I love books where I sense the amazing complexity of human experience. RACING TO THE FINISH, a memoir by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR racer, is such a book.
Let me start by saying I’m not a NASCAR fan. I’ve never been to a race, although I’ve seen them on television. Who can forget the sight of those cars zooming around the track at the Daytona 500?
There are crashes galore in this book. For example Dale describes this one at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama:
“It started a chain reaction that would end up wrecking twenty-five cars…Tony got sideways, fell out of the lead, and slid helplessly up into our pack. He was hit simultaneously by two oncoming cars and flipped into the air…He sailed by me as I started braking to keep from hitting anyone too hard as cars were out of control and all over the place right in front of me. As we all kept sliding and other cars kept smashing into each other…
…When you’re in the Big One, you’re just like a boat stuck in a storm. You can react and steer and dig all you want, but really, you’re just praying for the best. You have little or no control. It’s just screeches and smoke and chaos. What you don’t want to hear is that crunch, that smack that tells you that you’ve been hit.”
What spectators miss is what happens next. Like heavy-weight boxers or professional football players, race car drivers are at extreme risk for traumatic brain injury. And, like other professional sports players, these injuries often go unreported for fear of losing jobs or being considered a coward or weakling. It’s a strange world out there.
The motto from his family seemed to be, “just put a washcloth over it,” or “tape an aspirin to it” and keep on racing. Dale was different, though, in that he started keeping a journal on his iPhone of the symptoms he was experiencing after these crashes that were considered part of his job.
Through the book the reader experiences both sides of his physical and emotional world: the extreme highs of fast-speed track racing and the aftermath of pain and confusion after a bad crash.
In journal entries Dale describes the post-race symptoms:
“Thursday I felt hung over and frustrated all day…Friday, I seemed to wake up really slow and feel groggy and not sharp…The three different hits into the wall that Sunday were 20, 13, and 23 Gs…There’s a lot of things I do today that frustrate me. Mid-sentence, not being able to find the words to finish. ..when in vocal conversation I choose the wrong word or can’t find the word to complete my thought, that makes me so sad and scared.”
Dale gets the help he needs to retrain his brain, but then re-injures it and has to start over again.
He was unstintingly honest about what he did, and why. When he eventually retired, it was to a celebration of people who loved him.
An uplifting book with a strong message for all of us. I thoroughly relished going along for the ride.