It was a very busy day at Watkins Glen International as two of the touring series hit the track for practice, qualifying and even a late day race with the K&N East series. There were announcements by teams about sponsorships, rumors swirling about a single car team adding a team next year and press conferences by many drivers. However, today was all about Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It’s been a long time since the large media center at Watkins Glen was full, but full it was when Earnhardt took to the stage at noon sharp today to discuss his progress since stepping out of his No 88 race car a few weeks ago due to side effects of a concussion that was incurred at Michigan in June.
Earnhardt said, “It is great to be back and seeing everybody. I’m super nervous coming back. I miss my team and my teammates. Amy (Reimann, his fiancé) is gone on a trip for the weekend, so I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do. Figured coming to the track wasn’t a bad idea. Get to hang out with my guys a little bit. It just felt so weird not being there, so here we are.”
He appeared somewhat nervous on the podium but certainly has retained his sense of humor, at one point talking about his sister Kelly’s children and hanging out with them adding to his stress levels.
He immediately went into describing the situation with his concussion, the process of healing and the fact that he just wants to get better and get back in the race car. He said, “Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time. Those are typically every two to three to four weeks.”
Earnhardt discussed how his doctor has been working with him and the process he is going through in a detailed manner.
“The process isn’t as fast as you would like it to be,” he said. “I talk to my doctor every other day, sometimes for an hour or two about the psychological side of it because it can become very frustrating and obviously being a race car driver, we don’t have a lot of patience, to begin with. This is a challenge.” He continued, “But we’ve got some great doctors, and I really believe and trust what they are telling me. I am confident and positive that they tell me without question that we are going to get back to normal. I just have to do what they tell me.”
He then described what he is doing on a daily basis, “There are a lot of activities every day. There is about two to three hours’ worth of physical and mental therapy that I do each day. Not a lot of fun. But they really stress your symptoms, and that is what they want. They want you to do things that really push your mind and bring out the symptoms. So, in the last evaluation, we really ramped up the therapy to make it a little more strenuous. We will continue to work. I will work every day and listen to my doctors and hopefully continue to see progress.”
The inevitable questions surrounding his future began and he responded by not even saying the word, retirement. “My doctor thinks that to get through the therapy and to get through the symptoms you don’t need to be adding stress to your life,” he said about discussing his future. “The stress will slow down the process. So, going into those kinds of conversations aren’t even necessary at this particular point.” He also made a point to say, “Whenever it happens; it happens. It is frustrating that we’ve had to miss this many races.”
He continued by saying that there’s really no timeline to his symptoms stopping, he just takes it day by day.
He was then asked about the support system he has and his fans. “It’s been awesome,” he said. “All the NASCAR fans are supportive of all the drivers when they find themselves in situations that are challenging. It’s been no different. That’s helped me a lot and gave me a lot of motivation to get back and get back in the car. Even hearing from not only the fans but also the other drivers and my peers is such a positive motivation. The more of that I see, the better. I think it helps me keep going and keep working hard and take my therapy seriously.”
He then mentioned how his doctor encouraged a visit to the track saying, “For whatever reason, my doctor wants to push me into situations that drive the symptoms and that’s basically going somewhere that I’m not familiar with, or being in busy places. Going out to eat or going to lunch or coming here, my doctor calls that ‘exposure’. This is probably the worst situation (he and the assembled media laughed) as far as making my symptoms go haywire, but that’s what he wants. He wants me to do anything whether it’s going places and pushing myself to get into areas that give me anxiety and drive the symptoms. All the rehab drives the symptoms. They want me to push the symptoms so my body gets used to them and they become suppressed and then it’s no longer an issue.”
He concluded the conference by saying how amazed he has been at the progress that has taken place over the years.
“I’m so thankful that there is knowledge and there is rehabilitation that is specific to what I have going on,” he said. “There is just not this umbrella of treatment that they sort of give to everybody. They have specific ways to help and heal specific types of concussions and certain symptoms. That is why I think I enjoy talking to my doctor so often and going to see him so often is because you have so many questions.
“Every day you get a new concern or a new question and you really can’t wait to get in the room and be able to talk to him about it. For them to have the knowledge they have today versus where we were 10 or 20 years ago is something I am very thankful for and I feel very fortunate when I got to see my doctor he will put me in front of four or five different specialists that handle a lot of different things as far as my rehabilitation and medication and so forth. There is so much to grab on to.
“There is so much to learn and so much positive things to take back from the evaluations when you are able to get in front of all those people and hear all the specific things that are happening to you and what you need to do and why it’s happening and how you can help it. We didn’t know all that stuff before and there is still a lot to be learned.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it very clear that he wants to be better, wants to race and really came up here to see his team because he misses them. He made note that the press conference was a necessary evil but that he also missed us as well. When he left the stage he spoke with numerous members of the touring media, thanking them for their support. It was an unusual display of emotion for Earnhardt that was welcomed by everyone in the room.