NASCAR Next: Matt Tifft’s Long Summer
If he were to start writing it today, what would 20-year-old Matt Tifft title his autobiography?
“That’s a good (question),” Tifft says. “Because whatever I think of, it’s definitely a whole lot different than say March or April.”
Tifft takes 20 seconds to think about it. Over the phone, 20 seconds of silence can feel like minutes. But Tifft has to consider what he has experienced in the last three months.
Like any other person, the three months that made up the majority of the summer feel like they occurred over “almost a year” while going by in “kind of a blur.”
On May 21, Tifft finished sixth at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his third Camping World Truck Series race of the year for Red Horse Racing. Tifft wasn’t scheduled to make another NASCAR start until the June 18 Truck race at Iowa Speedway.
But Tifft wouldn’t start that race, the Xfinity event the next day or any race since. Through either multiple wrecks in 2015 or a general lack of care for his back, on June 14 it was announced that Tifft would miss both races due to a “disc condition.”
On July 1, Tifft underwent brain surgery.
“Oh boy, that’s a good question,” Tifft says after 20 seconds are up. “Let’s call it ‘The Race Against Time.’ I like that one.”
While getting his back examined, Tifft asked for a scan of his brain.
The driver had suffered a concussion early in his career and believed an ongoing sensitivity to light was a lingering symptom.
“I just really wanted to get a baseline MRI for my head moving on, just in case something did happen,” Tifft says.
“Just in case” happened immediately. The scans showed a mass on Tifft’s right frontal-lobe.
In a conference call including his parents Quinten and Victoria Tifft back home in Ohio, doctors said they believed Matt had either Cellular Dysplasia or a low-grade brain tumor, which the former could be mistaken for.
Tifft’s parents immediately bought tickets to North Carolina, where they would remain through the entirety of their son’s ordeal.
“I knew there was the possibility of it being (a tumor), but until we did the biopsy, there was no way of knowing,” Tifft says. “I kind of had a strange feeling that it might have been a tumor. I had no evidence of that, but sometimes in those situations you kind of have to prepare yourself for the worst.”
If it were a tumor, the treatment, depending on the diagnosis, could make it worse.
Tifft’s MRI results were sent to the Carolinas Medical Center’s tumor board which decided there was a 60 percent chance the mass was a tumor and a 40 percent chance it was Dysplasia. With such close numbers, a biopsy was ordered.
Tiff waited a week to learn the results.
“I knew if it was a tumor that I was probably going to have surgery or there’s chances of doing chemo or radiation,” Tifft says. “If it’s Dysplasia, I wouldn’t have missed any races and everything would have been probably fine. Maybe they do something for the Dysplasia, but more than likely no.”
It was a tumor. A low-grade one, but still a tumor, located in his right-frontal lobe and roughly the size of a half-dollar.
“The fact that I caught it when I did is shocking, because I shouldn’t have caught it,” Tifft says. “It shouldn’t have made enough symptoms to be able to find it with how the tumor was. Which is kind of the scary part, because if I hadn’t of said something about it, there’s no telling when I would have caught it.
“If I was 30, it might have been a Grade Four tumor that could have taken a cancerous form, you just don’t know.
THE ROAD BACK
Tifft woke up.
He remembers seeing a black and red clock that read 7:31.
The surgery had begun around 3 p.m.
Tifft has not been able to sleep the night before thinking about what could happen during his surgery - losing his motor skills or the use of the right side of his face. Now he wasn’t given time to think.
After quickly being wheeled to his room, Tifft was given a series of tongue twisters he can no longer remember thanks to anesthesia. “After I did that, I was like ‘huh, ok, I must be alright.’”
His path back to a racing wasn’t clear yet.
Though he wouldn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or other forms of aggressive treatment therapy, Tifft participated in a five-day EEG test to survey the electric activity in his brain.
A two-day test prior to the surgery to measure his susceptibility to seizures, which are linked to tumors, had come back negative.
The post-surgery test during the week of Aug. 9 was to ensure he had the same chance of a seizure happening as any other driver.
For five days 25 probes were glued to Tifft’s head. A wire leash kept him from moving more than 10 feet.
“I was not allowed out of the room,” Tifft says. “I could walk to the bathroom, that was about it.”
“Let me tell you, I watched a lot of the Olympics,” Tifft says with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much Olympics coverage.”
While he watched and even now, Tifft feels his brain repairing itself after removal of the tumor.
“Every day you’d have these little electrical pulses in the area where the tumor was and it’s literally your brain rewiring, which is crazy,” Tifft says. “It had a foreign thing there and now it is trying to fill it up with fluid and all that kind of stuff, which it’s still doing, but it’s completely fine now.”
Along the way Tifft has even bonded with Sprint cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has given the driver two decades younger than him advice based on his recovery from a concussion.
On Aug. 5, Tifft tweeted that he felt completely “like myself” for the first time since his surgery. At a Aug. 19 press conference at Bristol Motor Speedway, Tifft said he was cleared by doctors to drive a race car again.
But Tifft won’t truly be himself until he’s competing in a race again.
NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS
After a mid-season break that’s lasted almost long as a normal offseason, Tifft would give anything to just blow an engine on the first lap of a race.
“As a race car driver, that’s something you never want to do,” Tifft says. “I’d much rather have that day than what I went through here. There’s a lot of positives to take away from it, but it’s hard to understand what that type of thing puts you through.”
Tifft finally returned to a cockpit on Monday, driving a late-model in a test at Hickory Motor Speedway.
When he finally does participate in a race weekend, Tifft will have many thoughts on his still mending mind. Among those will be the words of medical professionals who thought Tifft would never get to experience life from the cockpit again.
“I’m sure it will be emotional, but almost a relief, too,” Tifft says. “I had some people say in this whole process that I would never race again ... It’s a dream of mine that I always had as a kid and I just grew up as a fan and I get to do what I love. Feels like it got taken away from me a little bit and I can’t wait to get back.”