NASCAR looks at baseline testing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR is on pace to make neurological baseline testing, used to determine whether there is a loss of function after a head injury, a mandatory part of the preseason physical by 2014.

Vice president of race operations Steve O'Donnell told ESPN.com on Thursday that drivers are being encouraged to take the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) baseline test on a voluntary basis this year with plans to become mandatory by next year.

Baseline testing already is used in the IndyCar Series and other forms of motorsports. It was brought to light in NASCAR last season when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out two races in the Chase after suffering a concussion at Talladega Superspeedway.

It was Earnhardt's second concussion in six weeks.

O'Donnell said the decision to move forward with baseline testing came after NASCAR officials recently met with the organization's panel of doctors and neurologists.

"The decision was made that they thought we should look into this, but we really needed to educate the driver first, how decisions are made, that it's not just made on the ImPACT test [that determines if a driver should be parked]," O'Donnell said. "We're encouraging everyone to do one this year, most likely to be required prior to 2014."

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a teammate of Earnhardt's at Hendrick Motorsports, already has taken the test as part of his physical.

"Why not go ahead and get ahead of the game?" he said during media day. "Plus, I'd rather have it before the season starts, before the potential of having a head injury to get a baseline."

Earnhardt supports the move to mandatory testing.

"Yeah, it makes perfect sense to make it mandatory," he said. "It was nice of them to look into ways they could protect us from ourselves, really.

"There was a lot of good information I learned throughout that whole process. There's no way to diagnose concussions, but this is a good standard for being able to measure one."

The ImPACT test provides a baseline for neurologists to determine brain function prior to a concussion. It is then measured against another test after a wreck or head injury to determine whether a concussion has occurred and its severity.

"It was kind of fun to do," Gordon said. "It was stressful. It makes you think really hard. I haven't had to think that hard in a while, other than the closing laps of a Talladega race."

Former Sprint Cup driver Steve Park told ESPN.com last year that mandatory baseline testing in NASCAR can't come soon enough.

Park suffered massive brain injury from a 2001 crash in a Nationwide Series race at Darlington. He took the ImPACT baseline test in 2003 after suffering a second concussion, but because he never had a test prior to that for comparison there was no way to determine the full extent of his injury.

He has wondered for years why NASCAR has been slow to react.

"I am a big proponent in NASCAR that the ImPACT test, if it was part of your physical exam as a driver and you had it at the liaison office at every track, if you did get hurt during testing, in qualifying or practice you could easily take the test [again] in 20 or 30 minutes and they could have a competent evaluation if you're hurt or not," Park told ESPN.com.

Earnhardt did not have a baseline test after his Aug. 29 wreck at Kansas that registered 40 Gs or immediately after his wreck at Talladega Superspeedway that registered 20 Gs.

Even if he had, there would have been no way to determine the extent of the concussion because there was no baseline test taken before the injury that resulted in headaches, one of the symptoms of a concussion.

That likely will change in 2014.

O'Donnell said NASCAR is looking by then at the potential of having ImPACT equipment at the track that can instantly measure whether a driver has suffered a concussion. But he made it clear the test isn't the final factor in determining whether a driver should be parked.

O'Donnell said plans are being made to bring the equipment to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the May All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 to help further educate drivers on how it works.

ImPACT was developed in the early 1990s by Drs. Mark Lovell and Joseph Maroon. It is a 20-minute test that has become a standard tool used in comprehensive clinical management of concussions.

"I just think whether it's voluntary or not it's a good thing to have," Gordon said. "If you're a race car driver and feel you're going to be here for a while, you need to make it mandatory for yourself."