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Will Power cleared to drive

March 16, 2016
Will Power quals

Power en route to pole position at St Petersburg, despite an inner ear fluid build-up and infection

It was definitely an unusual situation during the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season starter Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg weekend. Will Power had an accident during the initial, Friday late-morning practice, which necessitated a rebuild of much of his No. 12 Verizon-sponsored Chevrolet by all four Team Penske squads on-site. That afternoon he set the fastest speed in the second practice.

All appeared to be well, even though Power, the series’ 2014 champion acknowledged he’d been tackling an inner ear infection in the off-season. That infection took hold of the Australian during qualifying and, despite setting pole position, Power was unable to attend the post-qualifying press conference and said he felt bouts of nausea.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric sprung into action, asking Oriol Servia to be ready to jump into the car should the need arise. Despite not having his helmet on-site (his fiancee brought it from California), Servia said he’d be willing to serve if needed. He was, and he did as the medical staff on-site said that Power hadn’t passed the protocol for concussion and would need to stay out of the car for Sunday’s warm-up and 100-lap race on the tight confines of St Petersburg’s 1.8-mile racetrack.

So Servia was in, had to start the pole-winning car from the rear of the 22-car field and, due to that positioning was caught in the lap 57 melee when Carlos Munoz speared Graham Rahal at the tight, fourth turn of the circuit. That meant Servia finished 18th, a lap back from winner and [weekend] teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.

Power’s physical issues were initially announced as concussion-based, with the inner ear infection exacerbating his condition. On Wednesday (March16) morning, INDYCAR announced that results of a nearly eight-hour evaluation at the University of Miami concussion program revealed no definitive evidence of concussion for Power. This after Power passed the immediate post-concussion assessment and cognitive testing (ImPACT) evolution and a MRI/DVI study, showing normal parameters.

This turnabout caused INDYCAR to call a press teleconference and bring in, along with Power and Cindric, esteemed physicians Dr. Terry Trammell and Stephen Olvey, both well-respected for their extensive work with racing drivers and for saving the life of Alessandro Zanardi at Eurospeedway Lausitz, in September of 2001.

Trammell, who serves as the series’ safety consultant – and whose work continues to increase safety parameters for drivers, crew and all members of the INDYCAR community – started the conversation with explanations of the right-side impact Power had on Friday morning. The chassis impact, he said, was “in the 50G range. I think his maximum right-side Gs were 56.9, while the average result was 30Gs, which is low and beneath our threshold.” Power had no symptoms of any kind shortly after the incident, Trammell noted.

“Later that evening, he began to develop some neck soreness and stiffness. It wasn’t until later that he developed the symptoms of nausea, headache and dizziness.” INDYCAR performed a SCAT test (sports concussion assessment test, aka sideline concussion assessment test). “That test is based on the premise that the cause of your symptoms is concussion. It therefore quantitates the symptoms and gives a probability that you’ve had a concussion based on the numerical score for the symptoms,” said Trammell.

The inner ear infection that caused fluid in the inner ear, which is what actually ailed Power, led to his failure in the SCAT test and his ineligibility to race. Anyone that’s experienced inner ear infections or sinus infections knows the ramifications include headache and nausea; that’s what happened to Power.

Olvey, a neurocritical care teaching physician at University of Miami, explained further: “You have to err on being conservative, and Will was sent to our Concussion Center at UM, and we’ve had a lot of experience with high-end athletes as well as some motorsports. [Following accidents] Drivers Felipe Massa was there and Dario Franchitti, obviously,” he explained.

As they did with other drivers, Olvey and his staff looked at “balance and coordination, all part of vestibular function (which can be affected by concussion). The long and short of it is that we were unable to detect any evidence for acute concussion and, in fact, Will’s DTI (diffusion tensor MRI) was perfectly normal, indicating that there was no residual effect from any past concussions that showed up.”

While they didn’t discover any concussion, Olvey and his team did find that Power had “pretty marked cervical muscle tension, which can cause pretty debilitating types of headache. It’s usually bi-frontal, goes down the back of your neck and you get into a vicious cycle with this, unless you break it.”

Power is now on medication to relax neck muscles and get the cycle broken, so that when he does test before going to Phoenix to race on Aril 1-2, all signs are expected to be normal.  “We’d like him to sit out this week, but it’s related to the cervical muscle tension problem, not a concussion, and be able to go back in the car on Tuesday (of next week at Barber Motorsports Park) and should have no further problem,” Olvey stated.

Power admitted to having swollen glands around his ears when he arrived at St Pete. “I wasn’t 100 percent then,” he said. “On Friday after the crash, I was okay. But it was that night that I started to feel, to have some of these symptoms. That kind of continued on into Saturday and it got worse, then it came to the point where I had to say something to the medical staff,” he admitted.

While he wasn’t feeling well before qualifying, but kept it to himself. As qualifying began, Power did a lap on Firestone’s “black” tires “and then just kind of went from there, and just kept it short. I just really was doing an out lap, a fast lap and then pitting. I wasn’t feeling good at that point.” On Sunday morning he went to do the SCAT test, which he failed. “Obviously I wanted to get in the car, but on the other hand, when you feel you’ve got a concussion, that’s very concerning.”

Cindric admitted the team considered having Power do a couple of laps to see how he felt in the car, but stated, “With or without the diagnosis or any of the doctors’ orders on Sunday, he wasn’t going to drive.”

Olvey and Trammell are trying to spread the word within the scope of sports medicine – in addition to motorsports medicine – about concussion and head trauma. “We’ve got special education in south Florida with all the high schools and grade schools, and it’s recognizing concussion. Even in motorsports, if a crew member, or the car owner or chief principal thinks the driver is not acting quite right after an incident, or is just a little bit strange (aren’t all racing drivers strange?) you need to err on the side of being conservative and they need to be brought in and given an exam. You still have to go through that process,” even though the diagnosis for Will Power didn’t amount to concussion, “because concussion is very serious.”

Part of Dr Trammell’s job as safety consultant for INDYCAR is to follow up with drivers that have been in a crash, 24 to 48 hours after an incident, to make certain they don’t have delayed onset of symptoms. That’s why he wanted Will Power to sit out the first race of the year.

Both Olvey and Trammell thought the care given to Will Power was of the highest quality. “Even though the accident was relatively minor, the symptoms were there. Erring on the side of being cautious,” Olvey said, “if you miss it and all kinds of catastrophic things can occur from it, then you’d really feel bad. INDYCAR has a terrific protocol in place for uncovering this occult kinds of concussions, and every once in a while there’s going to be a false positive test. They need to be worked out and resolved, as has been done here.”

While drivers don’t have to go to the medical center after a road/street course crash, Trammell is working to modify that, even though symptoms would not have been present 15 minutes after this particular incident. “Suppose Will had been 50G in his ears, we would have probably had him come back Friday, end of day, and gone over him again,” Trammell said. “I don’t know that we would have done anything any different than what happened.”

Will Power earned a single point for his pole position on Saturday but Team Penske, who could have reaped eight points had they decided not to field the No. 12 in Power’s absence, decided to put Servia in the car and that driver brought home a total of 12 points instead. Will the team and driver regret that decision once the second, double-points race at Sonoma, the season finale, takes place?

Words and Photo by Anne Proffit

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