ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL A MYSTIFYING AILMENT GIVES NEW URGENCY TO A LINGERING QUESTION: WHAT'S WRONG WITH DALE EARNHARDT?

September 14, 1997

Sixteen doctors examined Dale Earnhardt last week, seeking the
cause of the once-indefatigable NASCAR driver's bizarre blackout
at the start of the Aug. 31 Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C.
"They didn't check to see if I was pregnant," Earnhardt said
last Friday when the tests were finished, "but they did
everything else. And they didn't find anything."

So with no firm diagnosis, what was Earnhardt to do? Easy.
Follow NASCAR's long-running medical rule of thumb: When in
doubt, go racing.

He did just that, driving in last Saturday night's Exide 400 at
Richmond without incident. He was never a factor, finishing 15th
after qualifying 22nd.

But even before he faded to black at Darlington, Earnhardt, a
seven-time Winston Cup champion, had been fading fast from the
limelight. The question What's wrong with Earnhardt?--asked with
increasing frequency as he has become ever more mired in a
winless streak that now stands at 51 races--has gained new
resonance with his mysterious blackout. At 46 Earnhardt presses
on even though he has been replaced at racing's pinnacle by
26-year-old Jeff Gordon, who won the Southern 500 and a $1
million bonus on the very afternoon that Earnhardt lapsed from
consciousness and wrecked. One of Earnhardt's competitors
jokingly said, "Hell, that was the only way Earnhardt could take
attention away from Gordon and the Winston Million."

That was about as funny as the other drivers got at Richmond. It
didn't sit well with them that all the Intimidator's doctors
couldn't put together a clear explanation of why he had started
the previous race in a semiconscious state, immediately smacked
the wall in the first turn and slammed it even harder exiting
Turn 2, then drove slowly around the track twice in a
disoriented search for his pits--and didn't remember any of it
when he finally came to his senses later that day. "I'd be a
fool to stand here and tell you we're not concerned," said Kyle
Petty.

The lead neurosurgeon on the case, Charles Branch of Bowman Gray
Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said another blackout was
"very unlikely" and told Earnhardt, "there is nothing we could
find that would keep you from pursuing your occupation, if this
is what you want to do." But he also noted that he can't
guarantee there won't be a recurrence, conceding that the
episode "remains somewhat unexplained."

"Why," asked Petty, "would they release somebody if they didn't
know what it was?" Said Gordon, "Everybody would like for them
to have found something, just to have answers for what
happened." Earnhardt's competitors weren't so concerned about
racing with him at three-quarter-mile Richmond International
Raceway, where race speeds run in the 120-mph range. "But what
if we go to Daytona or Talladega [NASCAR's fastest tracks, where
speeds approach 200 mph]," Sterling Marlin wondered, "and it
happens while he's running at the front of a big pack of cars?"

After clearing Earnhardt to race, NASCAR president Bill France
Jr. said, "Who are we to question a medical team like that?" Yet
the doctors had produced only three educated guesses as to the
cause of Earnhardt's blackout. One possibility, said Branch, was
"a migrainelike episode in which a small blood vessel feeding
the brain went into temporary spasm" and restricted blood flow
to the brain. Another was "a temporary short-circuit in the
brain" because of scarring from bruises to the brain Earnhardt
might have suffered in past crashes. The third guess is
vasodepressor syndrome, in which the pulse rate falls rather
than rises under stress. Earnhardt's pulse has been monitored
just before races at 55-60 beats per minute, compared with rates
of 100-120 for other drivers. Earnhardt is so calm he's been
known to nap in his car before a race starts.

Earnhardt's arguably precipitous return to racing was "just
another example," said longtime rival Darrell Waltrip, of a part
macho, part mandatory practice in the Winston Cup Series. Under
NASCAR rules, drivers are not only allowed but also effectively
forced to either play hurt or fall hopelessly behind in the
point standings. If a driver doesn't start a race, he doesn't
get points. (If a substitute driver takes over after an injured
driver turns one lap, the injured man gets the points.) "This is
the only team sport I know where everything really hinges on one
guy," said Waltrip. "I think if you told Dale right now, 'You
can put Steve Park [Earnhardt's protege] in your car this
weekend, and Steve can collect points for you,' then Dale would
say, 'Let's let Steve drive the car this weekend.'"

Asked if the Darlington episode was his most jarring reminder of
mortality, Earnhardt chuckled wryly and said, "I think Talladega
was worse than this," referring to the horrific wreck in July
1996 that left him with a fractured sternum and collarbone.
Despite his injuries Earnhardt set a course record in winning
the pole at Watkins Glen, N.Y., two weeks after the Talladega
crash and finished a gutsy sixth after leading much of the race.
But he hasn't found himself in Victory Lane since he won at
Atlanta on March 10, 1996.

"I feel the same, and I'm working hard to be the same driver and
to have the same focus," Earnhardt said, in a considerably more
subdued tone than his normal bluster. "It seems that things are
not as great as they were before the Talladega crash. I don't
understand why we haven't won races this year. We were so
dominant in years past that it's tough not to [dominate]. We'll
get it right. I guarantee you."

While Earnhardt may profess to be baffled by his winlessness,
other drivers think they know what the problem is. "I never was
the same after I got hurt," Waltrip said of his worst crash, at
Daytona in 1990. "Earnhardt got hurt, and he's never been the
same. With old drivers, injuries last longer, and the memories
of those injuries last a whole lot longer. When you have a bad
crash, the car is never again as comfortable to you as it once
was."

Said Ernie Irvan, who returned to racing after suffering massive
head injuries in a 1994 crash, "There's no doubt that my
accident could, and should, take something away from me, and
that Earnhardt's accident could, and should, take something away
from him."

Perhaps that's why a former member of Earnhardt's team stood
atop a hauler at Texas Motor Speedway last April and gazed down
at his old team's garage. "Above that stall," he said sadly,
"they ought to paint the name ICHABOD. It's a Biblical name. It
means 'Glory has departed.'"

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Earnhardt's catnaps, once a mark of his coolness, might have been a symptom of a serious illness.[Dale Earnhardt sleeping in racecar]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)