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Like many players in contact sports, Dario Franchitti, 41, made the only real choice available to him after an accident caused his third big concussion: retirement. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Like many players in contact sports, Dario Franchitti, 41, made the only real choice available to him after an accident caused his third big concussion: retirement. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When it comes to concussions, race teams are ahead of the pack Add to ...

Former Target Chip Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti sometimes walks with a limp, although it depends on the shoes he’s wearing, how long he’s been on his feet and what he’s been doing.

The uneven gait became a fact of life after his right ankle was turned into a bony maraca in a violent crash during an IndyCar race on the streets of Houston late last year.

“It’s not bad,” Franchitti said. “I have a lot of hardware in it – I don’t know how much actually, but they had to stretch my leg and reconstruct it. Trust me, if a small limp happens occasionally, I’ll take it.”

What he can’t take is getting his bell rung again.

Like many players in contact sports such as football and hockey, Franchitti, 41, made the only real choice available to him after the Texas accident caused his third big concussion: Retirement.

Simply put, another concussion could mean permanent brain damage for the popular four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

“It could have been a lot worse and I am thankful it wasn’t,” said Franchitti, who swaps his familiar red Target-logoed overalls for jeans and a black team polo shirt at this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto on the streets of Exhibition Place. He is now an adviser for the Ganassi team.

“I had a lovely time in racing and there’s no regrets it didn’t go on longer – well, occasionally I think I would love to have gone for [a record-tying] four Indy 500 wins, but the reality is that I wasn’t getting any younger anyway and it gets harder and harder to do what these guys do.”

Like in many other sports, concussions have become a major concern in motor racing, where drivers’ heads often get thrown around fiercely in crashes. Think shaking a stick that has a bowling ball attached to the top end by a short rope.

While they’ve been a part of racing for decades, concern about concussions in motorsport intensified after megastar Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted he hid one sustained in a heavy testing accident and drove in some NASCAR Sprint Cup races during the 2012 season while still exhibiting symptoms.

But years before it became a hot topic, many racing series quietly began establishing baselines for drivers using Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) developed in the late 1990s by the Sports Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It measures the brain’s reaction times, calculation abilities and memory, among other things, which can be compared to the results of a test done prior to the event that caused a brain injury. It can be taken anywhere, on a laptop or even a smartphone.

Former Championship Auto Racing Teams medical director Dr. Stephen Olvey implemented the testing about 12 years ago for all drivers in that series to ensure he had a scientific way to keep concussed drivers out of the cockpit.

“Athletes will deny the symptoms because they want to stay in the game or the race,” said Dr. Olvey, who is an associate professor of Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Miami and a founding fellow of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile Institute for Motorsports Safety.

“The thing that we are all worried about is detecting concussion and being aware of when it happens. What we are trying to do is educate parents, crewmen, owners and other drivers so if they suspect that a driver is not acting normal in any way following an event of some kind that they will notify someone so they can get tested.”

In racing, concussions can occur even when the driver’s head doesn’t hit by anything. The forces in a vicious high-speed spin alone can cause the head to rotate so violently that a driver can be knocked out. It’s the same principle that causes the lights to go out for boxer who is pegged by a hard uppercut to the jaw.

Canada’s James Hinchcliffe had his own concussion scare in an early May race this year when an errant piece of another driver’s front wing hit him almost square in his helmet’s visor. The initial impact from the debris and the second hit, which happened when his head snapped back, both exceeded 100 times gravity.

The Andretti Autosport driver surprised many experts by matching his preinjury ImPACT results just five days after not knowing what month it was when he was hauled away in an ambulance. Ten days after being cleared, he raced in the Indianapolis 500.

“Concussions are definitely something we are very conscious of and again it’s usually one of those situations where it takes another incident for us to really kind of light the fire, but this is one we seem to be chasing pretty hard now,” Hinchcliffe said.

“If you’ve never had one, you drive around and think: ‘Well, you know if I get one, I get one. It happens.’ As someone who hopes to do this for many more years, it sucks to have the freebie already gone – I have spent my get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Dr. Olvey urges any parent with a child in racing to get a baseline test done to make sure that any suspected concussion can be diagnosed effectively. Young brains are especially sensitive to them and need to be given added care in concussion situations.

“You really need to make sure that if they have one that it’s treated appropriately and completely before they are allowed to go and do it again,” he said.

“But I would like to say that if someone asked me whether I would rather have my son race cars or play football, I would have him race cars.”

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