NASCAR will require baseline concussion testing for its drivers starting next season.
NASCAR had only recommended the testing this season, but indicated to drivers that a preseason baseline screening could become mandatory as early as 2014. The baseline test will be compared with test results taken after a driver has crashed to help diagnose a concussion.
"NASCAR made this decision because we think it is important to drivers' health for doctors to have the best information and tools available in evaluating injuries," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR vice president of racing operations.
Drivers were informed of the mandate during a Thursday meeting at the R&D Center in Concord with top NASCAR officials that lasted nearly two hours and covered a variety of topics concerning 2014 changes.
The baseline testing will be performed through the widely used neurocognitive assessment ImPACT test, which evaluates an athlete's verbal and visual memory, processing speed and reaction time.
"Before announcing this rule, we provided drivers concussion and baseline testing education and created opportunities for them to ask any questions they may have to a top neurosurgeon that specializes in traumatic brain injuries," O'Donnell said. "ImPACT tests are not new to our sport and have been used for treatment through the years."
O'Donnell said in February that NASCAR had identified 32 concussions in its top three national series since 2004, including three in 2012. One suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. forced NASCAR concussions into the spotlight.
Earnhardt was injured in a crash during an August 2012 tire test at Kansas, but didn't seek treatment for a mild concussion. His stubborn streak instead kept him behind the wheel, and he was then part of a 25-car pileup in October at Talladega that triggered lingering headaches and other recognizable warning signs.
Earnhardt went to a doctor, and he was ultimately benched for two races.
Earnhardt's plight led four-time series champion Jeff Gordon to voluntarily take the ImPACT test, which has long been mandatory in the IndyCar Series.
"I just think whether it's voluntary or not, it's a good idea to have," Gordon said in February. "I don't think that NASCAR necessarily has to make it mandatory, but if you're a race car driver, and you feel you're going to be here for a while, you need to make it mandatory to yourself."
Drivers this year were invited to two concussion education sessions featuring Dr. Vinay Deshmukh of Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates, a member of NASCAR's medical advisory group. Drivers were presented with an overview of what concussions are, their causes, treatment and the role that baseline tests play in the comprehensive evaluation of concussions.
"We are extremely confident that our concussion protocol is among the best in sports," O'Donnell said. "We regularly review all of our practices involving safety and health to see if there is anything that we can do better, or should do differently moving forward. Implementing baseline testing is a primary example of our philosophy to protect our competitors the best that we can."