Even at 78, Fred Lorenzen's gunfighter-blue eyes are as steely as ever, and the dimpled chin still makes him look like a race car-driving Kirk Douglas. The cameras loved him. So did the women.
Although he came up—and positively dominated—during NASCAR's 1960s party era, when all-night celebrations led by drivers like Curtis Turner terrorized motels across the South, Lorenzen had none of it. "He was all business," recalls seven-time champion Richard Petty. "And he was one tough cat to beat."
Flyin' Fred, Foxy Fred, the Golden Boy, Fast Freddie, Fearless Freddie, the Elmhurst Express: Lorenzen's star burned bright and hot, and then it was over. In 1963, driving for Holman-Moody, he was the first driver to win more than $100,000 in a season. In 1964, entering only the races that paid the most, he won eight out of 16. In 1965, he took the Daytona 500. In his 158-race career, Lorenzen won 26 times, qualified on the pole 32 times, and finished in the top 10 a stunning 84 times. After finishing well, he'd dash from the victory lane to the nearest telephone, not to share the news with family but to call his stockbroker and tell him how much to invest. He retired briefly, then made a comeback, driving for Junior Johnson and Ray Fox. After a bad crash in 1972, he hung up his helmet for good.
That helmet sits near Lorenzen's bed at a rest home in Elmhurst, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where he was raised and where he raised his two children. Lorenzen has dementia, and it will eventually kill him. But rather than one of the more common forms, such as Alzheimer's, there's a big possibility he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
CTE is a brain disease brought on by one or more concussions. Since its serious study began a decade ago, dozens of professional athletes, mostly in football, hockey, and wrestling, have been diagnosed with it. Junior Seau, the troubled NFL player who shot himself in 2012, had CTE. Not much is known about the disease except that it is characterized by the accumulation of a toxic protein, dubbed "tau," in the brain. That buildup can be the result of multiple small concussions, a few major concussions, or even one big one, as evidenced by soldiers who have apparently developed CTE from exposure to a single bomb blast.
CTE is untreatable. It can only be detected after you die.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been in the news recently, largely due to the National Football League's lawsuit with retired players, which was settled last year for $765 million. And while football is the sport most associated with the disease, it's likely the biggest problem that the motorsport world doesn't want to talk about.
That could change quickly. Research is well under way into techniques that can detect CTE in the still-living. A February 2013 study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry detailed how scientists at UCLA detected CTE in five retired NFL players. Using a brain-imaging tool and chemical markers, the scientists found clear evidence of the toxic tau protein.
"The holy grail of CTE research is to identify those suffering from the syndrome early, while they're still alive," said study author Dr. Julian Bailes. "Discovering the effects of prior brain trauma earlier opens up possibilities for symptom treatment and prevention."
It also opens massive possibilities for lawsuits. Since at present CTE can only be detected through autopsy, surviving family members are the only ones who could file suits related to the disease. And for motorsports sanctioning bodies like NASCAR, "this could be enormous," said Jason E. Luckasevic, an attorney with the Pittsburgh firm of Goldberg, Persky & White. Luckasevic specializes in brain-trauma cases and has taught on this subject at Carnegie Mellon University. He represented more than 600 of the NFL players who filed suit against the league for declining to recognize and adequately prevent brain injuries. That suit and 80 others were consolidated into one class action last year that initially pitted nearly 2200 former players against the league. That number later rose to more than 4500.
A lawsuit that size could devastate an organization like NASCAR. "There is some real liability there," Luckasevic said. He noted that the Centers for Disease Control says auto crashes are the second-largest source of traumatic brain injuries, with the first being falls. "And that's largely what stock-car racing is—automobile crashes."
The liability "would not just be with the driver and his own health," said E. Marcus Davis, of the Atlanta law firm Davis, Zipperman, Kirschenbaum & Lotito. "It would apply to the danger it causes for other drivers to have one racing at 200 mph with a concussion." Davis, who represented many of the players in the NFL suit, handles brain- and spinal-injury cases. NASCAR, he said, "has reason to be concerned."
Starting this season, NASCAR mandated ImPACT testing for all drivers. ImPACT is a neurocognitive assessment that establishes a baseline against which post-crash test results can be measured, helping doctors diagnose concussions. It's a step forward, but post-crash testing is still left to the team or individual drivers, not NASCAR doctors.
NASCAR has had success in insulating itself from liability in comparable suits in the past. It maintains that it does not employ drivers—they are independent contractors for their teams, making their own choices. In addition, Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of Racing Operations, said in October 2012, "I think when you look at the concussion history ... we've had a total of nine concussions in our National series in five years. That's less than two per year. When you look at the number of events we run per weekend in Trucks and Nationwide and Cup, that's a pretty small number."
READ THIS: Anatomy of a high-speed car crash"
Of course, those are the concussions NASCAR knows about, either because drivers brought them to the sanctioning body's attention or because injuries were severe enough for the association to be aware of them. Unless a driver is willing to sit out multiple races, he or she may not let NASCAR know. Richard Petty once joked that he "probably raced more with a concussion" than without one. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip said he has had at least 10 concussions during his NASCAR career. He recalled a race in Las Vegas where he crashed in practice, blacked out, practiced in a backup car after coming to, then went to his hotel. "I woke up the next morning and I didn't even know how I got there."
For Lorenzen, the warnings came too late. He was still in his fifties when the symptoms started, according to his daughter, Amanda Gardstrom. The first telling sign came at her wedding in Mexico: "Dad didn't understand he was giving me away the next day. It was the beginning of something heartbreaking." Two years later, while he was in Daytona for the 50th anniversary of the 500, a hotel clerk called Lorenzen's room and asked him to bring down his credit card. "He didn't know where he was, why he was there, or how he had gotten there," Gardstrom said. They could no longer write such things off as fatigue or simple forgetfulness. Doctors eventually diagnosed some form of dementia, but Gardstrom felt her father's symptoms—memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression, and impulse-control problems—didn't match those for the familiar types, like Alzheimer's.
Gardstrom began researching dementia and came across Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (BU CSTE). A co-director of the center is Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard college football player and WWE wrestler who was forced to retire from competition in 2003 after multiple concussions. He made the study of brain disease his career, and he is often the point man for the center's "Brain Bank," which collects brain tissue and spinal material from deceased athletes who displayed symptoms of CTE.
"I'm very familiar with Fred Lorenzen's case," Nowinski said. "And I think there's a strong possibility he suffers from CTE."
Nowinski said there is no reason the kind of concussions race car drivers experience would not make them susceptible to CTE. He has had conversations with several drivers who have suffered concussions in the past and are concerned about their future. He said he has also spoken to NASCAR, albeit informally.
One of the frightening aspects of brain concussions: You do not have to suffer a solid "hit" to get a concussion—the driver's helmet, for instance, does not have to come into with a roll bar or a steering wheel. Merely an abrupt stop/start that makes the brain move slightly inside the skull can do it. And even with the recent advent of "soft" walls at some tracks, that would be difficult to prevent entirely. In addition, in order to determine cumulative damage, concussions a driver may have had in younger years must be added to any head injuries received in racing.
Like the disease itself, the abnormal protein that characterizes CTE is insidious. At first, its buildup impairs brain function. Eventually, it kills brain cells. Researchers at the BU CSTE have studied dozens of people who suffered from the disease, most of them athletes.
The textbook case is arguably that of Lou Creekmur, former offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and an eight-time Pro Bowl player. He died in 2009 at age 82 from complications of dementia. His death came after a 30-year decline that included what Boston University researchers called "cognitive and behavioral issues, such as memory loss, lack of attention and organization skills, [and] increasingly intensive angry and aggressive outbursts."
Creekmur, famous for having broken his nose 13 times while playing without a face mask, told his wife that he could recall 16 or 17 concussions, none of which caused loss of consciousness or a hospital visit. Researchers said his brain tissue showed not evidence of Alzheimer's but "the most advanced case of CTE found in a football player to date." When stain is applied to a slide containing brain tissue, the toxic tau protein shows up as brown, and Creekmur's brain had enormous brown spots.
There's a potential parallel to NASCAR, said former champion Darrell Waltrip. "We raced because that's what we did, that's how we earned a living. Many times, I knew I didn't belong out there on the track. But nobody wanted to sit out. Nobody wanted someone else to drive their car."
There are also cases where athletes diagnosed postmortem with CTE apparently couldn't live with the illness. Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl NFL linebacker, shot himself in the chest on May 2, 2012. He was 43. In January 2013, Seau's family revealed that he had CTE and that they were planning to sue the NFL, accusing the organization of "hiding the risks of concussions and head injuries."
Dave Duerson, who played in the NFL for 11 years, left a suicide note saying, "Please see that my brain is given to the Brain Bank." Tests were positive for CTE. He was 50. A successful businessman after he retired, he complained later in life of headaches, blurred vision, a failing memory, even that he could no longer spell. Bankrupt, he'd lost everything before shooting himself in the heart in February of 2011.
While there have been no confirmed cases of CTE in racing drivers—not surprising, given the smaller sample size relative to football players and the recent nature of the research—some cases give one pause. Take NASCAR driver Dick Trickle, who committed suicide last May after complaining of depression and chronic pain that doctors could not diagnose. Shortly before his death, Trickle said in an interview that he carried the pain of multiple crashes with him. "There were no soft walls in my time."
Or consider sports car driver Peter Gregg, who took his own life in December 1980 at the age of 40. Gregg was badly injured in a crash en route to Le Mans in June of that year, after which he suffered from depression, chronic pain, and double vision. Although he was involved in multiple hard crashes before that, including in his only NASCAR start, Hurley Haywood, Gregg's friend and partner, believes it was his bipolar nature that led to his suicide. "Peter was manic depressive," Haywood said. "When he was on his meds, he was fine. When he wasn't ... "
Certainly, the driver most likely to have suffered from CTE was LeeRoy Yarbrough, a NASCAR star who died in a mental institution in 1984 at age 46, several years after trying to kill his mother. Yarbrough crashed hard in a test at Texas Motor Speedway and again in Dan Gurney's Eagle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After that, his memory lapses got worse, the pain never subsided, and he descended into alcohol and drug abuse.
Yarbrough's longtime car owner, NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, was profoundly concerned. "I probably spent $100,000 trying to get LeeRoy diagnosed," he said, "but they could never agree on what he had." The cover story (some call it a running joke) popular in NASCAR held that he caught Rocky Mountain spotted fever after a tick bite. Few bought it.
The subject isn't ignored among active racers. Ricky Craven, whose NASCAR career was derailed after a 1998 crash in Texas, his third hard impact in less than a month, complains today of degenerating eyesight and memory lapses. He and other drivers with similar complaints, such as Ernie Irvan and Steve Park, don't know what the future holds.
"No one does with CTE," said the BU CSTE's Nowinski. "There is as yet no explanation why some people can take multiple impacts over decades and be fine, and others develop CTE after a few hits at a very young age."
The good news is that NASCAR is at least paying attention. The sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sat out for two important races late in 2012, essentially removing himself from the series' Chase for the Cup championship finals. He believed he had suffered a concussion in a tire-test crash in August, then crashed at Talladega several weeks later.
Earnhardt voluntarily went to a doctor, knowing that he'd likely be required to sit out races. But critics of NASCAR's policies suggest it shouldn't be left up to the driver to seek medical help, because many won't. Earnhardt knew he'd always have a ride. Less secure drivers may not.
In fact, fan favorite Jeff Gordon said as much. Asked by sports blog SB Nation if he would sit out with a championship on the line, Gordon said, "Honestly, I hate to say this, but no, I wouldn't. If I have a shot at the championship, there's two races to go, my head is hurting, I just came through a wreck, and I am feeling signs of it, but I'm still leading the points ... or second ... I'm not going to say anything. I'm sorry."
Lorenzen's daughter did say something. She published an open letter to Earnhardt on her Facebook page, thanking him for setting an example. "If only we had the knowledge back then of head injuries, my dad would be sitting with me in good health today, playing with his grandbabies and living happily at home," Gardstrom wrote. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing up and doing this. You're making a difference for your later life and hopefully for NASCAR."
Gardstrom met with NASCAR representatives last summer and was satisfied with their response. ImPACT testing is a good step in the right direction, she said. "I'm looking forward to having the drivers really listen to the importance of concussion safety, for themselves and their fellow drivers on the track ... so no driver of this era has to suffer the same fate as my dad."
Four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti decided to take no chances and announced his retirement in November, after a crash in Houston a month earlier in which he fractured his spine. But it was the concussion he suffered, his third since 2002, that IndyCar doctors said put him at too great a risk to keep racing. "He's a realist about it," Chip Ganassi, Franchitti's team owner, told the Associated Press. "He told me 'I'd never want to risk further injury, much less hurt someone else.'"
Not everyone is convinced, however, that CTE is a substantial problem. At Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine, just six miles from Lorenzen's Elmhurst rest home, neurology professor Christopher Randolph helped write a report based on studies of retired NFL players. According to a Loyola Medicine news release, the study "found no evidence that CTE even exists."
Randolph is in the medical minority. At least one authority, both in the medical and the motorsport field, is preaching caution when considering the effects of the disease on race car drivers. Jim Norman, a Florida surgeon and endocrinologist, is also a sports car driver, winning his class at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona last year in a Porsche. "This is not a black-and-white issue," he said. "There is a huge gray area when you talk about CTE and concussions, since we can't accurately measure the severity of the injury or how often they really occur." Norman points to the more than 4500 ex-NFL players involved in the class-action suit as evidence that interest in CTE can be money-driven. "There is money to be made, by participants, lawyers, and doctors."
The problem, Norman said, is that the research is not yet definitive regarding how concussions affect one person compared to another. Nor does it specify which types of concussions—small yet frequent, like a football player would get, versus severe but rare, like a driver would get—result in what level of long-term damage. "Speaking as a doctor and a driver, I believe the equipment we have today, including [so-called] soft walls and required HANS devices, has cut the number of concussions drivers suffer."
That wasn't the primary purpose of the work that has gone into restraint technology since Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died from a basilar skull fracture in 2001, but Norman calls it a secondary benefit, at least for pro racers and major tracks. Both constitute the minority of participants and venues.
Even so, Norman agrees that drivers tend to ignore or understate their injuries. "As a driver, I've done it myself," he said. Four years ago, he broke his back in a crash in Canada. Last April, he flipped his Porsche in practice for the Grand-Am race at Road Atlanta. When he was taken to the care center, he purposely downplayed the pain "because I knew there was a chance I wouldn't be able to race if they knew I could have re-injured my back."
The sticking point is that the culture of racing, as in other sports, may work against its own good. NASCAR's announcement of mandatory ImPACT testing was met with mixed driver response. Earnhardt, Jr. was supportive of the measure, but 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski told reporters that "doctors don't understand our sport" and cited "self-responsibility" in saying that a driver's suitability for competition should be left up to the individual. The question is whether a driver with potentially impaired judgment should be making a judgment call.
None of this helps Lorenzen, who spends his days in bed or in a wheelchair, surrounded by memorabilia. His eyes still light up when he speaks of his Daytona 500 win. And then there's the question everyone asks: "Could you still get out there today and mix it up with them, Fred?"
We get the standard answer. "In a minute," he replies, eyes brighter than ever. Then they fade.
Lorenzen has no complaints. "The book has been written," he tells his daughter.
She is less satisfied. "If Dad had the knowledge then that we have now, he'd rewrite the book to be enjoying his golden years with the very thing he retired early for: his family. That's what you have left, long after the racing is over."