This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Truck Series driver/owner Robby Lyons. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A lot of NASCAR fans are familiar with the Dale Jr. concussion story and his saga, but you have your own story. And one thing we’ve learned through the Dale Jr. experience is that every situation is different. So what was your experience and how did this all start for you?
Every experience is different and in the same way, every concussion is different. That’s one thing I wasn’t aware of — and I think that’s why so many of them go undiagnosed or people don’t even know what’s wrong with them, just because there are so many different symptoms. Someone can have one symptom and none of the others, but it’s still a concussion.
I started racing dirt bikes when I was five years old, and I raced motocross and Supercross for 18 years. The whole reason I got out of dirt bike racing was from the injuries. There’s a quote, I think it was Ricky Carmichael who said, “With age comes the cage.” So of course, me and my parents were like, “Maybe we should just go down that route.” I think the amount of money we spent on hospital bills those first 18 years probably could have funded somebody’s entire Cup career.
I didn’t really take the head injuries as serious until last year. I knew it was serious because that’s what some doctors told me before I quit racing motocross: “If you hit your head hard again, you’re going to be messed up for the rest of your life.” And of course I’m like, “Well every doctor’s supposed to say that, because they don’t want to see you messed up.”
But I’ll actually backtrack even further than that. In 2017, when I was racing Super Late Models, I had a wreck at one of my local short tracks at Florida. It was only a quarter mile, but this guy that I’d been holding up for awhile got impatient and decided to just clobber me going into a corner. We went back and watched my GoPro video and it’s like, “Holy cow, that was a hard hit.” It was during July, so it was really, really hot. The helmet blower quit, I didn’t have anything to drink in there, it was a 100-lap race and I thought at the end of it that I had heat stroke or heat exhaustion. My dad ended up having to pull me out of the car after the race, and he was like, “You weren’t even there.” (The general reaction) was like, “Wow, you need to work out more.”
Then I got my deal with Premium Motorsports with Jay Robinson and my roommate, Garrett Smithley, he kind of introduced me to them. I made my first Truck start at Phoenix at the end of 2017 and raced Homestead, and made a deal to run the first four races of 2018. When we got to Martinsville (last March), I think we got about halfway through that race and there was a wreck in front of me. Cody Coughlin got into the back of me, and I spun into the back of Cory Roper’s truck. He had stopped, and so I kind of slid broadside into his truck, and it ripped the whole right side of my truck open like a can. I remember Michael (Waltrip) up in the booth saying, “That looks like a truck that’s been to Martinsville.”
So toward the end of the race, I was feeling all right; more so disappointed. Then the motor went and brought out the final caution five laps from the end.
When I got out, they were like, “You feeling OK?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m a little dizzy, but I think it’s from the carbon monoxide.” But it was 26 degrees outside and I could see out my right side door, so I thought, “Eh, maybe it’s not.” So I didn’t go to the care center. I should have.
Obviously it’s a long time off between Martinsville and back then Texas was the next race. It was really weird — as time went on, I started feeling weirder and weirder and kind of overthinking stuff. It was like my anxiety was getting crazy.
I’ve kind of always had issues with anxiety and my mood changing. I’m an introvert, so it’s odd that this is the business I chose to be a part of. So I a lot of it I just chalked up to, “This is just typical me, just having to take some time to chill” — because it had been a frustrating start to the year.
But as it went on, I started having sleeping issues. Leading up to getting pulled out of the Truck at Texas last year, which was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I had gone 92 hours with only four hours of sleep.
Whoa, no way.
I knew it was a problem. Like I would try to sleep, and I would lay down and feel like I was having a heart attack. So I just had to get up. A lot of the nights, I just stared at the ceiling for who knows how many hours and just lost track of time.
The day I was supposed to leave for Texas, I went to walk out to go to my truck in the driveway and I just collapsed in the yard in front of our house. I picked up my phone, called my dad and I’m like, “I can’t race this weekend.” Actually, I think I said, “I can’t get to the airport.” And he’s like, “Well you’re definitely not going to be able to drive a race car around at 190 miles an hour then.” He was right. My passion is so strong, I might have tried it, so it’s probably good that divine forces knocked me down in the driveway.
My parents actually got a flight back to Kannapolis in North Carolina and they picked me up and drove me down to Florida and I took some time off. I went to the doctor and they said it was all kinds of things. “Oh it’s this, oh it’s that, try this medication, try this.” I started exercising more, resting a lot.
Because people were still thinking it was heat stroke or something or heat-related and you were still just recovering from that?
Yeah, basically, and a lot of them thought it was stress because I don’t have an agent or PR or anything like that or somebody to help me look for sponsorship. That was something that was tough on me at first; it’s a whole new world. Late Model racing is one thing, but when you’re doing it all yourself, it can get really overwhelming at times, especially if you’re not all there healthy like I was. So it was easy for me to get overwhelmed very quickly. My dad could tell you, we had plenty of arguments during that time, and later on I found out a lot of them I didn’t even remember having.
I started getting better, just on my own, and then I raced at Kentucky. That was late August, and that was my first race back — so I missed half the season. That whole time I was kind of getting my head straight, I wasn’t really looking for sponsors or anything like that, so I knew that I needed to focus on me more than anything.
Toward the end of the year, Premium had different ideas for where they wanted to go, they wanted to focus more on their Cup team. Me and my dad had a conversation about, whether it would be less stressful if we just had our own equipment and we could control how we performed and we could get out there and compete and not have to worry about contracts and all the inner workings that we don’t really know about yet.
So we called our good friends Jeff and Chad Finley. I drove Late Models for Chad back in 2015, and we had saw that they had run their truck at Gateway and finished sixth their first race and went to Bristol and made the last round of qualifying. We thought we’d definitely like to see what they’ve got going on, and of course they’ve got Bruce Cook, his track record speaks for itself with the owner’s championship with Kevin Harvick’s team, and he won races with Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, and he was leading this whole operation. So we’re like, “This seems like a really awesome deal. Let’s look into it.”
We had bought a couple trucks, one of them was Josh Reaume’s superspeedway truck. It was a good truck, and we got a couple from Brad Keselowski’s old truck team, and we finished out the year.
Then we ran Talladega. I was racing for the lead with six laps to go and ended up in a wreck again on the backstretch there on the last lap. Shocking, I know — that never happens. (Laughs) But then we ran at Homestead and I ended up cutting a tire down and hit the wall.
On the way down to Homestead, I had a buddy of mine, Brenden Koehler, riding with me. He’s looking to get involved in PR stuff and he’s actually living with me and Garrett now. I actually met him on iRacing. But on the way down to Homestead, we listened to Dale Jr.’s book (Racing to the Finish) on audiobook.
I remember we were about halfway through it and I had noticed every single time something was said that kind of reminded Brenden of things he had seen in me, he would turn and look at me. I’d be like, “Why are you looking at me, man?” But I knew exactly what was going on.
You’re hearing this and you knew. It was speaking to you.
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s just like that gut feeling and it’s just like, “Oh man.” I felt like I could have written that book. Minus the stuff in the beginning — obviously his story’s even crazier a lot of times, how he got to where he was and just the things he’s been through.
But you know, when it came down to our experience in racing and the head injury part, it all made sense. From the Late Model deal in 2017 to the truck stuff to what had happened earlier that year and the deal before Texas, I’m like, “This all makes sense.” Dale literally was having the same stuff happen to him.
So up to that point, nobody had said this might be concussion-related, all this stuff you’re going through? Until you listened to that, it didn’t click for you?
It didn’t. I can’t tell you how many nights I lost sleep thinking, “Am I just crazy?” Not when I’m driving cars really fast with walls around me — that’s pretty crazy — but like another kind of crazy. Since I heard Dale talk as passionately as he did about it, I feel the same way. February was the donate your brain month and I pledged my brain to science as well. I know that’s something that Dale Jr. did because CTE and post-concussion syndrome, all those things, you can’t diagnose it until after you’re gone. I know that having that ability to look at a brain that’s been through trauma is going to be key to developing the technology in the future to be able to help other people. Something I never want to see happen is somebody go through what I went through.
There were so many times when I was like, “Is it even worth going forward?” And not even in racing — but life. I was in a rough, rough place, and when you don’t know why, you just feel crazy. So in some sense, I would say his book saved my life. And it’s kind of helped me be able to cope with what happened. Because I went through that. I can’t imagine his sense of joy that his book has helped so many people.
My roommate Brenden, he looked over me in the car and said, “I think you need to go to Dr. Collins.” And in my mind I’m like, “There’s no way I can go see him. He’s kind of like a Hollywood figure” — that type of thing in my mind.
Yeah, you’re thinking that’s who the big rich celebrities go to.
Yeah, of course. And I’ve never felt like I’m anything other than a normal person. I walk into this garage sometimes and still feel out of place, like, “Oh my God, that’s Matt Crafton. I’ve watched him race before.” And even guys that will come up and talk to you, you like stare for a second, you’re like, “Wait, me?” You’re looking over your shoulder. “No, you.” So I felt even more like it, like he’s not going to accept me as a patient.
But we ended up calling Dr. Collins and talked to his secretary up there and she’s like, “We’re kind of a month behind making appointments, but yeah, come see us. We’re going to do these tests and then you can see Dr. Collins and see what he thinks.”
And he actually helped develop the ImPACT test, which after we’re in a wreck, we have to go to the care center and they make us do a segment of that test and everybody has to have a baseline test.
So I went up to Pittsburgh — it was late December — and first thing they had me do was take the ImPACT test. He told me my scores were dramatically off from where my baseline was. And obviously I didn’t go to the care center that day in Martinsville and there was no way for them to check.
So here’s me encouraging other drivers, if they’re reading, to go to the care center if you hit anything. Just go. Because you’re not in your right state of mind when that happens and you might feel nothing at the time.
But you feel like if you had gone, the test would have shown something that day at Martinsville?
I feel like it could have. We ran before the Cup race that day (due to the snowout), and I sat up in the stands at Martinsville and watched all 500 laps of the Cup race, which largely went caution-free besides the stage cautions. And there’s a part that Dale talks about in his book when he was in Martinsville standing on top of the haulers watching cars go around and he had to get out of there. It was driving him insane and he felt like he was getting sick or having a panic attack or something. And as that race went on, I got dizzier and dizzier and got a headache and actually I had my buddy drive my truck home. So that’s what I’m saying. It was like, “Man, this book, I felt like I could write it.”
I don’t know if the test would have changed anything then — it might have, it might not have — but the whole fact of the matter is, everything that I went through up in Pittsburgh was basically the same thing. For those who read the book…have you read it?
I have, actually.
It’s crazy how simple he makes concussions sound when in reality they’re kind of the most complicated thing that can happen to somebody, especially being an invisible problem, mostly. It all depends on the information that you give them. And I think a lot of the times I held off on giving information because I was worried about somebody thinking I was crazy. So I’m like, “You know what? That’s just me, and I’m just going to deal with that myself.” And it gets to a point where you can only deal it with yourself for so long.
So I ended up going up to Pittsburgh and went there four times. They gave me a list of exercises to do. A lot of them are really weird, like holding a string with a whole bunch of beads on it from your nose outwards and you have to focus your eyes on each bead and then back.
One was just tossing a tennis ball behind you to somebody. The first time I did that in the hallway up in Pittsburgh, I fell over after doing it three or four times. By the last appointment there, he was like, “How’s the tennis ball thing going?” I was like, “I did it 40 times without stopping.” He’s like, “All right, now we’re going to have you do it while walking backwards.” I was like, “Aw man, you can’t do that.” (Laughs)
But another interesting thing, my peripheral vision used to be terrible. I mean, from when I started racing Legend cars, one of my issues was being afraid of the wall. When I would come off the corner, I would always hold it like a car length or a half car length off the wall — and of course that’s pinching the corner, so that doesn’t make sense. So I actually learned how to drive based on sound. Because of the way the engine noise bounces off the wall, I can tell how far I am from the wall.
My friends used to mess with me because they knew I had bad peripheral vision, so they would like throw paper airplanes at my head. Obviously I couldn’t see it coming. But the other day, one of my roommates was waving at me and I turned and looked at them. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, your peripheral vision’s a lot better.”
Wow, no kidding?
It’s insane. I used to sit with my door open in my room out to the living room and they would all just make faces at me and stuff and I’d never see them. So heads up if anybody plans on tricking me now — I can see them.
But it’s just been crazy. Life’s been a lot better. Totally did a 180. I wish I hadn’t dealt with it for so long, but if I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to be here saying the things I’m saying and saying I beat it. I just hope anybody that is feeling that way, if you’ve hit your head even once and you’re going through these things, just go talk to somebody.
So somebody reading this may not realize the symptoms of a concussion, as you didn’t. They may think something is wrong with them or they’re going crazy, but it could be all related to this and you don’t know until you go see Dr. Collins. And you said it was affordable, it turned out?
It was. I went there expecting to spend my life savings, which isn’t really that much because I have race cars. (Laughs) But I went up there expecting that. And at the end of the day, you see a lot of doctors there. I saw three doctors regularly when I went up there, and it’s kind of like a day trip, so obviously you’ve got to pay for airfare if you’re not from around there. But you see three doctors and they take almost an entire day to see you. There’s a physical therapist that makes you do physical exercises — they call it exertion therapy — where you run on a treadmill or toss a medicine ball around and all while doing visual exercises. Then you see Dr. Collins and his assistant. It’s a lot of time that they take out of their day to help and, you know, it was just a couple hundred dollars. And that was without insurance that was recognized in Pennsylvania. But yeah, don’t let that deter you from going, because they’ll work with you for sure.
That’s really cool. So have you talked to Dale about this experience?
Dr. Collins told me, “Whatever you do, find Dale’s number from somebody.” At first he was like, “I’ll give you his number,” but then he was like, “I probably shouldn’t do that.” So I haven’t yet. I’ve been trying to run into him, but a lot of people plan on running into him. I know that when the time and place is right I’ll talk to him. But if he reads this, I can’t thank him enough. And I know there’s a lot of other people out there that would say the same thing. Dr. Collins told me ever since Junior’s book came out, he’s had other people and other drivers even that raced in NASCAR and IndyCar go to him and say, “I think this is going on with me,” and it turns out that it was. And obviously HIPPA laws say that he can’t say who. But I can’t imagine the sense of pride and joy he has that he has changed so many people’s lives through something that is really awful.
Mental illness I think is something in this country that just deserves so much more attention and coverage, especially in stuff that’s caused by traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Collins’ office is at the UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Pittsburgh Penguins actually train up there. Hockey is legit crazy. I have my Tampa Bay Lightning hat on right now. But funny story, the first day I walked in there, I had this same hat on, and I didn’t realize that we’re going to the Lemieux Training Center, and I’m like, “Oh crap. I should probably take my hat off.” (Laughs) But it ended up being a lot of fun, we mess with each other a lot.
You indicated that your peripheral vision is better now and you’re feeling a lot better. But overall, where would you put yourself in your recovery process now?
My last appointment up there was in February and we had made my goal to be able to race Daytona. And he told me, “You’re going you have to bust your you-know-what if you want to get to Daytona and race.” Daytona is my home track being from Florida, and it was tough. I had to commit a lot and my friends and family helped me a lot, but (the appointment) was the weekend before the Shootout and I was so nervous walking in there because I kind of felt like I hadn’t done my best. But I felt so much better and I knew things were getting better and I could toss a ball 40 times walking backwards, so why not? Sounds easy enough. And he said I could go race.
When I walked in there the first day, I was expecting to be told, “You can’t race anymore — ever again.” And not only that, but, “You’re never going to be normal again.” Those are the thoughts that go through your head all the time before I got better. Just constantly like, “This is never going to get better, it’s going to get worse.” So I kind of put off going to see people because I didn’t want to be told that. Ignorance is bliss, right? But I couldn’t be happier that I did.