Brain Bond: Matt Tifft and Dale Earnhardt Jr. connect during their recoveries
Matt Tifft is getting antsy.
Tifft has been out of a race car since he was diagnosed with a low-grade tumor at the end of June. The tumor was removed on July 1. Though the 20-year-old has been cleared by doctors to race, Tifft won’t get back in a race car until a Late Model test next week.
“It’s been a little tough for sure,” Tifft told NBC Sports in a phone interview Monday. “You wait so long for it. It’s hard to sit out as long as I have, obviously. You tell yourself that’s the reason you do all this stuff, is to get back in the car. Just waiting for that day to come is definitely a long wait, that’s for sure.”
Tifft, a member of the NASCAR Next class, had competed in three Camping World Truck Series races and six Xfinity Series races before he was sidelined.
It makes Tifft one of, if not the only current NASCAR driver, who knows what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going through.
The Sprint Cup driver has been out six weeks because of a concussion from a June 12 crash at Michigan International Speedway. Earnhardt, who has a history of concussions, regularly updates his recovery via his podcast, Twitter and Instagram.
Tifft said he has been in touch with Earnhardt to compare their experiences.
“That’s a strange thing to bond over, for sure,” Tifft said. “I don’t know if you want to call it irony or what that we have two brain things going on in NASCAR at the same time.”
Despite the difference of their illnesses, Earnhardt has advised Tifft on ways to make the recovery process easier to bear.
“There’s time to stay off of electronics and stuff and time to stay away from things that really strain your brain, even though it sucks, to relax,” Tifft says Earnhardt has told him. “Try to rest your head as much as possible. Some of the experiences he’s had to go through, so he passed it on to me.”
Two weeks ago, Earnhardt posted a series of Instagram videos sharing what his daily exercises are like, including playing basketball and walking through a dark room lit only by disco ball lights. He also posted a video of himself walking through a supermarket as part of a sensory exercise.
Earnhardt advised Tifft to get out of the house as often as possible.
“That helps a lot because staring at screens and stuff, sometimes when you have nothing to do when you’re sitting at home ... you don’t know what to do with yourself,” Tifft says. “Sometimes, you have to force yourself to be in the moment ... for me, it’s going on a walk outside, things like that. Things that are not just watching TV.”
Tifft suffered a concussion earlier in his career. Curiosity about any lingering effects from it, such as sensitivity to light, led Tifft to get an MRI of his brain that found his tumor during a trip to the hospital for a back problem.
Another thing the two drivers have in common is they don’t know for sure when they’ll be back racing. Earnhardt has missed six races and will sit out the Sept. 4 Southern 500 before he is evaluated again.
Tifft’s first time back in a race car was delayed two weeks due to “logistical reasons.”
A test at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton, North Carolina, on Aug. 20 would have been Tifft’s first time in a race car after his surgery. But after considering the schedule of the team whose equipment he’ll be using, DLP Motorsports, the test was moved to after Labor Day.
“They had to go to a race the next weekend,” Tifft said. “It made sense for both of us. That gave me a little bit of extra physical prep time too, so it wasn’t a bad thing at all.”
Tifft says the test with DLP, a team based out of Mooresville, North Carolina, came about through a mutual friend from Tifft’s days of racing super late models in Florida.
After three months, Tifft’s career will soon be back on course.
“Things are getting back to normal life and everything,” said Tifft. “Just trying to get everything ready and all that stuff to go racing. Obviously the test coming up soon can be big for that as well.”
Tifft is unsure if the test will take place at Hickory or the Motor Mile Speedway in Fairlawn, Virginia. But he is “fully anticipating” to be racing again this season.
“I’m very confident that I’ll get back in sometime this season,” Tifft says. “When exactly, I don’t know. I think we’re doing the right steps to get back in the seat with that test and all that kind of stuff. It’s one, (a) matter of trying to get back in the seat for competition reasons, but then also making sure it’s the right time and you’re not pushing for no reason. That’s not something you want to play around with.”
He can take comfort in the fact that the most popular driver in NASCAR knows what he’s going through.