Concussion's aftereffects still plague Missouri ace
By Robert HolmanDirtonDirt.com staff reporter
Jesse Stovall isn’t ready to announce his retirement from driving race cars, but he knows there's a ways to go before he can return to the cockpit full time — if ever. The Billings, Mo., driver still struggles from the aftereffects of a severe concussion suffered in a jarring practice crash at the 2017 Silver Dollar Nationals at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb.
While Stovall has continued competing at a slower clip than his busiest race seasons — he's managed 10 touring series victories over the six years since the grinding rollover wreck — he’s never felt 100 percent healthy. So, “for now,” he says, he plans to leave his helmet on the shelf.
“My head injury in 2017 has been lagging with me for the last five years honestly and I’ve finally got some help now from the (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) there and we’re working on it,” Stovall said in January at the Rio Grande Waste Services Wild West Shootout at Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, where he assisted young Missouri driver Dillon McCowan. “If I ever got to where I felt right again, I would love to race again. It does eat at me to not be driving you know.
“I’m 42 years old basically and I still got a lot left in me, but it just … whatever happened when I had that wreck, the mental side of it changed me personally so much that I just really couldn’t handle it any more, the day in and day out of it. The race car part of it, I could still go fast, but the preparation part of it is what I struggled with the most.”
For more than two decades, Stovall’s primary responsibility at the racetrack has been hanging onto a steering wheel. Of course there are setup decisions to be made and financial obligations to be met, but at the track, Stovall was first and foremost a race car driver, a fierce competitor who grew accustomed to barnstorming his way throughout the Midwest chasing checkered flags.
Stovall had a breakout season in 2012, winning seven features with the MARS DIRTcar Series en route to the series championship. Stovall won with the Lucas Oil Midwest LateModel Racing Association, the Championship Late Model Association, the National Championship Racing Association, the Comp Cams Super Dirt Series and the Corn Belt Clash, all in 2012.
Though many of those events were co-sanctioned, it doesn’t take away from just how good Stovall was that season. He was a $10,000 winner in the Pelican 100 at ArkLaTex Speedway in Vivian, La.; picked up an opening weekend victory in the 27th annual Budweiser Nationals at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway; and finished runner-up to Nebraska’s John Anderson in the MLRA points race.
He owns 31 career MARS victories (third all-time behind Hall of Famers Terry Phillips and Bill Frye) and 28 on the MLRA circuit (sixth on the all-time list), but he doesn’t foresee a return to that lifestyle any time soon.
“As of right now, no, but if they fix me … and they say they will (then perhaps) … and it could be in six months, it could be a year or two … and it could be never still. I don’t know,” Stovall said. “I’m working at it still. I’m not sure what journey my road’s gonna go down. I kinda feel like a lost sailor without a ship. It’s a struggle, but I’m getting there.”
Stovall said it’s hard to pinpoint what’s kept him out of the driver’s seat. Standing in the back of McCowan’s hauler in New Mexico he appeared as normal as any other crew member. He was worried about the setup on McCowan’s car, thinking about tire selections while trying to give the young driver pointers. But two months later, Stovall said the concussion effects still linger and he has no timeline for a return, nor is he 100 percent certain the treatment he’s been receiving will be successful.
“Go watch the movie ‘Concussion’ with Will Smith. That’s really a good movie and it teaches you a lot,” Stovall said. “It really explains us (concession victims) in and hour and a half. And I watched a documentary with (former NASCAR start) Dale Earnhardt Jr. last night and he had a reporter asking him about the concussion, his last concussion that hurt him that ended his career.
“He said, ‘Look it is …’ and he stopped. And, you know, it’s the same thing for me. It’s terrifying for me to have to relive that, to tell you that story, and (Earnhardt) said, ‘It was about like when I wrote the book. That book just tore me plumb down.’
“So my question now is, this (doctor) out there says he’s fixing all these people, is he really fixing them or just tricking them into making them think they’re fixed, because you know, I still have the same things that (Earnhardt) was talking about. Like, I can be looking at … sitting there having a conversation with you and everything you’re saying, it just goes right through me. I’m not paying attention at nothing you’re saying. The concussion thing is, it’s just like you’re always wondering what’s happening. You analyze yourself to death and that’s the biggest thing you do with a concussion and I don’t know why your brain starts doing that.”
Despite the trauma, Stovall’s love for the sport endures and his competitive fires still burn. That led him to McCowan, a 19-year-old modified standout from Urbana, Mo., who's moving into the Late Model division. Though he’s raced mods since he was 12, McCowan’s deep-dive into Super Late Models came at Wild West Shootout with Stovall at his side.
“It’s crazy having Jesse help us. He’s been one of my idols for a long time. Having a chance to work with him and kinda get to know him, having him help us with the set-up, he’s helped me a lot,” McCowan said. “He’s helped a lot with my driving style, teaching me some techniques, being able to teach us how to watch the track and see what the track is doing and how it’s changing throughout the night, helping me watch the races, teaching me what to look for.”
The connection between Stovall and McCowan, who qualified for four of the six Wild West Shootout features, was a natural pairing. While they’re both Missourians, they have ties that go back to McCowan’s earlier modified days.
“(Stovall) lives right up there about an hour from us and I’ve watched him for a long time,” McCowan said. “He used to race modifieds and everything and we raced at Lucas Oil Speedway. We were up there racing and right before my grandpa passed away, all he wanted to do was to see me in a Late Model and Jesse had a Black Diamond from (Ronnie) Stuckey. He said that we could put our A-mod motor in it and run it with the ULMA, the weekly series (at Lucas Oil Speedway), so that’s what we did and we kinda hit it off from there and he’s been helping us ever since.”
For Stovall, letting go of the steering wheel gave him a completely different perspective. Rather than seeing the race through the rock guards on a car, he watched it through a catchfence in the pit area or from the infield. Rather than feeling a car’s movement from the seat of his pants, he was tasked with evaluating the car’s reaction from afar.
“It’s definitely a different experience in every aspect just because you’re just used to being the one out there getting it done and you gotta rely on somebody else to get it done,” Stovall said. “I’ve never had to communicate to a driver. I communicate with a crew member, telling him to change a tire or change a bar or add fuel or whatever. Now I’m trying to communicate (with) a young driver, trying to teach him, maybe, let off here or try to enter this corner like this or that or whatever. So it’s definitely been a new challenge for sure to work with somebody. It’s all new to me.”
As he continues to work on his own health — with the hope of perhaps climbing back behind the wheel — Stovall said he’s finding it difficult to know exactly where he fits in. He said wouldn’t mind being a full-time crew chief, but finding work in an industry where most everyone tries to pinch pennies isn’t easy. McCowan, who plans to follow MLRA, and Stovall amicably went their separate ways following the Wild West Shootout, leaving Stovall without permanent plans for 2023.
“I would definitely entertain (offers). I just have to be … a person has to be … what is the right word? I gotta get paid for what I’m doing if I’m gonna do it,” Stovall said. “I’m not being mean, but I gotta make a living, too. It’s a struggle for any of these teams to be able to pay somebody. The way the world is right now and what it costs to live and then somebody needs to make enough money to live, it’s just hard. It’s a full circle. It’s hard for a smaller team.
“There’s 10 or 20 of these big national teams that have better financial readiness to do what they’re doing and not have to worry. They just pay people and they don’t have to worry about it and they understand it. A lot of these mid-range or regional teams, they have all the pieces of the puzzle, the hauler, the cars, the motors, but you see a lot of them struggle to want to pay a crew guy what it’s worth to be gone and out on the road all the time. That’s kind where I’m at.”
Stovall said his experience as both a driver and a car owner allows him to understand both sides of the dilemma and if he ever does get back to being a full-time driver he’d likely change his approach.
“I love the sport. I still have a lot of want-to to race in me,” he said. “At this point, now that I kinda understand things a little different, I could go back at it and probably be more successful than what I was. The step back that I took, you know it may be forever, but if I got back in … looking in from outside the window at how everybody is doing it, it kinda gave me some (perspective) that I can see maybe how to do it a little different. One thing I would do is that I don’t want to have any ownership in it. We could use my shop, my place, stuff like that. The probability of somebody jumping up and wanting to do this again is probably slim, but if they did, you know, I’m here.”
Not only is he available, but Stovall said he’s regained his confidence to the point that he believes he’d still be a successful wheelman.
“I 1,000 percent believe that if Lance Landers, you know, one of the biggest teams in the sport, came to me and said, ‘Jesse can you drive my car to your full potential?’ I 1,000 percent believe now I could because I’ve stepped back,” Stovall said. “I’ve looked at the situation. I’ve analyzed everything that was going on. I understand myself better and what the change is. I don’t feel like my driving ability changed at all. I just feel like it was, I was in my own head. Quit getting in your own head, you know, and freaking yourself out. From where I was then to where I’m at now, I’ve learned myself.”
Part of the healing is understanding — and accepting — that a concussion is still an injury, even if it doesn’t look like one.
“Like when some people have bad brain injuries and they can’t walk no more and they have to reteach herself to walk, this is … it’s the same deal,” he said. “But a concussion is so much less looking like it. It doesn’t look like anything, you know? Like if you had a brain injury and your head was cracked open, like you have some real head trauma. But when you just hit your head hard on a soft seat, it doesn’t look like anything. It’s a hard thing to understand because it just doesn’t make any sense.”
In the meantime, Stovall plans to continue to focus on his health while doing all he can to remain connected to the sport, whether that be as a consultant or as an employee in another sector of the industry.
“It just don’t seem like (with) Late Model drivers around here, there’s not the amount of money as there is in Georgia and North Carolina and over around that area. I think Late Model racing in the Midwest is struggling right now,” Stovall said. “So for me to be able to help a team around here that wants to race at the level that I want to race at and the intensity I want to race at, I just don’t know if there’s anybody here. It’s a whole different mindset. I love racing and I want to be involved. I’ve thrown my feelers out there to a couple places and I’d like to be involved in some way, whether it be working for a shock company or (a spring company). I love racing and I want to be involved in some way, shape or form.”