Gluck: NASCAR needs its own team of traveling doctors – USA TODAY
You’ll have to excuse many NASCAR drivers if they’re a bit anxious this weekend — concerned about something that has nothing to do with their cars.
After what happened to Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway, can you blame them?
Hamlin had been dreaming of his return to the Southern California racetrack where he broke his back in a last-lap crash a year ago. He considered it unfinished business and said the race was one of three he had circled on his calendar.
But he never got a chance to race because NASCAR parked him for medical reasons after he was seen on two separate occasions by doctors at the speedway — doctors who lacked the kind of familiarity with Hamlin that a personal care physician could provide.
If NASCAR is going to empower a medical professional to make decisions about whether a driver can race, it should be someone the driver already has a relationship with.
NASCAR says safety is a top priority. If so, a team of traveling physicians would serve the mission to keep the drivers as healthy as possible.
According to a timeline released by Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin twice visited the infield medical center at the speedway — once Saturday night and once Sunday morning — and was ultimately told he could not participate.
Hamlin was battling vision issues and was in pain, and doctors diagnosed him with a sinus infection. Just over an hour before the green flag, NASCAR told Hamlin he was not cleared to race and sent him to a hospital for further tests.
There, doctors soon discovered the real problem: A sliver of metal had gotten in Hamlin’s eye. The metal was removed, and his vision issues were resolved.
The medical profession is difficult, and doctors at the track were doing their best. But one can’t help but wonder if things might have been different if NASCAR employed a team of traveling physicians.
The sanctioning body has nurses who travel the 38-week circuit but no doctors. It’s up to each racetrack to staff its infield medical center with area personnel.
“If you’re unconscious on the track, who do you want to perform your airway (procedure): The guy who has done 100 in the E.R. that week, or a guy who has just been living at (the) track, traveling and traveling?” NASCAR senior director of racing operations John Bobo told USA TODAY Sports. “For a number of reasons, we think we get people who are the most current at what they do.”
But a consistent medical staff would be good for both the drivers and NASCAR. The drivers need to know that, if they seek treatment, they’ll receive care and guidance from a trusted doctor; NASCAR needs to know the calls made by doctors are the right ones.
There’s a big difference in seeing a doctor for the first time and visiting your regular physician — not only a sense of familiarity but a comfort in knowing the person understands your history.
This is a new era in sports when it comes to medical issues — the catalyst being the NFL’s concussion concerns. Gone are the days when Ricky Rudd could duct-tape his swollen eyes open in order to race; these days he would never have been cleared to get in the car.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sat out two races with a concussion in 2012, said it was a “weird, empty feeling” to watch NASCAR race without him.
“You know that dream you have when you’re late for school?” Earnhardt said this week. “You wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not late.’ It’s that feeling, but it’s real. It’s funny to see the world keep going without you in it.”
Drivers might look at Hamlin’s example and have second thoughts about visiting the care center before a race, knowing a trip there could get them parked. Earnhardt — who has admitted to hiding concussion symptoms from doctors in the past so he could race — called for more transparency on the timeline of events this week, saying he wanted to know more about how the decision was made.
“We should all know what happened and know why it happened … and not have to worry about it,” he said.
If it were up to the drivers, things would be different. Brad Keselowski railed against the idea of concussion testing last year because he didn’t want a doctor to be able to tell him whether to race.
That’s coming from a guy who won with a broken ankle. You can bet Hamlin is equally as tough — in 2010, he was racing two weeks after reconstructive knee surgery.
Many would argue doctors are there to protect drivers from themselves, from doing something gutsy but stupid in trying to fight through an injury.
But drivers are a different breed than the rest of us; they’re daredevils who risk serious injury or death every time they strap into the car. To them, the scariest thing is not being allowed to race.
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck
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