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In response to reports of football players, hockey players and other athletes having serious neurological issues in retirement, researchers at the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute have studied brain tissue of deceased former athletes. They've found evidence of a degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy that has been linked to repetitive brain injuries.
O'Donnell said NASCAR officials have noticed.
"Absolutely," O'Donnell said. "It's something we pay attention to on any aspect of other sports, what they're doing. Can we learn from it? Can we implement some of these things? We're open to working with any other sport as well."
For now, veteran driver Jeff Burton is trying to gather as much information as he can about the long-term effects of concussions. Burton's father-in-law is a physician and has attended sports medicine conferences on his behalf.
"I think anybody that has any sense at all has to understand that it doesn't matter if you're playing football or hockey or racing a car, head injuries can have bad ramifications later in life," Burton said. "It appears to be the case. I think we are exposed to less of it. But at the same time, when we do have them, they can be big hits."
The 44-year-old Burton started racing in NASCAR's top division in 1993, well before the post-Earnhardt safety advances.
"I can tell you that in retrospect, there's been many times that I've had concussions," Burton said. "And the definition of concussion is a very widely used term, and how you actually define a concussion has changed over the years. But there's no question that with hitting concrete, not having (today's safety equipment), there's no question people had concussions. No question."
Waltrip said he blacked out after an accident in practice at Las Vegas in 1998, but kept it to himself.
"Hit the wall, got in the backup car, made a couple laps, went to the hotel, woke up the next morning, didn't even know how I got there," Waltrip said. "You could just fake people out back then. `Yeah, I'm fine, I'm fine.' They didn't care. `OK, you're fine.'"
Today, any driver involved in a significant accident must visit the infield medical center, where checking for signs of a concussion is standard procedure. If there's reason to suspect a concussion, the driver will be sent to a local hospital. From there, the driver will need to be cleared by a neurosurgeon with at least five years' experience in sports-related head injuries before he or she can race again.
"They always ask you," Burton said. "The key to that, though, is honesty. Unless it's obvious. Sometimes you can tell. But a lot of times, in football and in every sport, people say, `I'm fine.' It's hard if you don't tell them the truth to help you."
Burton acknowledged that drivers, along with athletes in other sports, have an incentive to hide symptoms.
"There's fear in not being able to do what you want to do," Burton said. "NASCAR's always been really good saying, `Look, we don't want to keep you from racing unless it's in your best interests.' They've been pretty good about that. People are always nervous, I think, in any sport to stand up and say I'm having these issues, because they want to race or they want to play. But if NASCAR doesn't want you to race, then you probably shouldn't be racing."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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