Don Schumacher's NHRA team pledges to donate brains for concussion research
MORRISON, Colo. -- Concussion experts would someday like to conduct the same amount of research on head injuries among military members as they've done for football players.
One way to get there: race car drivers.
All seven members of the world's largest hot-rod team, Don Schumacher Racing, pledged their brains to concussion research Friday as part of an effort geared to reach military members as much as racing fans.
Through its sponsorship with the U.S. Army, Schumacher connected with the Infinite Hero Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. CLF has received pledges of more than 3,500 brains to conduct post-mortem research on the effects of CTE -- a disease linked to repetitive head injuries seen in football and other contact sports, and also in military personnel.
Research involving military cases lags far behind that for football, hockey and other sports, in large part, experts say, because military injuries don't receive as much media attention as those in sports.
"I don't think people realize the brain impact these soldiers receive from the explosions, the IEDs, the traumas,'' Schumacher said.
Chris Nowinski, the CEO of CLF, says only about 5 percent of brain donors are military members who don't also play contact sports.
"It's absolutely an urgent need,'' Nowinski said. "The relationship between brain trauma and mental health is an area that needs more investigation. Brain donation is really the gold standard for understanding the effects of brain trauma.''
Ann McKee, a lead researcher on the impact of CTE, was part of a panel discussion with veterans Thursday, and part of the discussion involved the heart-wrenching difficulty involved in getting military families to donate their loved one's brains to research.
"But we need to know about military injuries,'' she said. "We know there are commonalities between blasts [from military operations] and impact [from sports]. But we've got a half-dozen to a dozen military cases we've studied, and we're not capturing'' enough data.
Though hundreds of football players have made pledges, Schumacher Racing's effort represents the first full sports team to make such a move.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently pledged his brain and NASCAR has supported CLF's efforts, but there's much less research in auto racing than other team sports.
When Schumacher presented his drivers with the idea, he said they all signed on immediately.
"We always challenge each and everybody out here, each and every week, 'What's the legacy you're going to leave behind?''' said Schumacher driver Antron Brown. "When this project came up, all our hands went up and we said, 'We're all-in.'''
Morgan Luttrell, a Navy SEAL-turned-scientist whose twin brother, Marcus, wrote the best seller "Lone Survivor,'' is part of the project as a senior advisor for veteran relations at the Department of Energy.
"These drivers lay it out on the line every day at the wheel,'' he said. "Mr. Schumacher and his team, I won't say there was an epiphany, but the fact this came together, it's amazing.''