before, and she knew he had a concussion, even though he hadn’t crashed. He’d seen a neurologist after the 2010 crash. He rested 60 to 90 days, as prescribed, and then returned to racing.

The Elys searched for concussion specialists and made an appointment with the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia. They had expertise in treating athletes with concussions.

At the initial appointment, Ely completed tests for cognitive skills. When he returned to his wife in the waiting room, he told her the tests went fine and that he thought the results would show that they had wasted their time. However, he fared poorly on the tests.

“I had to read numbers as quickly as I could,” Ely says. “What would take an eight-year-old 40 seconds took me 102 seconds. I had no idea.”

His doctor scanned his eyes. His brain told the eyes what to do, but the muscles failed to move them. His left and right eye did not work in unison. He couldn’t stand on one leg without falling over. He had to lead his finger to touch it on the tip of his nose.

They told Ely to cease driving—not only at the track, but also on the street. His doctor started him on a regimen of vitamins to treat the concussions’ effects, but not the concussion itself. He underwent vestibular therapy twice a week. He visited an eye specialist once a week.

“They said they were confident they could get me back pretty good,” Ely says.

Doctor’s Perspective

“We think about concussions as sports-related injuries,” says Dr. Stephen Stache of the Rothman Institute, which treated Ely and a number of professional athletes. “The NFL and the NHL are getting press coverage because of concussions. But it is motor vehicle accidents that are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury for younger individuals in the United States. Head trauma leads to concussion.”

Stache recommends for medical assessment of drivers immediately after they have crashed. The NFL has unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants who evaluate players and decide if they are unfit for competition. Most racetracks have no one.

Ely could not recall a blow to his head since 2010. Stache points to sub-concussive hits that do not produce immediate symptoms of concussions.

“Accumulated sub-concussive hits— small micro traumas that accumulate over time—possibly led to Ely’s most recent symptoms,” Stache says. “There is no black and white—everything to do with concussions is gray like the brain itself. One hit can cause immediate symptoms or several hits could lead to an evolution of symptoms that manifest themselves as symptoms of a concussion.”

Ely believes that the lap-after-lap of jarring head movement—often with drivers’ heads slamming their seats’ head supports—may be leading to concussions. Ely cited dirt modified and late model drivers also expressing symptoms, calling for a need to address the differences between pavement and dirt oval racing.

“Seats need to be looked at,” says Ely. “When containment seats became mandatory, sprint car drivers soon found out they are not for us. They may be for the NASCAR world of smooth paved tracks, but we’re on rough tracks. We’re on a 5/8-mile track pushing 140 mph with our heads bouncing back and forth like a pinball.”

Seats and Helmets

“A super common misconception is that helmets protect players and drivers,” Stache says. “In reality, helmets were never designed to prevent concussions— they were designed to reduce skull and facial injuries.”

Bell Racing USA’s Kyle Kietzmann agrees.

“Organizations like Snell and the FIA are doing research and adding requirements to helmet specifications that add low velocity impacts to the homologation process to make sure helmets perform well in lower level impacts in addition to higher level impacts,” Kietzmann says. “Bell continues to do research on different materials and liner systems that will help to mitigate concussive injuries. Bell advises all racers who experience a concussion or any loss of consciousness during a racing accident to replace their helmet.”

Bill Simpson, who was a safety pioneer in motorsports, has spent the last five years working on a football helmet that reduces concussions. His seventh-generation SG helmet was worn by 3,000 high school players last season. After head contact, there were 27 headaches, seven minor concussions, but no major concussions as reported by assessment professionals. Simpson continues to conduct threshold tests on the helmet at CAPE (Center for Advanced Product Evaluation) in Westfield, Indiana. He hopes to adapt the helmet to auto racing in the future.

“Everyone in racing seems to be turning a blind eye to concussions,” says Simpson. “I’m not getting any pushback from football, but trying to convince racing [sanctioning bodies and certification organizations] that concussions need to be addressed with helmet changes, I will get pushback. That [pushback] is why I left the auto racing industry. Racing doesn’t see what is going on in the real world.”

Simpson wants to address everything the driver comes in contact with.

“Think of variable-rate springs— when a driver’s head or body comes in contact with its environment in a crash, there has to be collapse after impact to absorb forces before the stronger material is reached,” says Simpson. “All this happens in six to eight milliseconds.”

Randy Lajoie at The Joie of Seating designed seats specific to dirt-track applications.

“Sprint cars have a particularly violent ride,” says LaJoie. “If you plug the head solid in the seat, the driver’s brain will rattle around inside the skull. We need to slow the changes in direction of the head to prevent concussions. Drivers need the right foam package. Foam has changed a lot over the years. We’ve changed the foam located around the headrest.”

SFI Rating Most sanctioning bodies require racers to use foam that meets the SFI 45.2 spec for seats and head restraints. It does not specify which materials must be used. It only requires that it meets the performance standard. SFI has not tested using different combinations of foam.

“We are certainly willing to test combinations of foam, but the request would have to come from a sanctioning body whose rules would regulate combinations of foams for seats and headrests,” says Mike Hurst, SFI technical manager. “The benefits of combinations of foam so far have been anecdotal. I have not seen actual research and data on my desk.”

Hurst is concerned with the effects of soft foam.

“Soft foam can act like a spring, depending on its coefficient of restitution,” Hurst says. “Padding has to give way to impact and regain its shape slowly, not like a spring bouncing back when it is compressed. If it acts like a spring, the driver’s head would [still] have a bobblehead effect.”

Hurst likened the rigid 45.2 foam to SAFER barriers used at NASCAR tracks.

“On a much larger scale, the SAFER barrier releases energy without pushing back,” says Hurst. “That’s what you want.”

Research for the Future

Dr. Terry Trammell is part of a team studying the effects of racing on driver’s brains.

“IndyCar drivers were hitting curbing on street courses and becoming like bobbleheads,” says Trammell. “Several drivers had symptoms of mild traumatic brain injuries. We were able to record impact loads and acceleration forces with the ear accelerometers that are connected to the car’s black box.”

Trammell and his team found that drivers experienced peaks of 20 Gs as their heads banged repetitively side to side. At CAPE, Trammell recreated the phenomenon and changed the composition of headrests. He developed a low compression headrest with sequential weight resistant foam. IndyCar changed to the headrests last season. They reduced the spike in forces to drivers’ heads from 20 Gs to 5 Gs or less.

Within a pocket in the headrests are three layers of different density of Confor (known as Comfort Foam) material that get covered with Nomex, says Jeff Horton, IndyCar Director of Engineering.

“We found that the outer layers improved the effectiveness of the bottom EPP layer,” Trammell says.

Ely’s Recovery

Ely says he feels better after following his doctor’s orders. At the end of last year, he had a 75-percent improvement from his concussion after two months of therapy, which he continues.

“When you get a concussion, you need care,” says Ely. “Don’t be afraid to give your seat up.”