Swizcorner - Arlington 2013 "The Lightning Rod"

This weekend in Arlington, during the second 250SX heat-race, an event took place which was the spark for what later became an inferno. Actually, a lightning storm.

As Zach Bell of the Geico Honda squad rounded the corner approaching the triple early into lap-5, his right foot didn’t make it back on to the foot peg as he crested the lip of the jump-face. This left him squirreling in the air, trying to locate the foot peg as his flight turned into an ejection, at which point things got very scary. As Zach’s trajectory lead him above and forward of his bike, he knew separating himself from the machine was necessary. Ejecting from a moving object is never going to turn out well but when you know that moving object is going to shadow and pummel you, it’s the least of two evils.

As soon as he left the jump-face, it was clear, this was going to be ugly but just how ugly remained to be seen. Watching from the press box, I can tell you, those of us who were focused on Zach in that moment let out a chorus of gasps, “oh no’s” and scattered shrieks. A common cliche in moments of despair is, “it was like a car crash, train wreck…”. This was exactly that scenario. There was no way that what we were seeing was going to end in anything but tragedy. My tweet following him hitting the ground was simply “Oh wow. Pray. Pray. Pray.” I honestly felt like I had just witnessed a life-ending impact. It was and still is a horrifying impact to witness.

As we’ve seen in sports of all walks of life though, an impact doesn’t always indicate the severity of injury. We saw Dale Earnhardt’s death come from impact with a Daytona wall which was nowhere near much more ferocious impacts in that sport. The number of career ending impacts in football due to paralyzing hits is small in relation to the ferocity we see in each game week to week. Shit, just watch almost any episode of Ridiculousness and you’ll see dozens of pixelated examples of just how incredible the human body is. The difference between a simple result of “pass” or “fail” is something that can not be tabulated or formulated based on any variables. Every body is different. Sure we all share certain commonalities but the chemical make-up of one person to another differs enough to make it silly to make wide-ranging claims covering all of humanity.

Concussions are an especially controversial matter as they vary widely in symptoms, short-term hindrances and long-term consequences. Even the Grand Poobah of American sport, the NFL, took 87 years to put in place a concussion-specific policy to protect it’s players. We are 6 years into the shift toward this very “concussion-conscious” society and while progress continues, concrete answers remain scarce. Especially at the point of impact or on the field of play.

Obviously I am no doctor and sure I have had concussions in racing but as I stated, each occurs in it’s own vacuum; i.e. that specific persons head. A head which is attached to their body, with their own specific biology. I say this with regard to those out their who claim they know something more than someone else simply because they have had concussions. No you do not. No more than I, who has also had concussions “knows”. Nobody knows other than Zach and the staff who tended to him. Short of Zach being asleep when the medics reached him, they have to rely on the precautions put in place for these situations. He scored a “92” on the current measures put in place for the riders. This is apparently a passing score which then left it up to him to decide if he could continue on.

Scary no matter how many times you see it.

Let’s take a second to look at Zach’s short pro career. He enters the pro ranks last year at Southwick after a stellar amateur career where he wins often; including the 250A title and Horizon Award at Loretta Lynn’s only weeks earlier. He holeshot his first pro event in Southwick and lead 5-laps before crashing out. He did not start the second moto. The following week in Unadilla New York, Zach again holeshot moto 1 and lead 2-laps before finishing a respectable 8th. In the second moto Zach started 2nd before a treacherous set of breaking bumps spit Zach off, breaking his back and leaving him sidelined for the remaining rounds.

Enter Arlington Supercross 2013 and the first chance for race fans to see Zach’s re-entry to pro racing. A chance to erase the over-eagerness which marred his first attempt. He’s 5-laps in to yet another holeshot and looking great. His rebirth is clicking on all cylinders. Then it all goes upside down.

Put yourself in Zach’s shoes. When the doc’s get to you, do you say you were “out” and cement the fact that you will yet again not be finishing a pro race? The third in as many attempts? With the amount of time he was sidelined with that broken back, I know damn sure that I would be making “finish the race” the top priority. At all costs. It’s the mindset of a racer. If you physically “can”, you “do”.

In my opinion (100% opinion, no facts), Mr. Bell was out like one of those fainting goats. I said it on twitter and I meant it. If you crash, on the landing of a triple while leading no less, in the middle of the track; you get your ass off to the side, lickety-split. Unless(!) you are sleeping. Unless you are sleeping, adrenaline compels you to save yourself from the expected onslaught of the pack behind you. So yes, I absolutely believe he was knocked out but I also know, if I were in his shoes, I’d scream from the hilltops that I was not.

For those pointing their fingers at the medical staff, it’s unwarranted. They followed the protocol that has been put in place and used for years. Does that protocol need amending? Absolutely in my opinion. But that also is no swipe at the medical staff. As I said before, even the NFL took 82 years to realize the long term effects of concussions. 7 years into their testing, they continue to evolve the system and learn.

So must we. If we do not, THEN there should be an uproar.


Who's brain is it?

The NFL protected it's own head for 82 years. Eventually and begrudgingly they hired their own doctors to show the players they cared (a little). But the NFL teams did then and do now own those doctors and as long as those doctors are being paid by the team, they will err on the side of the team's interest. In short, the NFL is just not the watermark another dangerous sport like MX should be aiming for.

Good news is that MX is doing it better. The Asterisk Medical Crew is, as far as I know, an independent medical team and have clearly added value and standards to MX / SX. From their website I see that they are funded by many organizations that have a vested interest in the sport, "The Asterisk Mobile Medical Center is provided to the racing community by Asterisk. Our operating budget is made possible by Feld Motorsports, MX Sports Pro Racing, AMA Racing, various Race teams, as well as individual riders and private donors."

So in a situation like this, they appear to do the right thing and adhere to the agreed upon standards by all influencing parties. Upon arrival to Zach's crash, the rider is responsive and is able to respond to the tests and in all fairness arrives to a conclusion of "it's your choice". The choice of the rider is to race and only time will tell if HE made the right choice.

Now let's take the rest of the facts, Zach has crashed out of 4 of 5 of his first pro motos, some crashes were in spectacular fashion and he seriously hurt himself breaking his T3 and T4 vertebrae, sidelining him for the remainder of the outdoor season. His FIRST race back, he crashes in the most spectacular fashion in his heat race and more fans were concerned for his life as opposed to his concussion status or his ability to get up and ride again. I'm not alone in thinking his night was done. Did I think he was an ironman when he lined up for the LCQ? No, I thought he was an iron-head (as in, 'no grey matter'). From the distance of my keyboard I could call his parents into question, the judgement of the Asterisk crew, Feld, the AMA, or his own sanity.

Instead, there is another target. The one stakeholder that should have and I believe had the responsibility of saving this young, talented rider from himself is Geico Honda. That team has been a great asset to the sport in countless ways but in this event, they had a duty to prevent a catastrophe from happening (that very nearly did happen with his second crash of the night in the main event). If KDub was team manager, I do wonder he would have made the call to allow Zach to proceed with the LCQ and main event? If there was ever a shining rationale for the R.C.'s Arenacross "Road to Supercross" program, Zach is it. So Zach! Geico Honda! time to notch it down before CNN covers your next crash. You are young and have a bright future, you don't have to prove that you can win this year. You have to first prove that you can survive, then win.