Our industry's approach to safety leads us to believe that serious injuries can be avoided by using the right equipment. That may not be true in every case as we have recently discovered. The following account is a must-read for anyone connected with a race team. It's important because to understand what happened to this one racer can help prevent a similar injury from happening to another. Lack of knowledge is common for some forms of injury because of the similarities of symptoms to other illnesses and because the injury itself is not so common among the general population. Head injuries fall into this category and that's the primary reason for this article and the reason why you need to read, understand, and look around you to see if someone you know might be showing similar symptoms. Our subject racer has had a long and very successful career stretching all the way back to 1976. Jeff Vochaska has won 116 races and numerous track championships over the years up until about two years ago. It was then that an accumulation of mild and not-so-mild concussions led to a condition that has left him unable to function normally.

Jeff called me when I was en route to Myrtle Beach a few days ago and briefly described what he had been going through the past two years. He wanted me to help him educate other racers to the signs and symptoms of concussions that happen as a result of driving a race car—and he had plenty to share. I told him that I would be more than happy to help him and this piece is the result.

I did a series of recorded interviews with Jeff over a week-long period as soon as I got home. I met Jeff some 10 years ago when he worked for a large racing parts distribution company and I distinctly remember talking to him at trade shows many times and noting how vibrant he was. Jeff had more energy than most of us and he exuded both confidence and what I can only call social graces. He basically lived and breathed racing and even a short conversation with him convinced you of that.

We'll not only detail with how his situation began and progressed, but offer some facts associated with this type of injury so that you can be aware, informed, and knowledgeable to the point of being able to recognize the symptoms for yourself and those around you. There may come a time when you might need to quit driving in order to live out your life in a normal way.

The Early Years

When Jeff began racing in the Street Stock division, there were no safety rules to speak of. The cars were not required to have rollbars until after you had rolled the car the first time. I repeat: The cars were not required to have rollbars. The seats were stock and the drivers used just the lap belt. I think Jeff told me his helmet was a dime-store helmet probably used for motorcycles.

The track he raced on was at Hartford, a big half-mile track where the cars reached more than 120 mph. This was when the track was asphalt and most of his racing was done on asphalt. "I tried racing dirt a couple of times when they peeled off the asphalt at Hartford and made it dirt. Both times I wrecked horribly," he said.

I asked Jeff if he thought he got concussions way back at that time, and he responded, "Oh yeah." And that was how he started out racing. Since that time, he progressed up through the classes and for the most part over the past 15 years or so, he has raced IMCA-type Asphalt Modifieds, Super Late Models, and Outlaw Late Models at tracks like M40, Kalamazoo, and South Bend Motor Speedways.

This is where it got interesting. I mentioned that probably all of those tracks had concrete walls and the hits were probably hard, and he noted that some, such as M40, had steel guardrails like those used on the side of highways. He thought those were worse than the concrete walls. "Those are actually worse because when you hit them, they suck you in, you don't bounce off," he said.

First Indication of Trouble

Knowing that hindsight is much clearer, I asked, looking back, and knowing what you know now, how long ago did you first remember having the symptoms of concussions with your racing? "About 15 years ago I started having the concussion problems but I didn't know what they were."

I have read up on concussions and a Class 3 concussion is when you hit your head and see stars. In the recent case of Junior Seau, the famous football player who committed suicide, he had probably experienced five of those events per game on average.

A Class 1 concussion is when you are rendered unconscious. A Class 2 is somewhere in between. Jeff told me, "Yeah, I'm saying that I guess that I probably had between 60 and 70." I asked him, "Looking back, what caused the concussions? Was it the head hitting the rollbars and the steering wheel? What was the physical makeup of the concussion?" His answer, "Usually, yeah, it was my head hitting the rollbar, but toward the end, I had so much safety equipment that I think a lot of times it was the sudden stop and it was just my brain hitting the inside of the skull."

The last 10 years of his career, Jeff had the best of everything money could buy for safety equipment. He had the head-and-neck restraint, full wraparound seats, lightweight helmet, and more and that didn't seem to stop the concussions. What that leads me to believe is that past a certain point, no amount of gear will offer protection when you have accumulated a certain amount of injury to your brain and surrounding tissue.