SPEEDWAY, Ind. – From time to time, Sarah Fisher’s father would ask her about a particular moment from her childhood, one of the racing memories he considers unforgettable.
He thought she was being difficult when she said she couldn’t remember. But the truth is, some of those memories simply have vanished.
“I just kind of forgot some of the short track stories and things that I have from growing up," Fisher says. “And he’s like, ‘Why don’t you remember that? That was a big event.’ It’s starting to come back a little bit to me as I look back at books and things. And I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m not being rude. I just can’t remember" Fisher told Chris Jenkins of USA Today
When Fisher became an IndyCar driver, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But did it come at a price? Fisher wonders whether some of the hard crashes she sustained early in her racing career might have affected her memory.
Fisher, who remains involved in the sport as the IndyCar Series’ pace car driver, goes out of her way to note that the hard hits she is describing all occurred early in her career – and that the series has made considerable safety strides since then.
“I stopped driving in 2010," Fisher told USA TODAY Sports. “From 2010 to 2016, they have made so many advancements. So my memory stories are old. Everything that IndyCar is doing is improving. But when I started racing, this is all way back in 2000, right? I had some pretty hard hits from, like, 2001 to 2009."
Along with constant efforts to make cars safer, IndyCar drivers now wear earpieces with impact measurement sensors that can help detect head injuries. Driver Will Power was held out of the 2016 season opener because of concussion concerns, although it turned out that his symptoms might instead have been from the lingering effects of an inner-ear infection.
“It’s from that earlier part of my career where the IndyCar Series was growing and learning, building the (cockpit) head surrounds to be the right absorption and the (impact-absorbing) foam that we use," Fisher says. “We learned a lot from putting the accelerometers in the earpieces. So yeah, there’s some memory (loss). That’s what happens. You sign up for that."
How many concussions did she sustain in her racing career? She doesn’t know. She didn’t count.
“For me as a young 20-year-old, 19-year-old, 25-year-old, you know, I just want to be in that race car all the time," Fisher says. “Was it a concussion? I don’t care, I’m going in. I didn’t count. I didn’t really care. It is what it is. I’m fine with it. Did it have some memory (effects)? Sure. … Just moving on. And what I am really proud to see though is what our series has done to alleviate a lot of that since then. I mean, we’re talking 12 years ago. That’s a long time ago. Everything that they have done, I am so proud of the research and the money that they’ve spent to help these athletes."
In a sense, Fisher was no different than athletes in other sports who might be tempted to hide or ignore injuries so they can continue to compete.
“I was more concerned about getting back in a race car," Fisher says. “It wasn’t so much about worrying about getting fired or not having a ride, it was more of wanting to be in the race car. I think a lot of athletes are that way, they want to play football or they want to play (other sports). They want to get in. That’s something that they grew up loving and they got the opportunity to do it."
Although NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. made news earlier this year when he said he would donate his brain to science to help advance concussion research, head injury issues have not attracted as much attention in auto racing as they have in sports such as football – perhaps because anyone who goes into racing knows from an early age that they are accepting significant risks, including death.
Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner, is not surprised that the current discussions about head injuries in football would have implications for auto racing.
“I think all of that really started with boxing," said Cheever, now a commentator for ABC and ESPN. “And then it migrated from boxing to football, and now you’re going to find it migrating into other sports where you deccelerate really quickly like racing. I would agree with Sarah."
Cheever said he lost consciousness in two crashes during his career, and wonders if those hits have affected him later in life.
“I’ve had my lights turned off twice and I don’t know if that affects you, because as you get older, you tend to lose a lot of short-term memory, so you don’t know if it’s that or something else," Cheever says. “But I don’t think it is good for you. I take my hat off to Sarah for saying that."
When Cheever’s son asked to play football, he said no.
“I will not let my son play football, for that specific reason, any more than I would let him box. When I was a child, I wanted to do boxing, I went to a Catholic school. And my father, who was … strong, said there is no way I will let you box because you’ll get silly."
But Cheever has let his son race.
“That’s a very good point," Cheever says. “I have let my son race. But I would never consider letting him play football. And I don’t want to be offensive, I think it’s a great sport."
Fisher has no regrets about her time in the car.
“I knew a lot going in," Fisher says. “It’s part of the sport. To me I was just a fearless 19-year-old kid. Lyn St. James has had two knee reconstructions, I think, and some of the old guys, I sat with (A.J.) Foyt over at my restaurant talking to him. So it’s a part of it. It’s a part of sports."
Cheever echoes Fisher’s comments about how racing safety has improved, specifically pointing to the SAFER barrier.
“Every time someone hits the wall around here, or at the majority of speedways around the United States, they should write a thank-you letter to Tony George," Cheever says. “Because it was on his watch that that investment was made without any return, other than the safety of the drivers. I think racing, as a whole, does a particularly good job of trying to stay one step ahead. But it is not a topic that you reach a final conclusion to — ‘OK, we’re safe now.’ That doesn’t happen."
Cheever remembers wearing asbestos firesuits in the 1980s — “and they were not good asbestos suits," he says — and wonders if that gave him lung problems. He also remembers racing overseas with a noxious fuel blend that “if you brought it in the United States, the EPA would throw you in jail within 20 minutes."
“Yet we did all that, because we didn’t know any better," Cheever said. “Now, all the sanctioning bodies have resources, financial resources, that allow them to follow through with those questions."
For now, Fisher is taking DHA, a supplement that may help brain function. From time to time, some forgotten moments from her past are returning.
“Some of the memories come back because as I look at my family books and family pictures," Fisher says. “It’s popping back into my brain, which is neat to recover."
But does she worry about some of the long-term health concerns that athletes in other sports are experiencing?
“I don’t know," she says. “I can’t worry about it. And I’m trying to help my brain with some DHA, and every now and then my dad does some research. And so, you know, we’ll see." Chris Jenkins/USA Today