Concussions from driving a...
Concussions from driving a race car can result from many different angles of hits and have a cumulative effect. The more you have, the less tolerant you are to the effects. At some point in time, you might have to live permanently with the symptoms.
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.
Jeff Vochaska won 116 races...
Jeff Vochaska won 116 races in his career starting in 1976. During that time, he suffered numerous concussions as a result of racing impacts with concrete and steel walls and other cars. The cumulative effect has caused permanent damage and affected his quality of life in a very negative way. There were telltale signs along the way that could have prevented his present condition if he had been knowledgeable about the symptoms. Our job now is to explain how he got to where he is so that you can make informed decisions about your future as a driver.
We usually think of a hit...
We usually think of a hit to the front and right front as the most serious of the crash scenarios. It’s when talking about basilar skull injuries. But for basic concussions, a hit to any part of the car can cause a concussion in varying degrees.
In this example, the driver...
In this example, the driver took a viscous hit to the front, went airborne, and then took another hit when the car slammed to the ground. A car that rolls can induce multiple concussion events, all in the same wreck.
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.
What the Doctors Had to Say
Jeff had a family doctor that he went to see when he started having the problems that we will outline later on and he spent hours and hours researching and he told Jeff that he had so many concussions that it had softened the gel that surrounds the brain and it could no longer protect it from bruising.
It had gotten to the point that it was the brain hitting the inside of the skull that was causing the concussions. Dr. David Liscow was Jeff's physician through this process of figuring out what was wrong with him. Jeff wanted to thank him and to acknowledge his efforts in educating himself and Jeff about this syndrome. This brings up an important subject, how little the medical community in general knows about the head injuries that will be discussed soon.
I asked Jeff what his prognosis was and what his future is going to be like? I was unnerved by his answer. "After Dr. Liscow's studies, I'm looking at 7 to 10 years to regain some sort of a quality of life. I'll never be able to be normal. I spend most of my time sitting here in the living room, I have drapes that block out all of the light, I can't stand bright lights. I can't stand noises. I sit here in the living room in the dark most of the time.
"If I go out, I have to wear ear plugs and sunglasses. I used to be outgoing and happy and now I have a hard time talking to people. I see why these football players commit suicide, because if it wasn't for my children. . .(he pauses for a moment). With the post concussion syndrome, I feel like I have the flu all of the time, except I have no fever. You're sick to your stomach and you have a headache. That's how these concussions feel."
Those are tough words to repeat, but I need to get across what has happened to Jeff and just how serious it is. To describe his condition now, in those details, might move us to be more careful.
How Were the Signs Missed?
We could look at Jeff's situation and say now that there were indications that his condition was getting worse and that something needed to be done, but he did visit his doctors early on when the symptoms got worse.
I asked what were the early symptoms of concussion? He said he felt like he had the flu and was sick for several days after a serious wreck. He would go to a family doctor and be told he had a 24- or 48-hour virus and to go home and get rest. Then after a few days, the symptoms would go away and he would feel fine. Nobody knew that the real cause of the sickness was his concussions.
Then later on, there was a more telling symptom. "Early on, you don't really notice the concussions, but one of the early signs that they are affecting you, if I took a hard hit on Friday or Saturday night and I was feeling sick, I would sleep all day Sunday, Sunday night, and all day Monday. That was one of the early signs."
The very early symptoms are feeling sick like the flu, but not having a fever, and the big one is the sleep. Normally, Jeff would always unload and work on the car on Sunday mornings after a weekend of racing. He would then spend time with his family in the afternoon if all went well with the racing and there were no wrecks. But after the concussions, he would forgo any family activity and sleep through for 48 hours or so.
"As it got worse, you'd get the flu like symptoms, you get sick to your stomach, and I guess a little dizziness in the head. Early in my career, I don't think they bothered me at all (the concussions). Then 10 years ago they started bothering me to where I'd have these sleepy days and I'd start calling in sick to work and the doctors were not able to pinpoint what was wrong with me.
Two things stand out about...
Two things stand out about this scene. One is that the car is a stock class car and probably doesn’t have expensive safety items installed like a total protection seat, full rollcage, and side bars. The other thing is the metal highway style guardrails serving as outer walls. Jeff tells us that in his opinion, these are the worst for inducing high g-force hits. He describes them as “sucking you in” and stopping the car instead of bouncing off like with a concrete wall.
In his long career, Jeff has...
In his long career, Jeff has driven just about every kind of circle track car. His later years had him racing in Super Late Models and Outlaw Supers, like this one shown at Kalamazoo.
This multicar crash is unique...
This multicar crash is unique and probably not all that bad as far as forces because all of the bent sheetmetal absorbed most of the energy. They’re not all this easy. The danger here is from intrusion into the driver’s compartment, which can cause a lot of injury.
"Then they started lasting longer. Originally it was only two or three days, but then it got to the point where I would be sick for a couple of weeks. I then finally got to the point a couple of years ago where the symptoms just never went away.
"The last four or five years, I was trying to find the reason why I was sick and I was wrecking more and more. I was still winning races, but I was winning less and crashing more. I was making all the wrong judgments and with the concussions, I started to lose my eyesight too. That's something else that came with it."
He started wearing glasses thinking it was old age, but thinking about it now, it was due to the continued concussions. Some of these symptoms are hard to identify with concussions.
I asked Jeff if there was a defining moment when things changed. "Yes, I got in a big wreck. I got T-boned at about a hundred miles per hour. I had another wreck a few weeks later where I T-boned another car going full speed. I remember getting out of the car and the safety crew was talking to me, but I couldn't hear them. After that I was always sick." It was then that his doctor told him he had Post Concussion Disorder.
He would try to go to work, but he couldn't work full days. That was in 2010. I asked Jeff, "Do you think you are improving now that it's been two years since you quit?" "No, I am actually getting worse," he said.
Understanding PCS and CTE
PSC (Post-Concussion Syndrome) is a set of conditions that occurs after a concussion and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is the result of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. Both can last for weeks or months, and in extreme cases, for years as is Jeff's case.
There is no known treatment for either syndrome. There is treatment for the symptoms of the conditions. Some people eventually get better and some do not. The only prevention is to quit having concussions before the more difficult symptoms appear. Once a certain threshold is reached, there's no turning back. There's no surgery and no medication that will make it go away.
I told Jeff that people might have a hard time making the decision to quit racing because many of the symptoms could be written off as old age or other things. He replied, "You need to realize, you need to value, you do your racing for fun, and if you want to end up. . .I mean, I'm nearly a vegetable now. I have a hard time going to the store. To go to Wal-Mart for me is a major task."
Life After Driving A Race Car
For the benefit of others, I asked Jeff if he had made the decision to quit driving, what would he have done instead? He actually tried to crew chief a car for a few races once the more serious symptoms set in, but was unable to continue.
For others who don't reach the severe stages like Jeff, you can continue to be involved in racing by being a car owner, crew chief, car chief, or anything that involves racing and still have fun with it. If you let things go too long, you will have to stay away for good and that's where Jeff is today.
This is typical of a Late...
This is typical of a Late Model colliding with the outside concrete wall. Depending on the angle of the hit, g-forces upwards of 50 g’s can be transmitted to the driver. Up till recently, we only were concerned with the injuries connected with the head being unrestrained. We now know that even with the best safety equipment available, repeated concussion events can accumulate their affect so that the brain and surrounding tissue is less able to offer protection and a permanent condition can result.
The frontal hits can be worse...
The frontal hits can be worse for stock class cars. Although the front ends tend to bend and crush up, we see less effective safety equipment used in this type of racing due in part to the costs. An expensive, top quality surround seat can, and probably does, cost more than the entire car.
This is Jeff in a T-bone crash...
This is Jeff in a T-bone crash that is very similar to one he described to me in the final race of his career. He had all of the best safety equipment money can buy, but by this time, his accumulation of concussions was to the extent that no amount or quality of safety gear would help him. His brain was hitting the inside of his skull with each impact and becoming more and more injured. The only way for him to have prevented his present condition was to have stopped driving a race car.
I hope through these interviews and the presentation of this information, I have educated you to these dangers. This is not meant to say that CTE is a common problem or that everyone who drives will experience the symptoms we mentioned. What this does say is be aware of the possibilities and be on the lookout for the early indicators of concussion problems not only for yourself, but for others around you. It's your job now to educate your doctors to recognize the symptoms of concussion and to help them make appropriate diagnosis and recommendations, including forbidding future driving of race cars.
If you have any questions for Jeff or would like to share a story or just say hi, you can send your message to me and I will forward your thoughts on to Jeff. We were friends before and we will definitely be in touch often. The one thing I came away with that was encouraging was that the more we spoke and interacted, the better he sounded.
The condition does seem to get better with exercise and activity. Recent studies by a group of doctors who specialize in this type of injury has shown a 70-percent success rate for patients who can exercise and elevate their heart rates. Jeff has been going through a routine of walking, swimming and working out. The winter months were the worst because he was not able to get out, but now that summer is here, his symptoms and attitude are improving at a fast rate.
I was so proud of him when he contacted me with the idea of getting this message out to other racers. It's most often the case that people who are in Jeff's condition turn inward and only think about themselves, understandably. But Jeff, through this presentation is reaching out to others so that he might prevent just one person from going through what he has had to endure. And I congratulate him for that. He's truly a good man.
Ten years ago they started bothering me to where I'd have these sleepy days and I'd start calling in sick to work and the doctors weren't able to pinpoint what was wrong with me.
I had another wreck a few weeks later where I T-boned another car going full speed. I remember getting out of the car and the safety crew was talking to me, but I couldn't hear them. After that I was always sick.